Lots of animals have thoughts, but humans are unique because we can have thoughts about our thoughts. We can feel content about feeling happy. Or we can also feel disappointed about being depressed. We developed this skill because most of our problem solving starts with thinking. We strategize, we evaluate, and we ruminate. So it’s only natural to assume that any bad mood can be solved with some good mental strategy, right? As it turns out . . .not so much.
Humans are programmed to be great thinkers, but we didn’t evolve to be happy every second of every day. Yet everything about American culture touts that we deserve happiness, which is a basic human right. That we should optimize our happiness as much as we can, by reading the right books, going to therapy, and creating plans that overhaul our lifestyle.
Our happiness-focused culture lies in direct contrast to the reality that people who think more about their unhappiness and fixing it are more likely to experience depression. If you’re a Type-A personality who loves to tackle problems and overachieve, then you can easily become aggravated when you can’t come up with a solution for your mood. This aggravation in turn can increase depressive symptoms and lead to more serious and long-term mental health problems.
This reality challenges the myth that all people who are depressed are simply unmotivated. Often they are incredibly motivated, but they are also too hard on themselves when their goals aren’t working or their expectations aren’t met. We are taught to expect that following the right steps will earn us happiness. So when we can’t quite get there, we take a few steps backwards. We make ourselves unhappy by setting happiness as the ultimate goal.
So what should be the ultimate goal? Nobody wants to feel grumpy, or anxious, or sad. But these emotions are part of the human package. Being able to take notice of negative emotions and accept them as part of our humanness is a powerful skill. When we can view these emotions as part of the human condition, we’ll experience less of the self-blame and negativity that can turn a low mood into something more serious, like depression. Our brains can shift into lighter moods without stalling.
This doesn’t mean that there are no solutions to a depressed mood. Certainly those experiencing depression should seek help and have hope. It just means that we can try to go easy on ourselves when we’re tempted to “think away” or rationalize a bad mood into a happier one. Often the exercises that work best are the ones that teach us to get curious about our negative thoughts and moods rather than try and obliterate them by sheer willpower. Some of these techniques can be found in cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness activities.
For the problem solvers, here’s once change you can start making today. It’s an exercise for observing a negative mood. First, find a comfortable place to sit up straight. Make sure your feet are planted flat on the floor. Sit quietly for a little bit, paying attention to your breathing for a few minutes. Once you’ve got the hang of that, notice what thoughts and reactions are floating through our mind. Think of them as tiny boats floating down a river. Don’t try and stop the thoughts or remove them, just sit on the shore and notice them. Maybe agiant barge of worries passes by. Or raft filled with self-criticism.
The more you notice the river traffic in your mind without judging or forcing yourself to be more positive, the less these thoughts and emotions will affect you over time. You can accept that you’re not happy in the moment, and by not ruminating on this reality, you set yourself up for a better mood in the long run.
The more comfortable we can be with those moments our mood is uncomfortable, the more we embrace our humanness. Self-compassion during low moods isn’t easy, but it’s more effective than beating yourself up for not being happy. You’ll never win a fight with yourself, right? So start paying attention, start being kind to yourself, and let happiness find you along the way.