Being happy doesn’t always mean sunshine and smiles. According to new wellbeing research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, feeling positive emotions is not the way to win the pursuit of happiness — getting to express the emotions you want to, however, is.
Although conventional wisdom on happiness links the state of wellbeing to feeling good, the researchers in this study wanted to test the ancient wisdom Aristotle once gave on the subject: that feeling content and happy means having “feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way.”
In other words, emotions like anger and sadness can lead to happiness if these emotions are consistent with your values, because feeling in tune with yourself helps you feel happy.
To test this, researchers got 2,324 participants from eight countries to fill out surveys on what emotions they felt and what they wanted to feel in their day-to-day lives. What they found is that people who had greater discrepancies between their experienced and desired emotions had lower life satisfaction and more depressive symptoms.
Expressing how you feel matters more than how good you feel
It didn’t matter how much participants reported feeling self-transcending emotions like love, trust, and compassion if that wasn’t their desired emotion. Getting to express how they felt in their heads out loud in their lives made more of a difference than how many pleasant emotions they were feeling.
What this study proves is that we all have different definitions of happiness. Some participants valued and wanted to feel more self-enhancing emotions like anger and contempt, while some participants valued power and achievement and wanted to feel more pride. If they felt rage in their hearts and they got to express it in their lives, they were happy.
This study is consistent with previous happiness research that self-help author, blogger, and podcaster Gretchen Rubin has done. Rubin has made a career out of studying how to link happiness to habits and what she’s found is that we all have different value systems that define what make us fulfilled and happy.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Rubin has said her research has found. “We can only be happy, healthy, creative and productive if we take into account our own nature, our own values and interests. The question is: what kind of person am I, what works for me, what do I care about?”