Tuesday 24 September 2019

#MindYourself: 'Fear and sadness are valuable emotions we should not deny'

It's important not to get trapped by the pursuit of happiness, writes psychologist Dr Paul D'Alton in the final part of his five-day series

Dr Paul D'Alton
Dr Paul D'Alton

'Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?" asks Joy in the film Inside Out. The film is about an 11-year-old called Riley and what goes on inside her head. We are introduced to five characters that live in Riley's head; Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust and Joy.

The five characters in Riley's head; Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust and Joy along with Surprise, are the primary emotions experienced by people all across the world. The psychologist Paul Eckman travelled the world and found that these six emotions are common to people of all races and cultures across the globe. These are universal emotions and each of the emotions brings about the same facial expression in people from Dublin to New Guinea.

Each of the characters in Riley's mind has a very important job to do. Disgust keeps her from being poisoned, Fear keeps her safe, Anger warns her something is not right, Joy makes her happy and Sadness keeps her close to other people.

A problem happens when one of these characters starts to steal the show. Things go terribly wrong when Joy takes over completely and wants to get rid of Sadness. In the film, Joy works overtime trying to keep Sadness away. Eventually, however, Joy realises that Sadness is actually an important part of Riley's life and begins to make some room for Sadness.

The idea of making room for sadness might sound like a strange one. But our minds are just like Riley's, and if we don't allow ourselves to feel the whole range of human emotions - Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Surprise and Joy - we're going to spend our lives in misery.

When we become fixated on achieving lasting happiness we push all the other emotions away. In the short-term this might seem like a smart approach - who wants sadness? But it doesn't work. We have each of these emotions for good reason, and when we try to deny them, we miss the very important signals they are trying to send us.

That's not to say that we shouldn't enjoy happiness, of course we should, every bit of it. But we have to watch out; we can get so hooked on happiness that we don't want any other emotion.

There may be times when distracting ourselves or taking a temporary break from sadness or other difficult emotions may well be helpful in the short-term, but if we try to avoid or push away difficult emotions all of the time we'll end up miserable.

We humans are a complex mix of the six basic emotions - all of which exist for good reasons. All six emotions are equally important and we cannot select which ones we want to feel and numb out the others. If we numb one feeling we numb them all - we numb life.

In chasing constant happiness this is exactly what we do: we numb our lives. We get trapped by the illusion of constant happiness. One of the greatest ways to mind ourselves is to give up the pursuit of constant happiness and allow ourselves experience the range of all six emotions Fear, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Surprise and Joy that exist in every human head and heart. For good reason too - to see why, just watch Inside Out.

Irish Independent

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