The Misguided Pursuit of Happiness: Why We Need to Embrace All of Our Emotions

As a society, we’re continuously fed the idea that happiness is the end goal, some permanent state of being to be actively pursued and capable of being achieved and maintained. It’s this very notion, however, that leads people down the rabbit hole of the unending pursuit of happiness, which, in many cases, leads to its very converse. Is it any wonder that, as I look around, the people I know who place the pursuit of happiness above all else are the most unhappy, unsatisfied and self-destructive people I know.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being happy. It is an extremely powerful emotion that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing. It’s the precursor to joy, which is an essential aspect of self-love. Yet, what makes us most human is our ability to experience a wide range and varying degrees of emotion. Happiness, which by its nature is ephemeral, is just one point along the emotional spectrum.

When we can embrace all of our emotions while recognizing and accepting their transience, we can be our most evolved selves. This isn’t easy to do when our understanding of emotions is so narrow. In embracing our emotions, we must do so without judgment and with immense compassion since we tend to judge feeling certain of them as wrong or bad. In accepting them and the fact that they are a part of us, we are able to transcend and evolve, achieving a level of self-actualization not possible when we deny or limit our emotions.

As a child growing up with an Asian “Tiger Mom” (well before that was even a term), displays of emotion — especially extreme emotion — were not tolerated. As I got older and hormones took over, emotional suppression became my coping mechanism. I didn’t attempt to negate my emotions, but rather I figured out a way to compartmentalize them. I came to understand emotions as fluctuating states of being over which I had some level of influence as opposed to being ruled by them. While this allowed me a measure of emotional maturity at a relatively young age, it denied me the experience of feeling certain emotions to their greatest depth.

Fifteen years of marriage to a husband from a culture that doesn’t shun emotion — and seemingly encourages outpourings of it — taught me the power of all emotions from passion to rage to excitement and anger. The greatest lesson I learned in opening myself to it all is that you are what you feel — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s not difficult to understand why we want to escape certain emotions. We’ve been sold the happiness myth for so long that it’s difficult to embrace anything else because it’s too uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

For many years, the emotion I didn’t allow myself to experience was anger. I believed it was a waste of energy to get angry. Yet, when I gave myself permission to experience it and to own it, I realized that I had denied myself something that can be incredibly constructive and powerful. Rather than suppress anger, which is how it can morph into something perverse and violent, I sat with it and it offered me a solution to a situation I had found myself in that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to resolve, at least not without a lot of compromise on my end (which would’ve been the passive/aggressive Asian approach). Since then, the moment I find myself feeling anything that seems remotely unfamiliar or strange, rather than push or rationalize the emotion away, I let it be so that it can become me. Once it becomes us, it doesn’t overwhelm us, but rather finds a place within our hearts alongside all other emotions.

I’m not suggesting giving yourself permission to act out in anger or to punish others when you’re feeling sad. Acting out of an emotion is not how we discharge it. Rather, it’s one of the many ways in which we deny the emotion because we’re forcing it outside of ourselves when it’s very much a part of who we are. When we break something, slam a door, or even threaten others, we’re keeping the emotion from really entering us. This is understandable because it can feel so foreign and strange and we’ve been taught we shouldn’t feel things like sadness, anger or anxiety. However, so long as these feelings remain outside of us, they’re never really dealt with or accepted, so they sit there until the next trigger — or until we manage to stop telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel such emotions and invite them in.

So often our emotions become amplified because we’re instructing them to be something they’re not, which results in the pain that so much of our world is in.

We are so much more than many of us have allowed ourselves to believe. In not giving ourselves permission to experience fully what we are capable of as sentient beings, we have denied our true nature. Only when we allow such a profound connection to ourselves can we recognize our tremendous creative power. This demands that we be able to embrace those emotions that we’ve been taught were bad, or strange or wrong, just as we embrace the “positive” ones. The moment we can accept them is the moment we realize we have nothing to fear.