The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Believing You Should Be Happy

For most of my life I was pretty miserable. There were good reasons for that: alcoholic parents, serious illness and rather a lot of poverty, among other things.

So I started meditating. That helped, after a while (quite a while, though many people get faster results.)

One of the things that came up is that bad emotions are, well, bad. By “bad” I mean, emotions that are unpleasant. There’s a lot of advice around emotions, and negative emotions aren’t 100% evil or anything. Anger tells you something is unacceptable; hatred that someone is a long term threat and so on. Now emotions aren’t always right, you can be angry inappropriately. You can hate people who aren’t a threat (Nazis hating Jews) or who are only a threat because of how you treat them (Israeli Zionists and Palestinians), and so on.

Still, a negative emotion in the affective sense; in the unpleasant sense is bad in the same way that pain is bad. Sometimes pain is useful because it tells you to do something or stop doing something, and sometimes it’s just pain: there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about it and it’s pointless.

This realization, really grinding it in, is important. That the emotion itself is unpleasant and, as importantly, that you don’t want to have it.

Most of us wander around thinking “I should be angry”, “I should be sad”, “I should hate”, under certain circumstances. Someone said something mean or cut us off in traffic or hurt us and we are angry. But if the emotion of being angry is unpleasant, all we’re doing is compounding our suffering.

But then the next thought comes up, “if I don’t get mad, I won’t protect myself.”

And this can be true. Sometimes we need the unpleasantness to spur us to action, to tell someone they shouldn’t hurt us, or to remove ourselves from a bad situation.

But it doesn’t have to be. The old saying “I don’t get mad, I get even” rather covers it. If you’ll take action to fix the problem without the emotion, then at most you need the emotion briefly to tell you something is wrong, and then you don’t need it any more.

And if you have firm rules about what is acceptable or not, you may not even need the emotion. “My boss made me work overtime then didn’t pay me, that’s unacceptable and I will find a way to stop it.”

Much of why we have certain emotions is because we think we should have them. If you think  you should be angry or sad or scared or whatever, it’s very hard not to be.

One way to get past this is pure self-concern. Just look at the emotion, and realize “this emotion is unpleasant. I don’t like feeling this way.” Do that often enough, and you’ll start feeling the emotion less often, and it will go away sooner when it does arise.

But to do this you have to believe the emotion isn’t necessary for your well-being, because if you feel it is, your mind will keep bringing it up.

You aren’t here to suffer, whatever some religions may say, and it’s OK to do what you can to suffer less.

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  1. bruce wilder

    sometimes anger is just a way of managing to avoid feeling the deep pain of shame

    anger trumps shame at least temporarily and the ability of one emotion to trump another can be tactically useful to manage the pain of feelings of shame

    the “unconscious” has gone out-of-fashion as an obscure source of motive

    still, a lot of emotion is generated habitually and “unconsciously” and as a balm for unmet needs dimly perceived

    trying to insert a Mr Spock-like “rational” consciousness as a mediator and manager of an emotional life may be a common misconception born of stunted self-awareness

    or not

  2. Willy

    Emotions depend upon a particular temperament’s reactions to particular environments. Sweet agreeables will feel contrition for a momentary loss of control, while tough-minded disagreeables thrive on the power they gain from appearing all hair-triggery.

    I know lots of people who’re utterly shameless when they should be feeling great shame, based on prevailing cultural values which they themselves claim to espouse. Publicly, we have Henry Kissinger, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As well as, hell, most anybody else from the parasite class.

    But I think this is along the lines of a tale which Dale Carnegie once told. He was in the city once and saw a crew of crippled boys making their way, smiling and laughing and enjoying life for that while. He used that tale as the basis of his “you should smile more” chapter. As if, when bunches of crippled boys can be all joyful then why can’t you not-crippled boys?

    I guess I’m more like the regular Roman citizen living in the age of shitty emperors and a patrician-rigged society. I know things could be better because they once were better. But I shouldn’t let all that unbalance the emotions I can control in my one short life.

  3. Trinity

    I think the missing point here is all the propaganda we see (aka movies, television shows, sitcoms, etc.) that tell us who we are supposed to be, and what our life is supposed to look like, and how we are supposed to behave. And how happy we are supposed to feel! All the time! Because we are supposed to love devoting our lives to work (for their profit) etc.

    They tell us how we are supposed to dress, how to talk, what to feel (and not feel), when to get angry and when not to get angry (especially not at them).

    I lived my life the way I wanted because I could never afford most of the stuff my son wanted, and was the family “scapegoat” which has it advantages. I could go off script and I did. I was maligned, criticized, or ridiculed no matter what I did, so I followed my dreams. A couple of my siblings still aren’t over it, not that I care.

    My son recently went to his class reunion (20th) and was surprised how most of his classmates are miserable having followed the script (2.2kids, suburban home, dual income treadmill) as it’s been designed for us.

    Just a different form of indoctrination, especially effective when parents are kept busy keeping up with the Jones’ and being workaholics to buy all the things their kids see online, while also trying to “advance” up the career ladder from gerbil wheel to the treadmill, to the ultimate: the Peloton bike. You finally get to sit down for a spell on the bike, for the very lucky few who make it.

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