When Happiness Goes Dark:How to Deal with Life's Traumas

Discover the 2-step process for finding happiness again after trauma. How people reinvent their lives after tragedy strikes.

Cloud Eclipsing SunMy pal Mike called yesterday to say “Hello” and told me to go check out the day’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.  After our call, I did just that.

Calvin is telling Hobbes that he’s noticed that things don’t get you down if you don’t think about them, so he’s decided not to think about things he doesn’t like and he’ll be happy all the time.

“Don’t you think that’s a pretty silly and irresponsible way to live?”  Hobbes asks.

Calvin looks up at the sky and says, “What a pretty afternoon.”

Which one do you think got it right?

Calvin’s figured out how to direct his thoughts to look for the positive.  And that’s a worthwhile positivity skill.  When you find yourself slipping into negative state of mind, you can often turn things around almost instantly by asking yourself, “What’s right about this situation?”  Or “What can I see that’s good right now?”

The Problem with Pollyannas

But Hobbes has a point, too.  Avoiding or denying a negative feeling or situation isn’t the path to happiness.  It’s the path to numbness, to shutting out the world.

In her book, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive Dr. Barbara Fredrickson talks about how we want to grab the ever-joyful Pollyannas of the world, shake them and scream, “Get real!”

“That’s the problem with this prescription.  It can’t connect with reality.  To experience 100% positivity defies and denies the humanness of life,” she says.

Meeting the Worst Head On

Calvin’s approach of looking for the positive in an upsetting situation is an excellent tool when you’re dealing with day-to-day disappointments and blue moods.  It’s a positivity exercise worth mastering.

But when life tosses you a seriously upsetting, stressful, even tragic situation—loss of a loved one, a home, the destruction of a career, a suicide, imprisonment, the news that you have an incurable and debilitating disease—you really do need to “get real” and to meet it head on, with full awareness.

Happiness researches Rick Foster and Greg Hicks discovered that when the most genuinely happy among us face life’s genuinely devastating events, they go through a two-step process that called “recasting.”

The Two-Step Process of “Recasting” Your Life

When you go through a truly crushing experience, you really do have to reshape or reform the way you look at your life.   Your beliefs about how things were going to be, or supposed to be, get shattered.  Your dreams for your future seem wholly impossible now.

1.  Step One – Feel the Pain

What the most genuinely happy people universally do in tragic situations is, first, they allow themselves to feel what they’re feeling, down to their very depths.  They dive into their rage, fear, grief, bitterness or sorrow and feel them to their full measure.

“They don’t censor raw emotions, deny feelings or run from pain as many of us do in an attempt to ‘just go on.’  Rather they honor their own emotional world by feeling it, even when avoidance would be easier.”

That’s the first step.  Honor your emotions.  Feel them in your body; see how they shape your thoughts.

Only then can you move to the second step.

2.  Step Two — Find New Insights and Responses

In the second phase of recasting, people work toward new definitions of themselves in the context of their new situation.  They ask themselves what meanings they can glean from what happened, what lessons they can learn, what new opportunities they can create for themselves in the future.  They look for avenues for growth and insight, for new truths about themselves and about life.

“Underlying recasting,” say Foster and Hicks, “is a powerful notion: We have the strength to master our reactions purposefully to even the most traumatic events, and, in so doing, transform ourselves.  Therefore, we do not have to be held captive by sadness and loss.  We can experience them fully and grow richer from having been in their shadow.”

The process may take days, months, even years to complete.  But it is, in the end, a powerful path to rediscovering your emotional resilience and capability, and, through them, your happiness.

The Authenticity of Positivity

Positivity doesn’t ask you to be who you aren’t, to feel something other than what you feel.  It asks you to be real.  And a core part of the reality of us all is the drive to live in happiness, with sincerity.  If you commit to tapping your happiness and to being accountable for it, in time it will flourish, full of richness and meaning.

Sometimes that commitment means consciously choosing to look at the world from the vantage point of finding its pleasantness, of asking what is good about right now.  And sometimes it means walking through life’s darkest valleys, eyes wide open, and embracing the pain.

So Calvin and Hobbes were both right in their own ways.  And Mike, who has gone through some dark valleys himself, gave you and me both an excellent gift by sharing yesterday’s cartoon.  Thanks, Mike.

*     *     *

Photo credit:

Billy Alexander, at www.Sxc.Hu

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.