As a kid growing up on a remote cattle ranch in Wyoming, I grew up scrappy. I had to be fast to outrun a charging bull and innovative enough to find a way to saddle a horse so tall that my stirrup came to rest at eye level. I never thought much about emotional wellbeing and considered the pursuit of happiness a symptom of weak minds and coddled lifestyles.
As a young FBI agent, I leaned into the type of Stoicism that was my birthright — I gritted my teeth and bowed my head to push through obstacles. I learned early to endure hardship without complaint, which worked for a while.
Until it didn’t.
The need for emotional wellbeing
Years of working long and hard hours left me exhausted and overwhelmed. I snapped at people, spaced out in meetings and made poor decisions. A job that once energized me left me with a sense of dread as I faced the day. My stress built to the point where it affected my work and personal relationships. Terms like self-care and wellbeing made me cringe because that was not how I was raised to deal with problems or adversity. Those terms seemed too indulgent for a serious professional such as myself.
I chased achievements in the hopes I would find contentment, but as hard as I worked, the good feelings never lasted. What I needed to do was rethink the meaning of happiness because motivational talks and yellow stickies filled with inspirational quotes left me as overwhelmed and burned out as before. I pulled through the malaise and found answers, but the pursuit of happiness for a job well done didn’t do it. Instead, it was an understanding of how emotional wellbeing would change my approach to life.
The National Center for Emotional Wellness (NCEW) describes emotional wellbeing as “an awareness, understanding, and acceptance of feelings and an ability to manage effectively through times of change or challenge.” The past couple of years have put us through very challenging and intense times, and it’s left many of us not knowing how to move forward when we feel stuck or burned out.
Here are three scientific reasons why emotional wellbeing is key to your success:
1. Rethink happiness
As a kid, happiness was a bottomless jug of malted chocolate milk and wet kisses from my dogs and horses. And they still bring moments of happiness! My mistake was believing these moments would sustain me when the going got tough as an adult. As a professional woman, I needed to push aside childish ideas and take a more sophisticated look at what brought me joy.
Many experts believe we must embrace a more complex definition of happiness, focusing less on uninterrupted moments of bliss. Instead, we need to be more aware of all our emotions and how they can either enable us to navigate different life events — or not. People spend an incredible amount of money on books, apps and courses on how to be happy. Yet happiness among Americans has been falling since 2008. According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, Americans have gotten richer but not happier. The same report shows that COVID-19 led to modest changes in the overall rankings.
As many currently define it, one of the problems with happiness is that it means constantly feeling good, a continual state of entertainment and enjoyment. But this type of thinking is unsustainable because life has a nasty way of slapping reality in our faces. As a result, we can feel overwhelmed if we’re not prepared to handle adverse events. Our dogged pursuit of happiness turns toxic when we can’t acknowledge our negative emotions and the adverse events that produce them.
Happiness becomes more about ambition rather than a state of being.
How to make it work for you: We all need moments of happiness, but it should never be your goal in life. Happiness is:
- Involves pleasing yourself
- Lacks depth
- Feels good
- Something you chase after
- Full of momentary connections with others
2. Embrace negative emotions
There is a dangerous trend in current literature that encourages us to suppress all negative emotions or anything that makes us uncomfortable. We are told we need to seek out “safe spaces” so our delicate psyche isn’t damaged or harmed. The thinking goes like this: to live a good life, pursue happiness (see above) and avoid things that make you face your mistakes or own your regrets. Then, if you breathe deeply and focus only on the positive, all the negative stuff in life will go away.
Coming from a cattle ranch in Wyoming that holds the whiff of bullsh*t.
Both positive and negative toxicity
Toxic positivity can minimize or demonize negative emotions and encourage people to pretend to be happy even when they struggle with issues. Not only can this lead to depression, but it can be dangerous in other ways because our distress and complaints are full of important information.
When we engage in negative thinking, we allow ourselves to explore the vast territory of our life and how we live it. Whenever we talk about what is important to us, it can lead to change, better connection with others and uncovering a need that has remained hidden for too long. Unless we validate our negativity, we will continue to experience shame and isolation because we’re afraid to be authentic. Research has found that talking about emotions, including negative ones, helps the brain process feelings. So, when we label our emotions, it reduces negativity’s ability to make us feel overwhelmed. It also helps us figure out the best to regulate them.
When we focus only on “good vibes,” we rob ourselves of the opportunity to identify what gives us validation and hope. Just as toxic negativity can lead us into a spiral of despair, studies show that toxic positivity causes us to ignore serious problems. According to the American Psychiatric Association, our denial of these issues can deter us from seeking mental health treatment.
Negative emotions are not bad; they are signals that we need to pay more attention to the events that created them. They may not be pleasant, but like most emotions, they exist for a reason and can be helpful. When you stop running away from negative emotions, it’s easier to face and manage your feelings of frustration, fatigue and anger.
How to make it work for you:
- Recognize negative emotions as normal and an important barometer of what you’re experiencing in life.
- Identify and name your emotions rather than trying to avoid them.
- Talk to people you trust about your emotions. Better yet, talk to yourself and write it down in a journal.
3. Practice awareness
To be mentally tough, we need to create a better awareness of our emotions because they impact our thoughts and behavior. Research shows that emotions have a direct effect on our wellbeing. They also affect how we handle stress and burnout.
Since emotions impact our wellbeing, we must understand how they influence our decisions. Practicing emotional awareness gives us insight into why we’re experiencing the feeling before us. This is true whether the emotion is positive or negative. The more we do it, the easier it gets. So, we need to make it a daily routine to look back on the day and dissect a situation because emotional awareness helps us see multiple perspectives.
When people are aware of their emotions, studies have shown they’re less likely to make judgment calls based on the feelings they experience at that moment. This allows us to remove bias from our decision-making. It also allows us to improve the quality of our relationships. The reason is simple: awareness gives us choices.
How to make it work for you: When either a positive or negative emotion pops up during your day, ask these questions:
- What event happened that made me feel this way? Or what person?
- Where does the emotion show up in my body? Does this emotion express itself in my body language?
- What was my first response to the emotion? Then, if I had to do it over again, would I repeat myself?
- Is this an emotion I want to reinforce? If not, when could I have nipped it in the bud? If so, how can I repeat the experience?
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.