The Whole Route To Happiness

I remember when the psychology section of a bookstore was just a couple of shelves. With the de-stigmatization of mental health issues and the trending of personal development, it isn't so surprising that the bookshelves have grown in tandem with our consumption of psychology as educational entertainment.

While I was browsing this section of a bookstore this weekend, something stood out to me like it never has before: the amount of books surrounding the topic of Happiness.

Spend 5 minutes in the psychology aisle, and you will have learned at least 3 different foreign phrases for another culture's ancient practice for finding happiness.

Spend a few more minutes and you'll have a checklist of 101 ways to live a happier life (multiplied by 5, for the various renditions of the same coffee table book).

You'll read the sexiest biographies of how miserable people found happiness, and an exhortation for how you can find happiness too.

An hour and an armful of books later, you'll leave equipped to finally cultivate your best life, as guaranteed by your new favorite celebrity.

Or will you?

I'd like to say I'm not here to burst your bubble. But actually, I am. I'm afraid that the majority of these resources on happiness are leading us on a wild goose chase. While I might not know you personally, I'd hate for you to waste your time and money - and ultimately your life - sprinting after an illusion that isn't able to be caught.

Let me just pause, for a moment, and say that I am sure many of these authors are well-intended, helpful humans. And if your library account shows a list of best-seller self-help books, I'm not blaming you.

From a young age, we've been taught (especially in western society) that the meaning of life is to find happiness - that sadness and fear and anger are bad - that we should avoid those, and choose happiness at all costs. There is a shame associated with "bad" emotions and rewards associated with the "good" emotions.

So before you read any further, we must first break down this deep-rooted belief that some emotions are bad and other emotions are good.

Repeat after me: Emotions are just emotions.

No really. I want you to repeat it: Emotions are just emotions.

Now, some emotions do feel better than others. But consider this: not all emotions even feel the same to all people. Our feelings about emotions are largely based upon our life experiences.

For example, some individuals may quietly enjoy the experience of anger. Perhaps their expression of anger is one of their only cathartic emotional experiences. Or perhaps when expressing their anger, and observing the reactions of others, that individual feels in control- an experience that they seldom had growing up in a loud and chaotic household.

Also consider, some individuals may not actually enjoy the sensation of peacefulness. Perhaps a history of trauma has conditioned them to believe that whenever peace is present, disaster is just around the corner. So rather than enjoying peace, it engages a heightened sense of vigilance and distrust.

Some emotions have been labeled by society as good and bad based on identifying information. For example, it may be more socially acceptable for a woman to express fear and sadness, but not acceptable for a man to express those same emotions.

It is important for each of us to understand what we think about emotions and why.

At the bottom of this blog post, I will include an activity that you can use to deepen your understanding and personal orientation to emotions. But for now, let's operate under the assumption that we believe that emotions are emotions. Some feel good, some feel bad, but they inherently are just emotions.

With that in mind, let's return to the initial topic: We are being sold misleading shortcuts to a “happy” life, disguised as inspiring stories, research and strategies. My fear is that by making happiness the goal, we are missing out on wholeness, which is what we really are searching for.

So often, when happiness is our focus, we avoid all other emotional experiences, such as anger, sadness, and fear (aka, "the bad ones"). In my experience as a counselor, and fellow feeling human, I can confidently say that when we forgo all other emotions, in an effort to obtain happiness, we miss out on wholeness. The result? A shallow illusion of happiness that we are always chasing after.

So, Kelsee, are you telling me that I need to feel the bad feelings in order to feel happy and whole?

Yes. I am. Popular books and podcasts will sell you the shortcuts to happiness, avoiding the other uncomfortable emotions. But I am here to tell you that the whole route to happiness involves experiencing a wide range of emotions - even the yucky ones.

The whole route to happiness is hilly and curvy. Some parts of the road will feel washed out, and there will be plenty of blind turns. Just when you think you've arrived, you'll encounter some wildlife, or a pinch in your tire, and the journey will continue on. But along the way, you'll notice a wholeness that causes you to keep riding, and you'll realize you don't mind the journey quite so much.

Are you saying I should purposefully seek out experiences that lead me to feeling things like sadness and anger?

No. You do not need to seek those experiences out- they will simply come with the ebbs and flows of life. They’ll come at varying degrees and intensities- for different lengths of time and frequencies. But they will come.

What I am suggesting is that when those hard moments in life come- the kind that knock the wind out of you and make your question if happiness is even real- your job is to notice, and settle into those feelings, fully experiencing them the way you'd hope to fully experience happiness.

How do you do that?

Let me share my three part, Oreo cookie style method to start experiencing a range of emotions today:

PART ONE: Name It. Name the emotion as it occurs.

