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Focusing on the positive: Does it help?

A bitter drink: Introduce sugar, and the whole drink becomes sweet.

A cold bath: Introduce hot water, and the whole bath becomes warm.

A sad person: Introduce things to be happy about, and…the whole person becomes…what?

I have been puzzling over how to describe what effect happiness might have on a person grappling with intensely negative emotions in connection with grief, illness, or any heavy-duty crisis. Humans often think that emotions behave in the way that a drink or a bath does – in other words, if a big dose of happiness comes in, that will dilute the sadness and improve the person’s mood overall. It seems rational. It leads, often, to people emphasizing the positive. It leads to comments like, “Look on the bright side…” and “Remember the silver lining…” and various other types of reminders.

People who have lost a child may hear how fortunate they are to have other children, if they do, or to have had the child for as long as they did. People who are ill may hear about how lucky it is they have good health insurance. People who have lost a loved one, a relationship, a house, or something else of utmost importance may be counseled to focus on whatever they have in the “positive column.”

When a person experiences a deficit in one or more areas we generally don’t want to be deficient in, such as health, wealth, successful relationships, family, and friends, shifting the focus to what that person does have that’s good should help, shouldn’t it?

I’m not sure it works quite that way, at least not all the time, and not for all people.

Being reminded of good things can be a mixed bag. In my experience, a comment about something to be happy or grateful about can make me feel defensive of my bad mood even as I appreciate the opportunity to focus on the good. This happens even when the gentle reminder comes from within, from myself. I know that when I’m having a down day and I try to think about what I can appreciate in my life, I sometimes feel more guilt than anything else, guilt at failing to snap out of my crappy mood and see all the good around me. In this way I achieve the opposite of what I want, driving myself further into the pit of negativity.

Sometimes we perceive positive and negative emotions as a zero-sum game, where the amount of happiness you can feel is in inverse proportion to the amount of sadness you are feeling, kind of like the fader on a car stereo. In other words, if I feel 80% sad, I must also feel 20% happy. If this is how it works, and someone pulls me further into the happy, it should reduce the sad, right?

But it doesn’t work this way either, at least not for me. The way my emotions work doesn’t fit the bath metaphor, nor is it a zero-sum game. I can feel enormously happy and brutally sad at the same time, both emotions coexisting with one having little or no effect on the other. I can feel fully grateful and positive about the good in my life, while feeling devastated about what difficulties have befallen me.

I have been ruminating for days about how to explain this, and today I thought of the spectrum. Depending on the situation – the light, the texture, the air – only certain colors are visible. The sky will appear blue in one location, and elsewhere grey, and later in the day a deep orange. But all of the colors of the spectrum, all of the wavelengths, are there all of the time. In the same way, all of my emotions coexist. At a given time you’ll notice one feeling or another in me, depending on the day, what’s going on in my mind, and what’s happening around me. But they are all there, even the ones you can’t see.

It's curious, to me, that a rainbow image often symbolizes unadulterated happiness. All of a sudden I see a rainbow as representing all of the emotions together, the combined colors reaching a level of beauty and completeness they couldn't each have alone.

Yes, I’m aware of and grateful for all of the good things in my life. When I’m having a tough time, you can remind me of them if you think it would be useful. But if I don’t seem to perk up, don’t assume that I haven’t understood you, or that I've rejected what you've said, or that your efforts have not in some way brought me a measure of happiness. And if I seem like I’m doing well and feeling happy, know that I’m also crushed and sad inside somewhere. It's part of the spectrum, both visible and invisible.

When people you care about are in pain, think about the spectrum of emotion. Even as you may lovingly try to shift focus to the positive, let them know that you honor everything they are feeling, and that your actions do not imply that feeling good is inherently better or that what they are feeling is in any way wrong. Meet them where they are, in the pool of whatever color of light washes over them now, and walk with them from there.

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