Scroll through your Instagram or Facebook feed, and chances are most images feature smiling faces. From beaming couples celebrating an engagement to festive groups of friends toasting over drinks, happiness is the name of the social media game. While some do post about more somber topics, overall, positivity outshines negativity.
The problem is, real life isn’t always peachy keen. It’s full of disappointments, both small and large. Real life throws plenty of curveballs at us, from layoffs to losing loved ones. But in an age when people put only their most perfect moments on display, it’s easy to feel as if you’re the only one who ever goes through a tough time. Yet you’re not alone. And the hard stuff is actually just as important for a life full of happiness as positive experiences. “It would be irrational to think we can rid our lives of all negative experiences,” says Michelle Gielan, a positive psychology researcher and author of Broadcasting Happiness. “But it’s less about what happens and more about what you do about it.” Read on to learn about the positive side of negativity and how you can learn to handle it better.
The Purpose of Negativity
Despite what countless articles, books and social media suggest, “Human beings are not designed to feel happy all the time,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness. Negative emotions serve a purpose, both evolutionarily and emotionally. Think of emotions such as sadness, stress and anxiety as red flags that your mind wants you to pay attention to. “Sadness and other negative feelings indicate that we need to make a change,” Gielan explains. If you’re angry, for example, it likely means there’s an injustice that you want to correct. If you’re anxious, there may be a threat you need to attend to. And if you’re sad, it means you care about a situation so deeply that it’s causing you distress. Negative feelings can also serve as the catalyst you need to transition to a better place in your life—such as a new job or relationship.
And don’t beat yourself up for feeling down. Trying to repress negative moods can actually make you feel worse, according to research. People who accept their emotions—both dark and light—without judgment are better able to cope with stress and feel better in the long run.
Remember, happiness isn’t static—it’s more about moving toward goals than achieving them. “Happiness is the joy we feel as we grow toward our potential,” Gielan adds.
Living in the Gray
It’s easy to try to sort things that happen into neat categories—either good or bad. “We have a tendency to be obsessed with extremes: We’re either happy or sad, dieting or not dieting, rich or poor,” says Cheri Augustine Flake, L.C.S.W., a therapist in Atlanta. But life isn’t always so black-and-white.
Focusing on either end of the spectrum ignores the in-between part, or the gray area, as Flake calls it. The gray area is actually an exciting, even fun, place to be, and it signals you’re changing and transitioning, even if things haven’t fallen perfectly into place. After all, the happiest people in the world wouldn’t feel that way if they didn’t also know what it was like to feel blue. “We grow and we become who we’re supposed to be,” Flake says. “No one says it’s easy. But they do say, ‘I went through this tough thing and I got better because of it.’ ”
In other words, we get so wrapped up in how things should go down that we don’t see the opportunity in less-than-ideal situations. “The strange thing about the worst things that happen to us is that they can sometimes become the best things that could happen to us,” Flake notes.
How to Get Through the Worst of Times
This isn’t to say that negative situations, like a breakup, aren’t difficult. But the experts reveal there are some strategies to help you navigate the rough waters of life. For starters, try to simply focus on the present moment. “Even if you’re weeping and crying, can you just be okay with that?” Flake asks.
And remind yourself that you are safe and sound: “If you’re sitting in your car, for example, feel the back of your legs touching the seat. Feel the cool air-conditioning blowing on you,” she suggests. “This helps remind your brain that everything is okay—that you can find some peace, no matter what else is going on.”
You can also seek some good old-fashioned distractions from your problems. This doesn’t mean putting your head in the sand or turning to vices like drugs or alcohol, but rather allow yourself to feel fully absorbed in something else, Lyubomirsky says. During a rough patch, take time out of your day to do something enjoyable—perhaps see a movie, work on a creative hobby or go to your favorite restaurant.
“This can allow you to take a breather, refresh yourself, and then come back and address the problems,” she notes. Finally, take small steps to deal with the issue at hand. “When we’re facing a problem, many of us, women especially, tend to ruminate and get stuck imagining the worst,” Gielan explains.