Accepting that things can simply turn out good for you can be a difficult task, specially if you have a lot of cultural and psychological baggage in the way. Some seemingly simple and small things could interfere in our path to guilt-free happiness, and Ph.D. Krystine Batcho can help with answers to why this happens.
Nowadays the pressure of being happy or getting away with a good opportunity is enormous. To better understand what happens in our brain during a happy event and how we sabotage ourselves during the acceptance of a fortunate event, we talked with Ph.D. Krystine Batcho and got a few answers for these unsettling questions.
- According to your published article “Are You Afraid to Be Happy?“, people tend to associate guilt with certain pleasant events, but they can be changed with certain habits to reassure the joy-calm state of mind. On that note, you said “Being happy for the sake of others, rather than for ourselves, can break a cycle of anxiety and unhappiness“. Could the feeling of empathy be associated with guilt-free happiness, then, if practiced enough to create a full awareness community behavior?
KB: Associating guilt with certain pleasant events can result from feeling that happiness is unfair or inappropriate when others are suffering or cannot share in the enjoyment. When a loved one is battling a critical illness or has died in a tragic way, you might think that being happy would be disloyal to them. An essential element of a loving relationship is sharing in one another’s joys and sorrows, struggles and achievements. Wanting to continue sharing the emotional life of the one we love is an effort to keep the loved one with us, at the cost of giving up our own happiness. Self-sacrifice has long been an important characteristic of our image of true love. The first step in moving beyond sustained feelings of guilt is to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship as it has been transformed by illness, challenge or even death. In a healthy relationship, each person wants the other to be happy. Accepting unhappiness ultimately defeats the desire to be loyal, whereas learning how to be happy again respects the other’s wishes and sustains the integrity of the relationship. Parents often wish they could suffer in their child’s place, but know that it isn’t possible to take away disappointment or sadness by experiencing it for them. They know that it is a parent’s role to help their child cope and to bring as much happiness to them as possible. One of the most powerful contributions a role model can make is to demonstrate how an individual can rise above adversity and sustain happiness and inner peace despite misfortune and great challenge. With this perspective of being happy for others, you can break the cycle of negative emotions by understanding the real value of joy. Happiness is more than enjoying pleasure as a solitary experience. It becomes noble when it is embraced in order to make others happy. Being happy is contagious. Feeling empathy for others allows you to help others move beyond their difficulties when you have been through that growth process yourself.
- Why, in your professional opinion, does logic fall behind when it comes to dictate new ways of living life? Are emotions a bigger decision making for humans – on a general spectrum?
KB: Emotions are regulated by different dynamics and even by different brain mechanisms than are processes of logical reasoning. While valid logical thinking follows rules that lead to productive conclusions, emotions can influence our decisions for better or for worse. Even when people believe their choices are based on logic, often those choices have been affected by emotional bias. The quality of the outcome of logical analysis depends upon the validity or usefulness of the premises on which the analysis is based. Emotional attachments govern preferences and perceived importance. Someone might buy a less practical car because they value how much they like the car over its practicality.
Also, people believe that many significant life choices shouldn’t be decided on purely logical grounds. Emotions, not rational thought, are inherent in many social or interpersonal decisions. Many people adhere to a romantic ideal when conceptualizing marriage or a lasting relationship. The romantic ideal places emotions above the rules of logic, in that many would frown upon choosing a partner by calculating the greatest likelihood of the most financial or other utilitarian gain.
- How can the optimistic and joyful type of personality directly influence people suffering from depression or anxiety?
KB: Being optimistic allows a person to perceive a wider variety of options and recognize opportunities for growth and success. Being open to taking chances is important to overcoming the sense of helplessness that often accompanies depression or anxiety. Severe depression can lead to feelings of hopelessness. Following an optimistic attitude can ultimately help someone experience small successes that encourage further efforts. Research has suggested that optimism is associated with greater personal growth and life satisfaction. Learning to adopt a more optimistic perspective takes time and practice, but it is worth it. As optimism allows for more productive choices, it increases the opportunities to feel happiness. Exuding joyfulness, even in small doses, results in the pleasure of the contagious joy spread to others. Being joyful also changes the way others interact with us; others are likely to spend more time with us and respond more positively to us when they share our happiness. Exhibiting a positive demeanor can start breaking the cycle of depression by replacing it with a cycle of more positive emotions that stem from healthier social interactions.
- Superstitions like karma guide our fear of feeling happy, even though is generally shared by people all over the planet, even in places where this philosophy or lifestyle is not the major one. In your professional opinion, why does this happen?
