Feeling Guilty About Not Feeling Worse?
My heart is heavy. The rise in antisemitism and hate crimes and, horror of horrors, celebration of the atrocities of terrorism have weighed heavily on my generally optimistic disposition.
Separately, just before Thanksgiving, I received a phone call from a dear friend to tell me of the unfathomable sudden death of her beautiful 28-year-old daughter. She was understandably inconsolable, and the shocking news shook me to my core.
Happy holidays!? Beyond not feeling it, I also found myself struggling with a sense of guilt and irresponsibility when I let beauty and happiness sneak up on me.
Letting Light Come In
I’ve learned I’m not alone in these conflicted feelings and, importantly, that sadness and happiness are not mutually exclusive, nor should they be. Human emotions can coexist; we can feel joy even in times of profound sadness. Learning to welcome moments of pleasure through positive memories, supportive relationships, and even the smallest of pleasures are a healthy alternative to turning to pain numbing alcohol or drugs.
From Eastern Tradition to Western Science and American Practice
As early as the 1830s, American Transcendentalists explored and promoted eastern mindfulness practices. But until the past couple of decades, scientific validation was limited, hyperbole and over-promise led truly valuable practices to be met by many (including yours truly) with skepticism and deemed too woo and frivolous for the daily demands of a busy lifestyle.
Fortunately, as reported by Daniel Coleman and Richard Davidson in their book “Altered Traits,” the number of research publications related to the physiological benefits of mindfulness practices soared from just a handful in the 1970s to thousands in the 2010s. And with the soaring rates of emotional stress associated with the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns and the constant barrage of domestic and world events creating constant FUD (fear – uncertainty – distress), understanding of brain science and the inextricable connection between emotional and physical wellbeing is necessarily transitioning from esoteric scientific journals into mainstream American living.
Resiliency from Writing Your Emotions
Emotional resiliency is intertwined with both mental and physical health and wellbeing. In difficult times, this starts with acknowledging your emotions, staring down disappointment, anger and sadness and seeking help when needed. The good news is that resilience can be a learned ability supported by recognizing the coexistence of joy and sadness and developing the simple habit of writing your feelings in order to help your brain navigate emotions in a healthy way.
Neuropsychologist and Solvasa head of mindfulness, Dr. Kristen Race, teaches practices to help navigate our brain’s sensitivity to negative experiences. One of my favorite such practices featured in the Solvasa Life MindfulnessApp is called “3 Good Things'' and it couldn’t be simpler. It’s about bringing to mind three positive events of each day, no matter how small and then sharing them with somebody or writing them in a journal. A positive event might be about noting the aroma of your morning coffee brew, receiving an unexpected text from an old friend, your dog wagging her tail in delight as you call her name. (Author’s note: I’m channeling positive vibes just writing these things for this article.)
Writing positive thoughts in a journal can have a multitude of benefits for brain health. Various studies and theories suggest the obvious such as stress reduction and the reframing of negative thoughts for emotional regulation, the not-so-obvious such as improved sleep, and the big pay-off of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize and adapt.
Writing Your Way Through the Storm
In the November 20, 2023 episode of the Huberman Lab podcast, Dr. Andrew Huberman details a scientifically supported practice of journaling that has been proven to deliver immediate and long-term health benefits. In contrast to journaling gratitude and 3 good things, this methodology involves a one-time, four-day, 15 to 30 minute writing protocol focusing on journaling and confronting traumatic events. The benefit is tied to neuroplasticity and brain function in the short and long term with positive impacts on physical health, including the body’s immune function, sleep patterns, mitigation of physical and emotional pain, and healing from traumas.
Embrace All Opportunities for Happiness
When I last spoke to my dear friends in Israel, they became my inspiration for this article. As they shared the unprecedented disruption to their lives and the mourning of lost loved ones, they also shared what their family was doing to bring moments of happiness to their community through music and entertainment. They recognized and spoke of the conflicting emotions and the feelings of guilt associated with happy experiences in such difficult times while wisely appreciating how the reprieve associated with entertainment and positive social interaction is necessary for their survival.
Importantly, it’s not just profound personal loss or trauma that is challenging our emotional wellbeing. Our brains are generally hardwired to scan for the negative. That’s why finding the tools and practices to let happiness in, even in the most challenging of times, is perhaps the greatest gift you can give yourself for today and for a lifetime of health and wellbeing.