We live in a society where a high value is placed on being positive. Yet sometimes this simply isn't possible, and people find themselves facing temporary or long-term sadness. Just telling yourself to "be positive" isn't much help, because moods can have a life of their own. One of the pitfalls of positivity is that people tend to fantasize about a perfect life instead of realistically facing the fact that no life is perfect. Everyone's existence contains challenges, disappointments, frustration and failed expectations. Further, what usually happens is that most of us become passive. We distract ourselves by watching more television or spending more hours on the computer. We wait for sadness to pass and we behave as if nothing bad is going on. Keeping up a good front is important in most people's lives, yet behind the facade can lurk a good deal of fear.
Instead of positivity, what's needed is reality. Being realistic means that you drop the main defense that all of us are tempted to employ: denial. The only reason to deny your sadness is if you feel that you can't do anything about it. But there are concrete ways to cope with sadness and gain control over it:
Step 1: Identifying Your Kind of Sadness
It's perfectly normal to have sadness in your life. Some kinds, however, can be a cause for concern. If you are feeling sad at this moment—or have been experiencing a down mood for a while—look honestly at your situation. There are three types of sadness most of us fall into:
Short-term sadness: This is a passing mood, lasting a few days or, at most, a week. It sometimes has a cause and sometimes not. The best remedy—as we all know but, sadly, often fail to remember—is to lower your stress, go to bed early and get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, make sure you exercise and break up your normal routine a bit. Boredom, lack of sleep, being too sedentary and excess stress are all associated with a sad mood.
This includes a downturn in mood because something undeniably bad has happened to you, such as losing your job or the death of someone close to you. In such a situation, you will generally know what the trigger is. The problem is that most people feel helpless when they enter extended sadness, even when they know there is a good reason for it. In this case, you need to process your sadness, let nature take its course and share your feelings with someone who can counsel and console you. Bottling up your feelings and feeling victimized are never helpful. Triggered sadness lasts an unpredictable length of time, yet in an emotionally healthy adult, within six months there is a return to the level of emotions that existed before the trigger was set off.
If you feel sad, exhausted, helpless, hopeless and unable to sleep, eat or enjoy sex for a period of time lasting more than a few weeks, you should suspect that you are depressed. There is often a trigger for this condition, but it is usually something that you could normally cope with. When coping breaks down, depression takes over. So if you feel that you can't cope, even with minor stress and ordinary setbacks, mild to moderate depression may be indicated. This is a complicated mood disorder that varies from person to person. If you suspect that you or someone close to you is depressed, a doctor's care is needed.
Step 2: Banishing the Enemies of Happiness
Let's say that you fall into the first two categories of short-term and triggered sadness (we won't discuss depression here; that must be handled by a health professional). If so, there are things you can do to change the situation.
It surprises people, but, in fact, the best cure for sadness is happiness. Anything that diminishes your ability to build your own happiness must be avoided or eliminated. For example, don't hitch your happiness to external rewards or postpone being happy until sometime in the future. Don't expect someone else to make you happy. Don't allow your emotions to become habitual and stuck or close yourself off from new experiences. Don't ignore the signals of inner tension and conflict, dwell on the past or live in fear of the future. Most of all: don't equate happiness with momentary pleasure.
In a consumer-driven society, it's all too easy to fall into all the don'ts on this list, because they share the same element: linking happiness with temporary pleasure and external rewards. Of course, we all live for the pleasure that life brings. No one is saying that you must deny yourself. But the most satisfying project you will ever undertake—and a mark of a complete human being—is to discover how to build a sense of happiness that no one can take away from you, because you have taken total responsibility for it. The journey to such happiness takes a long time, yet every step is one of fulfillment.
Step 3: Building Well-Being
Passively accepting your sadness is the same as forgetting to build your own happiness. Happiness is more than a mood. It's a long-lasting state that is more accurately called well-being. Well-being is a balanced state of mind and body that you feel subjectively as contentment, peace of mind and emotional freedom. Well-being opens the door to joy and deep satisfaction with your life. There are practical things you can do to help cultivate it such as: give of yourself (in other words, take care of others, and care for them); work at something you love; set worthy long-range goals that will take years to achieve; be open-minded; learn from the past and then put it behind you; plan for the future without anxiety, fear or dread; nurture close, warm social bonds; and develop emotional resilience.
Developing emotional resilience is perhaps the most important, because that's the ability to bounce back from bad things in your life. How do you encourage it? By being present with your feelings instead of fearing them, by getting past victimization or "poor me" thinking, by making a plan of action when things go wrong and sticking with it, by associating with people who are emotionally mature and seeking counsel from someone who has managed the same kind of crisis that you now face, by focusing on the times you have survived and thrived in the face of tough circumstances, and by appreciating and rewarding yourself for dealing with your difficulties.
Working on long-term, emotionally mature happiness is the best way to insulate yourself from downswings in your mood. Sadness comes and goes. Well-being can be made to last a lifetime. It doesn't matter how close you feel to this highly desirable state or how far. For everyone, well-being is a journey. All it requires is the right vision and devotion to personal growth. You have the inner guidance to support you. The secret is committing to that journey and taking those first steps with hope and belief in yourself.
Deepak Chopra, MD, is the author of
What Are You Hungry For?: The Chopra Solution
to Permanent Weight Loss, Well-Being, and
Lightness of Soul, founder of The Chopra Foundation and
co-founder of The Chopra Center