I was born with a condition commonly known as “resting bitch face.”
It’s not so much that my face is bitchy, but I usually wear a tilted smirk as I constantly ponder the perpetual irony of the world.
I don’t have the easy-going, smiley face our society deems so important. In fact, smiling has never come easy for me. And, because of my natural facial expression (no matter my mood), I can’t count the times someone has told me to smile, or be happy.
“You’re prettier when you smile.” And, my favorite, “What’s wrong?”
Even when I’ve been perfectly content and happy, every time someone has told me to “be happy,” it has had the opposite effect. It’s made me angry. I’ve felt falsely judged by my façade.
Why are we forcing people to smile when a perfectly relaxed facial expression can suffice as contentment?
Throughout the years, I’ve thought a lot about happiness and why our culture is so obsessed with it. My prognosis is most people aren’t happy, at least not all the time. Some people don’t even know what it means to feel happy—I mean, genuinely happy. So, when they see us with our resting bitch faces and wry smiles, they need us to pretend the way they do.
“Fake it until you make it.” We need to paste on smiles for others so they don’t feel bad. I have never in my life faked anything, especially not my emotions. So this motto never worked for me.
My basic understanding is this: Life is impermanent. In the yin-yang nature of human existence, we can’t experience happiness without sadness. We can’t be grateful without feelings of bitterness and anger. Our cultural preoccupation with perpetual happiness is causing more pain than true contentment, because so many of us are forcing and faking it—pretending we feel something we don’t.
A few weeks ago, I put myself through a test. I woke up sad, questioning every decision I’ve made in life. My first thoughts were: How can I snap out this? What can I do to make myself happy? I thought of all the superficial and materialistic options: go shopping, get a massage, eat, drink. I was rounding up all my vices. But then I decided to sit with my sadness. Just let it be. Go with it.
I made myself a cup of coffee, sat on my couch, and stared out at the fog. Yes, it made for a perfect melancholy morning.
Soon, my sadness separated from me and I began to look at it objectively. I offered my sadness appreciation for the time it gave me to reflect on my life. As soon as the sun burnt through the fog, my mood had naturally shifted to a more pleasant and content state, and I didn’t have to spend any money or eat anything unhealthy to get there. Simply being present was a magic mood shifter.
Imagine the power of simply acknowledging our emotions instead of trying to force them away.
This morning, while driving to work, I pictured our emotions as our inner children (similar to the Pixar movie, “Inside Out”), always seeking attention from their parent. Happiness has always been our perky favorite—the one we give most of our focus to. No wonder Happy is so demanding. “I’m Happy. See me! Feel me!”
But can’t we see that in giving all our awareness to Happy, we are ignoring our other children: Sadness, Anger, and Frustration? They become repressed and start acting out and behaving badly. We go to extremes not to acknowledge them, and, instead, keep showing off our favorite golden child, Happy, parading her around for everyone to see.
Part of the issue is, as a society, we think something is wrong with us if we feel negatively. “I’m sad, therefore I must not be good enough. I’m angry, so I must not be a good person. I’m frustrated, which must mean I’m ungrateful.” We can all see where this trend is going. None of these statement are true, so why would we deny ourselves the experience of all our feelings? Why can’t we just live in the moment of our current emotional state, fully knowing this emotion, too, will pass?
There is also honor in giving credibility to our negative emotions. As I experienced that foggy morning, sadness gives us time to reflect so we know what changes we might need to make to improve our lives, or just to be present for the lives we have, without needing to change anything. Anger, fear, and frustration can act as internal sirens, warning us that something is wrong and we need to take action. Shame and guilt can provoke us into taking responsibility.
These emotions aren’t bad; it’s how effectively we deal with them that matters. We learn from these emotions, so to repress them can be detrimental to our individual and cultural evolution.
It’s not so much that we shouldn’t be happy, but that we should be open to experiencing and attending to all our emotions, not just the pleasant ones.
So, instead of “be happy,” maybe we should honor all our emotional children and make our motto: “Be true to whatever you feel.”
Author: Jennifer Ott
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman