”Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a gloomy day. The news had been discouraging, as it often seems to be, and there had been a few bumps in the road I was traveling. Walking into an appointment, the person I was meeting mentioned she had really needed to get her attitude right that morning, to remind herself that she had a lot of reasons to be happy.

So, she pulled out an article she’d been hanging onto for a couple of years that she really liked. It was an article I had written, and I have to say as I sat reading what I’d written when I was in a different place and time in my life, it really gave me pause.

I laughed because I really liked what “that girl” had to say, and it reminded me of Rev. King’s words. It’s when we’re trying to find happiness for ourselves that it often eludes us and when we help others find their happiness that we surprisingly find our own.

I had started writing this before receiving my gentle reminder about how to create happiness (Thanks, Debbie). My topic hasn’t changed but is even more apropos: Toxic Happiness. It really does exist, though if you aren’t a normally happy person, you might think I’ve just made it up. You will recognize it, though.

The catchy tune many of us love to sing to get people in a cheerier mood “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is a perfect example of the problem. And I’m going to own my part in it right here because if I don’t, my family is sure to call me out on it.

It isn’t that I didn’t recognize that sadness and anger were valid and valuable emotions, but they have always left me feeling so sad for the person experiencing those things, so I would meet anger or sadness with some pithy phrase to cheer them up, pull them out of their feelings, and make everything seem OK — for a little while. Isn’t that what so many of us do? We look for ways to make life seem happier because that’s more comfortable, not so awkward. But the damage we cause when we demand everyone needs to be happy is toxic.

It’s a fine line here — don’t let things keep you down, but also allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling. To loosely quote someone out there: It’s a lot easier to appreciate the happy moments when you’ve experienced the not so happy. And let’s pause to think for a minute what not so happy things have happened in our lives.

Without those, would you realize that a day with all green lights, no line at the pharmacy window, and a food order that arrives exactly as you ordered are so spectacular? I think not. Being able to recognize the meaningfulness of moods and feelings matters. At times, we each have a few unhealthy words in our speech, though.

Have you said any of these lines to someone when they were having a bad day?

• It’ll be OK

• Cheer up

• Everything happens for a reason

• It could be worse

• Snap out of it

• That’s nothing compared to what I went through

These are examples of what I believe is toxic happiness, or toxic positivity.

The word that has come up a lot lately is authentic. If it really matters that we are authentic (that’s often how people decide they can trust us), should we pretend everything is hunky dory? If we say, “Oh, nothing’s wrong,” when things are, we are not being honest.

As a friend recently pointed out to me, we are lying. I tried several ways to explain that it isn’t really lying, but she was relentless, and she was right. In our effort to convince ourselves that we are happy, we lie to ourselves and to those who care about us.

When I wrote about happiness before, I addressed ways to find happiness, regardless of our situation in life.

1. Work on happiness habits.

2. Stop setting yourself up for unhappiness

3. Address your struggles instead of letting them get you down.

Those are still important things to remember when you’re feeling down, but I would add to it now.

1. Be OK with experiencing different emotions and encourage others to be OK with whatever they’re feeling. Anxiousness, anger, sadness, and fear are normal emotions. Once we speak the truth about how they are affecting us, we can begin to work through them.

2. Be honest with yourself and allow others to be honest. No, everything might not be alright, and things might not work out (the way you or they hoped). That doesn’t mean anyone should pretend to be happy with the outcome, but you can find a new kind of happiness once you work through the hard part.

3. Looking for meaning in life doesn’t always include feeling overly happy. Let that be OK. Happiness is not indicative of living a meaningful life.

My life is very meaningful, full of people I love, but I wouldn’t say that every moment is a happy one. There are times I am sad, times I’m afraid, and times I’m tired. And in all of those times, my life has so much meaning.

What about your life? You might be happy that you have certain people in your life or that you have achieved the status you have, but all of that comes with days when things are tougher than other days. I guess I’m trying to tell you that it’s ok.

If you go through a spell of not feeling lots of happy, let it be OK. It will find you again, and there are some other feelings you might need to attend to. If we stop chasing happiness, it will probably land at our feet, and one of the best ways to have that happen is to get busy trying to make someone else happy — not because you feel obligated, but because you want that for them.

And if happiness avoids them for a minute, remind them that instead of feeling they have to force happiness, they can embrace whatever is visiting them that day.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (stories@susanbsteen.com).

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