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We all know what it feels like to be happy. At some point in all of our lives we will have experienced at least one moment of pure, unbridled joy. It’s a shame we can’t remain in this joyous state forever, but it simply isn’t possible. The fact is, in order to truly enjoy those special moments of happiness, those times when we are filled with a sense of sheer joy, we need the times where we don’t feel so good. In other words, in order to know joy, we also have to know unhappiness. It’s about balance.

It is an interesting fact that it is easier to come up with a list of negative feelings or emotions than it is to create a list of positive ones. I often encourage new clients to do this as a means of getting accustomed to exploring and articulating their feelings. Whilst many people can write a fairly lengthy list of negative emotions (such as sad, unhappy, depressed, anxious, jealous, angry, bitter, tense, grumpy, and so on and so forth), when it comes to positive ones, most people write “happy, excited, relaxed” and then pause to think. Why is this?

 I often find myself wondering why our emotional vocabulary, the words we make use of to identify and articulate how we are feeling, is so heavily weighted towards the negative. Does this mean that there are more negative emotions than positive ones?  Or is it that we simply experience more negative feelings than positive ones? The conclusion I have reached, after much deliberation, is a linguistic one. We have many different words to choose from when describing or discussing the emotion “sad”. One person might say they are “unhappy” or “miserable”. Another might feel “low” or “flat”. Others might describe themselves as being “down”, “depressed” or “melancholic”. However, flip it round to looking at the polar opposite emotion and most people would plump for one word: “happy”.

A short, simple word that even very young children understand. “Happy” is a far more flexible word than we might give it credit for. Although a single word, “happy” actually covers a whole range of different emotions. There’s the sort of happiness you feel when spending time with good friends. There’s a different sort of happiness we experience when engaged in an activity we enjoy. Another sort of happiness can be experienced when accomplishing a challenging task, and yet another type of happiness we feel when watching those videos of cute kittens on Youtube. My conclusion is that whilst we have lots of different words to describe all the different kinds of upset or sadness we might experience, we have one magnificent, all-purpose word to encompass a far broader range of emotion.

Perhaps this is a problem. We have so many ways of expressing our unhappiness, our upset and our frustrations, but by reducing positive emotional states to just one word, perhaps we spend too much time dwelling on the negative and not enough time focusing on the positive aspects of our lives. Maybe if we were to broaden our positive emotional vocabulary, we would spend more time focusing on excitement, serenity, elation, blitheness, glee, wonder, satisfaction, cheerfulness, bliss, rapture, thankfulness, joviality, and joy.


Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy

Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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