The other day I was driving home from class listing to myself all the great things going on in my life right now. It’s fall and I’m back at FSU, which means lots of friends, football, and band. I like the classes I’m in, and so far I’m doing pretty well in them. I love the apartment I’m living in, and although some days I do miss the convenience of Landis, I love having my own room (and a cat). I’m dating a really great guy that loves Jesus, FSU, and stupid jokes. And I’m getting involved in research that actually interest me. When I got through the list, my next thought was “Okay God, this is all great but when is something bad gonna happen? I’m definitely not going to be this happy when I fail my first test this semester.”
This dark thought that came seemingly out of nowhere startled me. I was in such a good mood and my day was going well. Why did I automatically assume, with no real evidence or reason, that things were inevitably about to turn south for me? This is what Dr. Brené Brown (an author, researcher, LCSW, professor, and not to mention new personal hero of mine) calls Foreboding Joy. To be completely honest, I’m going to steal a lot of her ideas in this post, but I still chose to write this because I think it is something everyone needs to hear.
So here is what ruins our happiness- Foreboding Joy. Basically Foreboding Joy is that feeling you get when you’re happy, but then all of a sudden you panic, and wonder why things are going so well, and surely they can’t continue to go well. It’s when you don’t allow yourself to be happy, because every time you do, the universe/God/random chance always throws you a curve ball, and knocks the wind right out of ya.
Now heres the second part that blew my mind. It’s not easy to let ourselves be happy. It’s a choice we make. Happiness isn’t easy because it requires a lot of vulnerability. (Brené reinvented my definition of vulnerability with this one.) In order to feel true joy, we have to let go of the fear that something is about to go wrong. We are afraid to let ourselves be happy, because we think that the higher we are, the longer we have to fall when things crash. We think that we are protecting ourselves by bringing ourselves down. If we assume something bad is going to happen, it won’t hurt as much because we were expecting it…right? Even though this is what far too many people believe, research shows that this is not the truth. When things go bad for people who never allow themselves to feel uninterrupted joy, they only regret never letting themselves feel happiness when things were good. They regret under appreciating the good times, and unfortunately no matter how much we try, there is nothing we can do to fully prepare ourselves for the pain that comes with life. Whether it is death, a car accident, a break up, or even a bad grade on a paper, suppressing joy does not make the fall any shorter or less painful.
I know that when I allow myself to be unabashedly happy I’m simultaneously allowing myself to feel the hurt in life. I’m left open and unprotected from pain, and even though it’s scary, I’ve found it’s the most fulfilling choice every time. Surprisingly, allowing myself to feel joy actually makes the bad things hurt less. Whenever I’m having a hard time, I have perspective on the situation. Because I know of the goodness of life, I am able to stay optimistic when things don’t go my way. I know that hurt and heartbreak are a part of the human experience, and joy should be too. Choosing joy doesn’t actually make the falls hurt more, because even though the highs are higher, the lows don’t stay lows.
We don’t always practice foreboding joy on purpose. When I had the negative thoughts in the car, I didn’t consciously tell myself not to be happy, I just assumed something bad had to happen. I think that we have become conditioned to fear joy. I think for most of us, it feels natural to expect the worst, and uncomfortable to accept the best. However, I think it’s imperative to choose the uncomfortable path.
In short, I think Brené Brown and Bobby McFerrin got it right, don’t worry be happy.