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Avoid the Happiness Cops

Avoid the Happiness Cops


"Everything has its season and there is a time for everything under the heaven: …a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to embrace and a time to shun embraces, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate…." (Kohelet 3:1-8)

I will never forget my friend, who was 34 years old when she was told that she had Stage Four (i.e., terminal) breast cancer. A brilliant and inspiring teacher, we shared ideas at a very deep level. She critiqued my writings and never hesitated to show me where I needed to improve spiritually. She taught my EMETT classes in Hebrew, while I handled the English speakers. We had a soul connection that is rare and irreplaceable. The first and only time I visited her in the hospital, we looked into each other's eyes and cried. I held her hand as she talked about death and her fears as to how her children would manage without her, especially a severely handicapped older child and the youngest, who was barely out of diapers. And after we cried, we were able to laugh and let go and just enjoy each other's company. That's how it was with us; we needed to share the pain before we could move on to more sublime.

After that first visit, one of her family members called to say that he heard she had cried with me and he was upset that I had made her sad and because of this, he asked that I never visit again, as she had been told to feel only positive emotions and never talk about the "D" word (i.e., death), because, "Only positive thinking will keep her alive." She died a short time later, keeping everyone else's spirits up – for them—while keeping her pain inside, feeling emotionally isolated from the people who were caring for her because she was unable to talk about her true feelings.

I'm all for happiness, but to be fully human means to be able to acknowledge and express the full range of emotions which G‑d gave us. When the prophet Elijah cried out, "Take my soul!" (Kings I, 19:4), G‑d did not chastise him for failing to be cheerful. Even a saintly person is seen as having "a cheerful external countenance even if his heart is grieving" (Duties of the Heart, Sha'ar HaPrishus, chapter 4).

Perhaps the positive thinking movement is a backlash to traditional psychology, which tends to over-focus on gloom and doom. However, while positive thinking can be helpful, the pressure to deny feelings causes even more pain. Positive thinkers make others feel guilty for all the ills in their lives, as if cancer and accidents are the result of "negative thinking." Then…why do animals get cancer and die? Positive thinking is a kind of primitive voodoo charm which is supposed to ward off all evils. It causes people to be frightened of their own feelings and fear the "happiness cops" who admonish, "See, you don't have faith!" Such excessive emotional manipulation is very harmful.

All normal human beings feel sad, mad and scared at times. These feelings are not necessarily indications of emotional disorders! Newsweek magazine, in a past edition (February 11, 2008), reports that sadness has been turned into a disease. While it is obviously a serious problem if the depression leads a person to become paralyzed, lethargic and apathetic, moderate "discontent" is the normal and a healthy response to loss. It is impossible to go through life without getting bullied, betrayed and bereaved. After a blow, we need time to recover, just as a person who has undergone an operation needs a recovery period. Unfortunately, the pressure by doctors to medicate our emotions away is so strong that, "instead of listening to the heart, we are pressured to chemically silence the heart."

Is happiness all that wonderful? The magazine reports that, "People at the top of the jolliness chart" are so satisfied that they have no motivation to change. They live hollow lives, cutting off half of their emotions. The "chronically happy" tend to be rather stupid and shallow. On the other hand, those at the bottom of the chart are equally difficult to bear, as their depressive gloom, obsessive anxiety or angry explosions drag everyone around them down into their emotional chaos.

So how should we react to the painful events in our lives? The positive thinkers make us fearful of expressing anything other than jubilation whenever we have sustained a loss. The drug industry tells us to simply medicate our feelings away. Traditional therapists promise that pain can be "talked away" with endless hours of therapy. The truth is that "positive thinking" is often phony; drugs can numb all feelings; and excessive talking can reinforce feelings of victimization, self-pity and bitterness. The alternative to these approaches is what I call the D.V.I. tactic:

A. DEFINE: "Yes, you feel anxious, sad, stifled, frustrated, angry, etc."

B. VALIDATE: "I am not bad or crazy. It is normal to feel this way."

C. INSPIRE: "While I wait patiently for the pain to fade, I can strengthen myself spiritually, pray, do acts of kindness or engage in other meaningful activities. I will be grateful for what I have and humbly accept that whatever I do not have is also a gift from G‑d to bring me closer to Him."

We can use the D.V.I. approach to all of the endless frustrations and losses we encounter. It is not bad to feel bad. A degree of melancholy or emotional turbulence is what drives us to question our beliefs, to leave unhealthy relationships or to channel the pain into creative endeavors. Like orchestra conductors, we must embrace our emotional richness and allow each feeling to express itself when appropriate, while making sure that the "soloist" is the one which fills us with faith.

No one is happy all the time. This is not only impossible, but unhealthy and dishonest. Those who think they should always be happy can get a reality check from Torah. Although we cannot grasp the spiritual level of our Patriarchs or Matriarchs, were they always happy? They expressed the entire range of feelings as they faced universal problems – jealousy, fear, anger and shame as well as endless wars over love, territory, influence and honor. Would it be helpful to edit the Book of Psalms so that only happy verses are included? King David was an example of emotional honesty. Yet his pain was directed at one goal – not to be disconnected from G‑d.