Sometimes we have a difficult time putting a name to an emotion, but we can identify it better by a color or other personification.

I know someone who, when experiencing anger, says, “I am BRM.” and BRM stands for Blood Red Mad. This person associates their angry feelings with a deep red color. He is able to identify his emotion when it is happening in real time, and put both a name and color to it. This is a perfect example of emotional awareness and identification.

A fellow therapist and friend has given a name to her experience of imposter syndrome, or insecurity. When she starts to express feelings of self-doubt or insecurity, her partner says, "Hey now, that's not the real Danielle speaking. That is Insecure Sally talking." That is another strong example of identifying the emotion and being made more aware of its existence.

PART TWO: Find it. Find the feeling in your body.

Our bodies are hard-wired with an impressive security system, meant to alert us of danger in an effort to help us survive. The truth is, if we can be attentive to these biological warning signs, we can better identify a feeling before it fully arrives- which can help us be better equipped to fully experience and manage that feeling.

Back to my BRM friend. He jokingly came up with this term, and used the color red, because from an early age he realized that when he gets angry, his skin turns red. This is common as many of us become physically hot and red when experiencing anger. But what were some other signs of his anger? Shaking hands, sweaty palms, increased heart-rate, and watery eyes.

Think of the last time you were so happy. Maybe you had butterflies or a sudden burst of energy. These are signals from your body that you are happy!

Now remember the last time you were nervous. Did you have to poop? Was it difficult to breathe? Did you do that speedy-knee-bouncing thing?

Do you get itchy when you are irritated?

We are often taught that these physical sensations are bad. Again- they are not bad. They just are. And I would argue further that they are helpful!

When we remove the shame that is associated with these sensations, we can start to appreciate them for the helpful tools that they are. Noticing our body’s built in warming signs helps us to notice our emotions occurring in real time, identify our emotions with a name, and then respond more intellectually to that emotion.

PART THREE: Name it again. I told you it was an Oreo method.

Let’s continue to play off of the BRM example. Let’s say this person identifies their feelings as Blood Red Mad when someone cuts them off in traffic. They identified their emotion as anger. Upon further reflection, when pulled off at a gas station, that person says, “You know what, that was really scary. Sure, it pissed me off, but more than anything I was just scared that we were going to crash.” Upon reflection, that person was able to further identify their emotion as both anger and fear.

Sometimes step three will have the same answer as step one. Other times, it will be completely different, or a mix. It is important to reflect upon our emotions in both real-time and after the fact, when our survival mode has calmed down a few notches, and we can think more logically about what occurred.

So maybe this all sounds great, but you're wondering how it ties back to where we started: How to take the whole route to happiness, rather than the artificial short-cuts we’ve been given.

Feeling Blood Red Mad and finding Insecure Sally doesn't sound like the transformative happy life you saw on the bookend at B&N.

You're right. It's not glamorous, and it's not a quick-fix.

But when we give ourselves the opportunity to experience a full range of emotions, and all that comes with the territory, we open ourselves up to the ability to more accurately recognize happiness when it occurs. We recognize the contrast of Peaceful Lavender Mountain to Blood Red Mad and we settle into its experience all the same.

When we give ourselves permission to sit in the depths of sadness, we will more readily soak in the banks of joy when the tide rolls in.

Experiencing the painful emotions gives way to a deeper gratitude for the comfy emotions.

And all of this is conditioning us, on our journey to whole happiness.

You're no longer running from a list of feelings, but wading through the ebbs and flows that connect you to yourself and others as a living, breathing human being. And that is the essence of the whole route to happiness.


Your Orientation To Emotions T-Chart Activity:

As I mentioned in this blog post, it is helpful to understand your personal orientation to certain emotions. Knowing what your opinion is about certain emotions can help you understand more about why and how you experience certain emotions in your life.

You will need a scrap piece of paper and a writing utensil for this activity.

1. On the paper, draw a T-chart.

2. Label the left side of the chart "good" and the right side of the chart "bad."

3. From the list of emotions below, write them on either the good or bad side of the chart.

There is no right or wrong answer for this activity. You will sort the words according to what your gut reaction is to the emotion word.

4. Afterwards, take some time to ask yourself why you put the words where you did. Pay particular attention to the "bad" list.

Were your reactions influenced by your family or other adults growing up? Life experiences? Society? Media Sources?

Discover the roots of your orientation to these emotions, and reflect on how those roots have impacted your ability to experience those various emotions throughout your life.

Emotion Word List:














If you did this activity, leave a comment or send me a DM, to let me know what you discovered!

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Superstition Wilderness, AZ - 2021

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