There is a tape running in my head of a song I remember from my youth. As I recall the words exhorted us to “accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative.” It is certainly in our nature to strive for happiness and avoid pain, discomfiture and negative emotions. But in this essay I want to convince you that it is not profitable to “eliminate the negative”.
The work of Martin Seligman and others in the field of positive psychology has brought new and useful insights. And I have drawn on it for a number of previous essays. However it has also left a negative legacy.
Some would question, to begin with, the efficacy of directly pursuing happiness. In fact some have argued that we are only ever happy in retrospect. (I have tried to give you a rationale for that later.) When it is happening to us we are not directly aware of it. At best happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. It seems to elude our purview when we try to see it directly.
It is helpful to look at one of the major impediments to happiness – depression. Depression is generally characterised by self-obsession. People who are depressed can’t stop thinking about themselves. This is not a narcissistic obsession but in fact the opposite. Their perceived faults and failures are played over and over in their minds without respite. If I ask you to look back at a time in your life when you were happy, inevitably you will recount a time when you were engaged in doing something challenging or satisfying in other ways. But just as inevitably you were sufficiently engaged so as not to be thinking about yourself!
There is a body of opinion that suggests that the effort to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. It is argued that our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, failure or sadness – is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.
As a result of this various therapies have arisen [eg Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)] which encourage us to accept our negative emotions rather than try to eliminate them.
One of the more brilliant early thinkers in Psychology, Alan Watts proposed “the law of reversed effort.” He argued that trying to make everything right was a part of what’s wrong. He used as an analogy a person falling into the water. He observed that when you try to stay on the surface of the water you sink, but when you try to sink you float!
Aldous Huxley wrote, “The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed.”
Now all of this, of course, accords with Buddhist principles. The Buddhists tell us however much we would prefer it to be otherwise we are all subject to negative emotions. They are dealt with ( as in ACT) not by trying to avoid them or dismiss them but by accepting them. When we are aware of them and accept them their power over us diminishes.
One of the problems with discussions about happiness is the different ways we define it. The Buddhist sages, and indeed the Roman Stoics as well, didn’t aspire to live a life of continuous joy and laughter but one of tranquillity and inner peace. That is why in previous essays I have referred to such a state as one of well-being, rather than happiness.
Now it is easy to see some of the pitfalls associated with the pursuit of happiness.
To begin with there is a likelihood that pursuing happiness for its own sake leads to self-obsession which, as we have seen above, is inimical to happiness. Most astute observers have noted that happiness seems to occur when we are not pursuing it directly but is an outcome of “forgetting the Self”.
Similarly, if we believe that happiness can only be achieved by avoiding negative emotions we are rendered vulnerable to psychological tricks the Self plays on us. If we suppress negative emotions they can come back to bite us in other ways. They can trigger various neuroses and even psychoses. But more than that, accepting our negative emotions can result in beneficial learning outcomes.
It would be foolish if we came to the conclusion that happy people never experience negative emotions. We can erroneously believe that happiness and negative emotions are mutually exclusive. Those that truly understand know that negative emotions can’t be avoided. They happen to all of us. But those of us who are more robust will become aware of them, accept they are an inevitable part of life and move on. We know that normally “this too shall pass”.
And just as how if we don’t thirst a little we don’t enjoy a drink so much, if we are not aware of our negative emotions we don’t appreciate our positive emotions. As the Buddha taught, we all must expect to suffer. The peace of a trained mind transcends suffering but life without challenge would be bland and uninspiring.
There is a radical difference in how we experience happiness compared with how we experience suffering. Our experience of suffering is immediate and pervasive. If we lose a loved one, we are consumed by the sense of loss. When you have a tooth ache it is difficult to think of anything else. Often when we are happy, we are not even aware of our happiness. We are normally engaged in other things such that our awareness has left the Self. In this regard it is probably safe to say that if we are not aware of negative emotions, then whether we are aware of it or not, we are happy!
Let me leave you with a trivial example. In Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlepit there is a scene in which the character Tom Pinch sits in a bar in Salisbury.
All the farmers being by this time jogging homewards, there was nobody in the sanded parlour of the tavern where he had left his horse; so he had this little table drawn out close to the fire, and fell to work upon a well-cooked steak and smoking hot potatoes, with a strong appreciation of their excellence, and a very keen sense of enjoyment. Beside him, too, there stood a jug of the most stupendous Wiltshire beer; and the effect of the whole was so transcendent, that he was obliged every now and then to lay down his knife and fork, rub his hands, and think about it.
(Quote from Steven Connor’s essay blissed Out on Hedonophobia)
Tom’s happiness was always there but he could only really experience it in retrospect by taking the trouble to think about it and bring it to his awareness. As I pointed out above, if he was being assailed by negative emotions he would not have needed this step of introspection to bring them to awareness, they would have already been assailing his senses. Tom’s happiness is of a more visceral variety than the well-being I would aspire to, but nevertheless the same principle applies.
It is fair to say that our negative emotions distract us from our happiness, but without our negative emotions our happiness would have poor foundations.