Don’t Worry, Be Happy

The world is filled with music about positive emotions. The song Don’t Worry, Be Happy (which makes an excellent title for a blog post) is upbeat with a good rhythm that encourages the listener, through both word and cadence, to (not surprisingly) be happy. There’s the Judy Garland song Come On, Get Happy, is peppy and energetic. And who can forget Pharrell’s Happy? So many people come for therapy because they “just want to be happy again.”  

I believe that there is both a fear and a stigma around having negative emotions – sadness, anger, fear. We apologize for sharing our troubles with others, and we feel concern about how others will view us for having negative emotions. But, our lives are full of difficult and unpleasant moments, and it would be unrealistic to expect that we would constantly be living in a state of happiness. Plus, negative emotions tell us important information about how we are interpreting the world around us. These emotions are effective and healthy, and they can help us make meaning in challenging situations.

There is an evolutionary reason why we feel the emotions that we do. As an example, let’s look at fear. Imagine being a caveman, walking through the forest hunting for food. You hear a twig snap behind you. If you have fear, you make a run for it and likely stay safe. If you don’t have fear, you continue walking at your leisurely pace and you get eaten. Healthy fear can, and does, keep you alive.

But, sometimes negative emotions can be overwhelming and frustrating, and occasionally they can be scary, especially if they lead to negative thinking and negative actions. It is when sadness becomes depression, worry becomes anxiety, and anger becomes rage that the negative emotions become more difficult to tolerate. At times, these feelings are too much to handle, and we push them aside. But, it is almost impossible to not think about what we’re trying to not think about (try this: think about anything other than pink elephants… how’s that going for you? Trying to not think about pink elephants means that you are actually thinking about them more!). Those emotions that you’re shoving into your mental closet are still present, and they wait for inopportune times to pop up. It is important to be able to cope with those feelings, either by accepting their presence or talking to a therapist about how to return them to healthier levels.

It is possible, and even necessary, to be able to have your positive and negative emotions co-exist. So, with sincerest apologies to Bobby McFerrin, be worried… and happy.