Whenever something bad happens or we’re feeling down, people will often tell us to keep our chin up—to look for the silver lining and keep focusing on the positives. The truth is that sometimes this is unhelpful and patronizing. When we are feeling sad or angry, when we’ve been through a rough time, we need our feelings validated and we need to acknowledge the negativity in a healthy way in order to move forward.
That doesn’t mean that we should wallow in bad feelings and harbor destructive tendencies. Instead we need to look for opportunities to see the bright side in healthy and constructive ways. We also need to give attention to negativity and address the things that are uncomfortable and unpleasant.
It’s important to find healthy ways of focusing on the positives.
When we face adversity, it’s vital to keep things in perspective so that we don’t spiral into depression and despair. Having an attitude of appreciation and gratitude about the things that are going right will help to balance our negative feelings. A good way to do this is to consider two things. Firstly, things can always be worse. Secondly, if things can’t get any worse, they can only get better.
We should maintain awareness of privilege and ask ourselves, in the scheme of things, how bad is our situation really? Does what we are going through impact our physical safety and our health? Will it change our life dramatically in the long term? Or is it a minor hiccup, only causing us temporary discomfort and inconvenience? Often our emotional reactions are exaggerated because we are accustomed to a certain lifestyle or pattern and when things go wrong and our comfort zone is compromised, we can overreact. That is not to say that our initial feelings aren’t valid, but a brief moment of reflection will allow us to separate our immediate and reactive response from what is actually an appropriate and warranted reaction in a given situation.
It is precisely in the face of misfortune when experiencing joy is vital. There should be no guilt or shame for taking pleasure in the things that make us happy, even when a situation calls for grief or sadness. Laughter is indeed the best medicine and reminding ourselves about the things we love and the things that make us happy, in the midst of a crisis, is a good way to even out our emotions and help bring things into perspective. It gives us the relief and motivation we need to energize ourselves to get through hardship.
Living in the moment will take us away from the response to a bad situation that is often playing out in our minds rather than in reality. Often the psychological effects of a run of bad luck can be very powerful and crippling, stopping us from doing even simple day-to-day activities. Having a distraction from the drama and focusing on the positives in a healthy way, is best achieved by paying attention to the present. Sharpening our awareness of exactly what we are doing and where we are right now can be a potent strategy to take our mind off things.
The good things in life are already good; let’s not taint them.
While putting things in perspective may inevitably mean making comparisons, we should be careful to avoid taking pleasure in others’ suffering. Schadenfreude is a German word meaning literally “harm-joy.” It refers to the feelings of happiness we can experience when we see others in a worse situation than ourselves. This is unnecessary and counterproductive. When we take pleasure in others’ suffering to feel good about ourselves, we inevitably assume others are doing the same to us when we find ourselves in crisis. Our attitude towards others will always inform how we think people see us too.
Instead of indulging in our privilege to boost our mood or self esteem, it is more constructive and kinder to understand our privilege and use it to promote empathy. Thinking about the good things in our life in comparison to the injustices others experience is important—not to serve the purpose of giving us satisfaction or pleasure, but instead to give us clarity and context. It should make us want to alleviate the suffering of others.
Altruism is cyclical. The more we connect with others and contribute to their well being, the more we find ourselves on the receiving end of the same generosity and affection and furthermore, the more we want to participate in the exchange. That doesn’t mean ignoring or shying away from trouble or ill feeling. It simply means using our common humanity and our shared experiences, even when they are painful, to raise each other up.
Focusing on the positives and staying present shouldn’t result in a refusal to reflect on our past experiences or look forward to brighter horizons. Being mindful and present doesn’t mean disconnecting from the one thing that is unique to our human species: contemplation. In fact, mindfulness enhances this quality. The clearer our mind, the less clouded we are by irrationality, the more we are able to make sense of our past experiences in order to move forward.
While focusing on the positives in a self serving way can be counterproductive, we don’t need to spend our time dwelling on the negatives in order to extract value from our tribulations. Acknowledging our disappointment, feelings of betrayal, sadness, anger, jealousy and frustration is healthy, but it’s not necessary to feel obligated to indulge in ill feeling or lament injustice. It is perfectly normal and acceptable to respond appropriately to any situation that upsets us without needing to over analyze every aspect of it. However, to ignore these feelings or distract ourselves from dealing with them will only cause them to fester and grow. The result is a destructive and burdensome force that could have been prevented and avoided.
The negatives need our close attention.
Learning life’s lessons means living a life of complexity and diversity. We need the ebb and flow; the ups and downs to be able to make that distinction. How will we ever truly know and appreciate happiness if we never experience loneliness or sadness?
Our endurance and resilience only flourishes when we are challenged and this in turn compels us to contribute and participate in life. It inspires us to want to make a difference.