So, yes, do not be ashamed to be happy. But also give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling. True, "The shechinah (Divine Presence) does not rest on one who is sad" (Shabbos 30b), but we also read, "G‑d is close to the broken-hearted" (Psalms 34:19).

Perhaps this duality exists because bitter, self-pitying sadness does distance us from G‑d, while humble grief, in which we struggle courageously to accept G‑d's will despite our suffering, brings us closer.

Dr. Miriam Adahan is a psychologist, therapist, prolific author and founder of EMETT (“Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”)—a network of self-help groups dedicated to personal growth. Click here to visit her website.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Nolan Woods San Clemente, CA/USA via September 5, 2008

Avoid the Happiness Cops Thank You. I'm currently grieving the loss of my wife and this helps immeasurably. Reply

Ann in Texas August 30, 2008

Joel B The advice given on how to overcome depression does indeed often work. Dancing and singing can reach the depths of the heart and banish depression.

But sometimes they don't work. Sometimes there is good reason to feel grief, and the grief needs to have an outlet in order to be leased and to release us.

It's all rather tricky. If we indulge in sad thoughts, we go into a downward spiral. I noticed, even as at the age of ten, that there are two kinds of crying--one kind released the sadness and lets us feel better; the other kind takes us down and down and down into inescapable sorrow, and this is what we must not permit to happen to us.

Biut it's bad enough feeling depressed, without other people coming over and shaming us for it.

Moreover, for everything there is a season. When someone dies, it is time to mourn. Mourn and grieve deeply, feel it. Don't stuff it down. Feel it and release it. That is why a funeral is incomplete unless we witness the burial too. Reply

Michael Hollywood, FL August 29, 2008

Avoid Happiness Cops What a superb article. You really hit the nail on the head with this one.
Thanks for sharing such practical yet deep insight. Reply

Dr. M. Wertheimer via August 29, 2008

Avoid the Happiness Cops True, it's hard to be truthful to yourself; however, that middle silvery balance is quite individual; what works for one is not necessarily good for another, what strikes as a silly and empty way of living, may be a good solution for the time being. Thus, let's not judge or be judged for we do not completely know... We can only assume... Reply

Meira L. League City, TX via August 29, 2008

We are humans not robots I thought Americans are made of plastic and nylon: so rational and pragmatic is their mentality.
Thank you very much for this article. It has wonderful insight and what is appreciated most that it has strong connections with our heritage. Reply

Mendel August 27, 2008

Sadness with joy The Holy Zohar writes: one should have “crying on one side of the heart and joy on the other side of the heart”. Even while feeling sad one must simultaneously find something to be happy about. For we are always commanded to “serve G-d with joy”. Reply

Joel B. Dix Hills, N.Y. August 26, 2008

How does this brilliant article match up with the famous chassidic saying "Think positively and the outcome will be positive"? I've heard the explanation from a Chabad Rabbi, that the positive thoughts themselves will actually bring about the positive results. Would'nt this be a bit of a contradiction? Reply

Joe August 26, 2008

Confused.... I'm a bit surprised to see all of this...I always thought it was a good thing to be happy about everything; because, at least with me, I always remind myself that "gam zu letova", this too is for the best, and so it was done by G-d's will. I know, it's natural and "proper" to BE sad and all, but is it really a BAD thing if you just wave it away and tell yourself that everything is for the best, and there's no use in being sad? I mean, you can be either sad or happy, with the same result, except that by being happy it's more likely to come out "positive".

I hope I'm making at least a little bit of sense, since I'm finding it a little hard to explain my point.

Another quick point; are you saying that the Breslev Chassimdim, whose belief it is that you should always be happy about everything, are wrong?

I don't know if I agree 100% with this article, at least the way I personally understood it, but I get the message, and see what you are saying. Thank you very much! Reply

Anonymous August 26, 2008

Leave out the nonsense and leave the sense Take out the invisible cloud buddy stuff and there is some validity to what you are saying. I studied with Seligman (Univ of Penn, 'father'of positive psych) and he has a lot of very very helpful interventions, but the press and people such as The Secret authors have diluted positive psychology to watered down pollyanna nonsense as you indicated. But take as an example the technique of disputing constant negative thoughts - its excellent for those who can't stop ruminating or catostrophizing. It helps people move to a calm mind from which to move forward. Real positive psychology by the way does not dismiss sadness, it affirms all human emotions. The goal is to study and enhance what is good about people, not what is wrong. Take a look at Seligman and character strengths. I think you might like it. Reply

Sarah Los Angeles, Ca August 26, 2008

Thanks I have bad days, and people make me feel guilty for not being happy constantly. We are only human subject to the comings and goings of life. Life is like a sukah, fragile- we too are fragile beings we have good days, and bad days. People need to understand that its o.k. to be sad. It is not o.k. to wallow in sadness or pain, but pain and sadness make us strive to be better people. "out of darkness comes light".
The Rebbe, of blessed memory say's that bad things happen so that we won't let them happen again. Our sadness needs to be a springboard for growth. Out of these sad events you have brought light. You are helping people realize that there is nothing wrong with them.
If David HaMelech could have a bad day and cry to Hashem, so can we who are not as great. May Moshiac not tarry then we can all be truly happy! And for all the singles out there Bitachon, i too am waiting for that soul mate of mine. The frustration of waiting will only make that moment that much more special. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel August 26, 2008

Thank you... I wanted to thank you for writing this article. It could not have come at a better time.