KB: Karma is one example of a type of belief that can be understood differently in diverse cultures. In a society that doesn’t share the fundamental philosophy underlying the concept, the idea is often applied simply to convey a deeper universal human need for order. Notions of randomness, luck, or chance are threatening to psychological wellbeing, because they suggest that our lives are controlled by forces that can never be fully understood or harnessed in efforts to advance what is in our best interests. In our hope for predictability and control, we seek ways of imposing order, especially in times we perceive as chaotic or stressful. Misunderstanding situations that are governed by chance can lead to unhealthy behaviors. For example, a belief in strings of luck can lead to maladaptive gambling, such as compulsive playing casino slot machines. Occasional payoffs serve as variable rewards that reinforce the behavior and the beliefs.
- Millennials are more connected than any other generation until this day. How can this asset be useful to transform the world around us – specially with anxiety disorders diagnosis scaling on this age group every year?
KB: Being socially connected is essential to psychological wellbeing. Many millennials are more connected to their families than the prior generation, as they have been less able financially to relocate or to buy their own homes. They have benefitted also from social media, texting, and the omnipresent smart phones. However, smart technology has had a mix of impacts on the millennial generation. On the one hand, the possibility of being able to reach out for emotional or practical support offers the promise of ever-present help during difficult times. Paradoxically, immersion in a lifestyle of constant connection can impose its own stress and exacerbate anxiety disorders. Research has suggested that behavior on social media can take more extreme forms than in face-to-face encounters, and many millennials have experienced or witnessed incidents of cyberbullying. Relationships can suffer from a number of changes in the way people interact as a result of the impact of social media. Ratings of attractiveness, cheating via sexting, or betrayal by posting secrets or private pics are examples of new sources of stress that can increase anxiety. For many millennials, constant connection means being constantly “on call,” without any sense of a safe haven for time to oneself.
As with innovations of previous generations, the good news is that millennials are learning to adapt by using technology in constructive ways. Like any tool, cyberspace can be used for better or worse. Millennials have learned how to connect with people from diverse backgrounds and how to reconnect with people who have been important in their lives. By identifying and steering away from destructive forces, they are able to use cyberpower to expand the impact of prosocial efforts — from fundraising for worthy causes to consciousness raising on important issues. As a millennial learns from the experience of another who has overcome challenge, the lesson can have immeasurable value as it goes viral on the internet.
- Relating now to your Nostalgia field of study, how can this psychological function help to teach people how to escape from the joy-guilt/fear behavior? Can they be related?
KB: Research has shown that nostalgia is associated with important psychological benefits, especially by enhancing social connectedness and strengthening one’s sense of identity. Faced with negative emotions such as guilt or fear, nostalgia can trigger memories of good times in our past. Especially significant are memories of how we overcame struggles, solved problems, or achieved success earlier in our life. Remembering that we were once able to survive and thrive reminds us that we have what it takes to transcend the stresses, losses, and perceived failures we are facing now or fear we might face in the future. We can also retrieve memories of those who served as role models, and we can learn from how they dealt with adversity. Research has shown that nostalgia is associated with healthy coping strategies that can enhance our chances for personal growth. Most importantly, nostalgic reminiscence clarifies that despite all that has transformed us over the years, we are still the person who was once loved just for being who we are. Knowing we were once loved unconditionally reminds us that we are worthy of being loved, and that means we are deserving of happiness.
- Is anxiety frequently linked with loneliness? Does the individualism of these times influence in the joy-guilt feeling as a main factor to the problem or are there other ones?
KB: Anxiety can interfere with social connectedness by decreasing a person’s willingness to participate in social gatherings, to extend friendly invitations, or to seek support during difficult times. Fear of rejection can frustrate one’s core need for relationship and result in loneliness. Anxiety can also affect a person’s interpersonal skills and inadvertently interfere with forming close social bonds. Today’s emphasis on individualism can worsen feelings of anxiety and loneliness. By valuing self-sufficiency, our culture can fuel feelings of guilt, shame, or inadequacy in someone who is timid or fearful of seeking social support.
- To end, a personal question: what led you to research the relation between guilt/fear and happiness?
KB: I have taught college students for many years. As technological and social change progressively transformed our lifestyles, I noticed an increase in the number of young adults who experience anxiety and other related negative emotions. With greater emphasis on the importance of “doing it all,” millennials face their future wondering how they will be able to succeed in a demanding career, establish a lasting relationship, afford the material things they’ll need, and have enough time to be happy — and hoping they’ll be able to accomplish it all on their own. I am struck by the paradox of a generation enjoying the privileges and opportunities of the most advanced technology to date, but struggling to find self-worth and happiness.
So if you, as everyone else, are trying to figure out a way to be happy and can’t just get along with the feeling, remember that helping others, changing a few habits and doing simple tasks involving small moments of satisfaction can help you build a healthier and happier mind.
Krystine I, Batcho is a Ph.D. professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She studies nostalgia; she has found that people who are prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles. She developed the Nostalgia Inventory Test, which measures how often and how deeply people feel nostalgic. Her tool has been translated into multiple languages, including Chinese, Polish and Spanish.