Living in a society where the overarching message is that you can and should be happy can actually make you more miserable. In studies conducted in both Australia and Japan, the research found that when people think that others expect them not to feel sad, they actually feel more sad. The effect of the expectations of others was even stronger that their own personal expectations of how they should be feeling. The researchers sum up by saying, “In short, when people perceive that others think they should feel happy, and not sad, this leads them to feel sad more frequently and intensely.”
It’s interesting that the study conceptualises emotions as essentially social phenomena – not solely individual experiences – a trap we can sometimes fall into. Our emotional experiences are actively shaped not only by our own internal world, but very much also through how others expect us to feel. The ironic effect of people expecting us not to be sad actually making us feel sad more often (and more intensely) can also perhaps teach us something about our other experiences, such as with life satisfaction or depression. As a society, we tend to emphasise the experience of feeling good over other experiences. This is perfectly understandable – being happy has lots of benefits – and perhaps our intention is to inspire people to change their lives so they can also experience our shared goal of increased happiness, and spend less time in other, less valued emotional states. Yet, if we as a society are not more accepting of other emotional states and see them as valuable too, we could unintentionally be setting people up to feeling more miserable instead.
We tend to send out messages that feeling sad is a bit like failing. Happy people are vital, successful people, and the way to becoming a vital, successful person is to be happy. Different people seem to have different emotional settings – some experience more sadness than others. The difficulty comes in rejecting our own experience because we feel we should be having some other, more valued experience instead. And although our own lack of acceptance of our sad feelings can be a problem that actually makes us feel more miserable, this research suggests that societal rejection of sadness and promotion of happiness above all other emotional states can make things even worse.
Acceptance of the full range of our experience – even though some of these may be uncomfortable or distressing for us – sets us on the right path to avoid the trap of trying to control our emotions to fit in with society says we should be feeling. Controlling our experience is a natural thing to try to do when we are experiencing unpleasant states – and it works for some in the short-term – but there are long-term costs. I talk through some examples of how futile it is to try to control our experiences here.
Of course, we can also advocate for a more realistic societal understanding of the full range of emotional experience – something I believe in. It was interesting that the research participants in Japan expected more of a balance between different emotional states compared to the Australian participants, and that the Japanese tended to see the pursuit of happiness as slightly dubious. Nevertheless, the effects of societal expectations were present in both countries. There is still much work to do.