I recently went through a painful experience where I was about to get engaged, but the shidduch ended. I know it's a bracha, but am struggling with the normal emotions of loss.

It has, however, been frustrating to encounter the 'happiness police' who as you so eloquently stated seem eager to deny a natural grieving process or place blame.

What I have been doing though is your DVI process - without having had a name for it until now. And it was so comforting to read your article and know that this is healthy, normal, and that in time... this too shall pass.

Thank you for raising this very powerful issue. Know that you've offered comfort to someone who needed it.

Many blessings... Reply

Anonymous Melbourne, Australia August 26, 2008

true, and well put. but i'm confused. doesn't the torah demand us to accept every thing hashem does to us with a joyful heart? Reply

Nicole August 25, 2008

I wish others had this wisdom. It's nice to know that I am not the only one who can see emotions this way. Reply

Ilana Leeds Melbourne, Australia August 25, 2008

G-d gave us emotions for a reason A behaviour expert's advice to me for dealing with some difficult students was as follows: Be as dead pan as possible. Don't show them any emotions to react to in class. You must be almost robotic. It is the only way to deal with them and for you to survive as a teacher!'
Needless to say, I didn't follow it because I thought it was ridiculous advice.
I am human and they are human. we have a common empathy and we need to connect through that. We need to feel a passion for life and all its challenges. Even fear and grief can be uplifting and inspiring because it changes how we perceive our world and our place in it.
Your friend needed the emotional outlet and thank G-d you were there with her for that short time. It is healthy to be emotional. I have more problems with the human robot approach to life.
Take care and G-d give you comfort when you need it with the strength and wisdom to use your insights wisely. Reply

Aaron August 24, 2008

Our right to our feelings THANKyou for a dose of important truth.

The happiness cops can be oppressive, as was your friend's son.

I'm sorry he had the power to bar you from your friend, who needed your support.

Instead, she had to forego your emotional support and instead provide support for her famiiy, who refused to support HER.

How SAD. Reply

Dr. Amy Austin, Psy.D., LMFT La Quinta, CA/USA August 24, 2008

Happiness Cops... Brilliant article!
As a fellow marriage and family therapist, sometimes the therapy gets stuck in putting out crisis fires until the next one erupts. I attempt to stress that one might allow themselves time to grieve or feel sad/pain until they can move on. It is imperative to allow someone to feel their feelings. We have them and have a right to our feelings. However, these feelings are the impetus to do something different, possibly to step outside ourselves and reach out to others. G-d gave us the ability to struggle and the struggle must be honored. Languishing in "me mode" can become debilitating. I am one for supporting clients to be able to explore their issues, and apply new and healthier ways of coping. Then, back to life and the land of living. One cannot know happiness without doses of sorrow. The acceptance of what is in the moment can lessen the anxiety that is created by wanting things to be different in the present. There are no broken people, only broken behaviors. Reply

Anonymous Juneau , AK August 24, 2008

Cancer Thank you for the thoughtful words regarding death. My dear sister-in-law died last year after struggling with colon cancer. She was only 42. One to remain positive for others, she expressed to me that she felt she'd disappointed others by not overcoming her cancer with the emotional and spiritual conviction that we sometimes see written about in "new age" literature. I am deeply grateful to have just read this article that so profoundly acknowledges our humanity and does not expect us to be perfectly positive at all times. Reply

Anonymous NY, NY August 24, 2008

Thank you for letting me be sad! Wonderful article, I have been saying this for years, modern society is obsessed with happiness. Why is that the only thing that matters now a days is being happy? What about being moral? Or being decent? People often critize my choice of being a religious Jew saying that one cannot possibly be happy with so many restrictions, I tell them that it's not happiness that I pursue but meaning. I am in pursuit of being good and kind not happy. I believe that as a Jew the happiness follows suit, first things first, living according to G-d. I very much agree that one in no longer permitted to feel sadness or fear. I am 35 years old and not yet married so I am very often fearful of, G-d forbid, not marrying. Nobody validates my fear and sadness. Everyone tells me how I shouldn't be feeling that, but it is impossible. So kol akavod for the article. Reply

shlomo dror jerusalem, israel August 24, 2008

I couldn't agree more This is an article that really needed to be written, and I hope it is widely circulated.

As a wise friend of mine once said, you can only feel happiness the the extent that you can feel pain. Limit one, and you limit the other. Reply

Velvel ben Moshe Reno, NV August 24, 2008

Avoid the Happiness Cops By Dr. Miriam Adahan While I agree with Miriam, I cannot help but think that by honoring the wishes of that "family member" that she never visit her friend again; she did her friend and herself a terrible disservice. Whose feelings are more important...the family member or the dying friend? Reply

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