I once asked a friend how they coped with their symptoms of depression and they gave me this advice: focus on the things you like to do.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it because it seemed impossible that by doing things I liked I could feel better when I was already feeling so bad. Reflecting on this advice now, I realize there’s more to it. For me, it’s not just about doing things you enjoy, it’s about acknowledging and appreciating that you’re experiencing positive emotions as a result of doing those things. I think it’s important to take time to notice when you’re feeling good. We so often find ourselves wallowing in negative emotions, so why can’t we “wallow” in positive emotions too?
Sometimes, we feel almost guilty for feeling good. It could be because we’re not used to it and it feels foreign, or maybe we’re uncomfortable with the fact that we feel so good when there are things to worry about and so much suffering in the world. However, only when we really notice that we’re feeling good can we really be in the right mindset to make positive contributions to the world and help lessen that suffering (for others and ourselves).
For example, I feel more engaged, capable of helping others, and confident at my job when I’ve let myself enjoy a walk outside while listening to a podcast or music I love before work. There’s value in doing little things that make you feel good, like going into nature, writing, gaming, making or listening to music, creating something, or spending time with like-minded people and saying “Fuck, I feel good! And I’m giving myself permission to fully enjoy it!” The more those little moments of joy are fully appreciated, the less room there is for the negative emotions.
If you’re wondering what I mean by “allowing” yourself to feel good or “acknowledging” when you feel good, I’ll state the following. Sometimes when I’m struggling or feeling negative, especially if it carries on for lengthy periods of time, I become less able to acknowledge when I’m actually experiencing something I enjoy, which would generally bring me positive emotions. In these times, I tend to subconsciously suppress those good feelings because they either don’t seem purposeful at the moment or they die away on their own when I remember how bad I feel about other things. By recognizing when the positive feelings are trying to come out, even if they’re rare, we get to experience them and take more actions that produce such feelings.
We humans seem to have a bias towards focusing on the negative about a situation. This has evolutionary purposes in keeping us alive but also causes us great worry. I’ve walked away from a great conversation with someone and kept reflecting on the fact that I thought they perceived me as too weak. We can receive many positive comments on our work but somehow manage to focus on the one negative comment. Well, there is hope: we are capable of rewiring the negative pathways in our brains (Schwartz, 2011). By giving as much attention to our positive thoughts and emotions as we do to our negative ones (if not more), we can restructure the pathways we’ve created in our brain structure from thought patterns that default to the negative into one’s that are more keen to notice the positive.
Sometimes it feels wrong for me to say “I’m happy right now” because I always think there has to be an exception or a reason why I shouldn’t feel that way. That negative bias (and my perfectionism) makes me think I should be focusing on what’s wrong instead of what’s right. It’s as though I could feel happy, but… there’s always a “but”. However, you can still feel happy with an imperfect life. You can fully enjoy a moment and still feel you have room to grow or that parts of your life are not where you’d like them to be. In fact, doing so will likely help you gain enough perspective and strength to improve those other areas of your life. You can experience joy in the same month, week, day, or moment as you feel dissatisfaction. You’re allowed to feel happy, even if you feel incomplete.
Lately, my mood and outlook have improved, though no external changes have occurred. I attribute this increased positivity and satisfaction in life to this change in my mindset towards viewing my life in terms of what I already have and what I can do daily that makes me feel good. I tend to go through periods of more-positive or more-negative moods, as I’m sure many of us do, but the act of really letting myself feel my positive emotions has been consistently making me feel capable of combatting negativity when it does arise. For me, this looks like giving myself extra time to really take in a beautiful view, being fully present and engaged in a deep and meaningful conversation, and journaling, either what I love about a moment or the positive emotions I’m experiencing. Also, strangely enough, smiling seems to help. When I’m on a walk, the sun is out, and the scenery is beautiful, just smiling (which, if anyone is around you, feels absolutely mental) just really sends home those positive vibes.
There are also periods in all our lives when positive feelings seem few and far between. Perhaps this is when we need to practice appreciating the positive the most. There is always something to appreciate, even if it’s a moment where we act in a way that makes us proud of ourselves, or we find a fictional character in a book or series who we admire or relate to. It could be connecting with someone, even if it’s about your negative emotions, or getting a task done. Try to notice any little feeling you can enjoy that, even temporarily, helps you feel at-ease or worry less about your past or future.
By noticing what we love about different moments in our lives, we become aware of how much abundance we already have, in terms of belongings, relationships, character traits, or positive emotions. This is also a great way to really engrain positive memories; by really taking note of all those good moments, you may have stronger, more positive memories attached to them. Even if you try to notice the tiniest thing that you feel good about, like your walk to work, practice really enjoying it. Give yourself full permission to feel happy or calm or excited when these emotions try to creep through. If we really focus on fully experiencing and appreciating those positive moments when they do occur, we become abler to work more of them into our lives, little by little.
Schwartz, J. (2011). You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life. [Kindle DX Version]. Retrieved from Amazon.ca.