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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 24 October, 2014

Column: Sadness has always been a part of living, we need to accept that

A strange thing happened in the world over the last 50 years: people began to believe that they should feel happy all the time, writes Dr Keith Gaynor.

Dr Keith Gaynor

THIS ARTICLE IS strange. It is going to teach you how to be sadder. Not depressed. Not sad all the time but able to have negative emotions in your everyday life and not to worry about them.

A strange thing happened in the world over the last 50 years and I blame America. People began to believe that they should be happy all the time. Never in the 60,000 years that the human race has been on the earth have people thought that before. No matter what continent we lived on, no matter what period of history we were in, people have always believed that sadness was part of living. We have always believed in happiness too but alongside darker feelings. Both came together: yin and yan, angels and devils, happiness and sadness.

And then the Americans came along with their shiny teeth and positivity. Our American cousins have introduced many positive things to this world – and also things that are not so healthy, like the concept that if you were just stronger, better, worked harder, then you could be healthy and happy all the time. Unfortunately, this idea is not just wrong but actively unhelpful.

We are not being realistic

If we expect to be healthy and happy all the time, what happens we are not? Or if it looks like there is a sign that we aren’t; or if it seems that everyone else is but we aren’t; or we are happy, but are we happy enough? Could we be happier somewhere else, doing something else, with someone else? At the core of this problem is that it is not realistic. As soon as we expect happiness to be constant, we worry about when it will stop. The flip side of expecting constant happiness is worry. And as soon as we start worrying, happiness is already gone.

My experience as a clinical psychologist and much of the research in clinical psychology repeats the same message again and again: things get worse if you worry about them – arthritis, psoriasis, epilepsy, narcolepsy, cancer, heart disease, sleep, depression, stress. Yes, stress. Stress gets worse if we worry about it. But stress is worry. Worrying about worry is a bad idea and yet it is a vicious cycle in which many of us get caught.

This too shall pass

Previous generations were better at this. They were more in touch with the natural ebb and flow of life. “This too shall pass” is a touchstone for understanding the world. Communities, rituals and religions were built around helping people through difficult times. But religion has declined and we don’t know our neighbours. We are meant to be in constant connection but we have never been more alone. iPhones and Facebook simply can’t do what community and family used to do.

Modern western culture is based on looking to the future, striving for more and with that striving comes worry. Should I do something different? Should I be different? The antidote to this is acceptance. An acceptance of who we are and where we are.

This isn’t passivity. It is an active engagement in what we have, rather what we don’t have. It is an active pleasure-seeking in the people and places around us. It is social, as it seeks out other people, rather than focusing on negative feelings inside us. It is an understanding, as imperfect as any day may be, that we are living it now and we should seek out what any moment might bring.

Dr Keith Gaynor is a Senior Clinical Psychologist in the Outpatient Department of St John of God Hospital. He primarily provides group and individual cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for anxiety and mood disorders.

Read: People with a genetic history of stress feel more pain – study

Read: Money getting you down? A psychologist is giving free advice on how to handle stress

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