I’m sitting on a sticky floor, making notes on my clipboard as I dream of bathing in Purell, observing circle time at a daycare. The teacher starts by asking every child how they are feeling today – and I think “yay”, put down my clipboard and forget about the germs surrounding me, so I can pay close attention to how this mini mental health moment will transpire.
The first few children say “happy” or “good” and that’s the end of their conversation. The next child says they are feeling sad, but instead of continuing on, the teacher asks them “Why, what’s wrong?”. After the child gave their reason for feeling as they do, the teacher went on to reassure them (also known in my mind as minimize and invalidate). It was as if they were giving these kids the impression that 1) Happy is the right answer, what you should be feeling and 2) If you are sad you should have a reason, and 3) If you are sad over something that isn’t a ‘big deal’, you shouldn’t be sad. This pattern continued as the teacher made her way around the circle.
The other thing that gets to me about this is that the children who were sharing that they were happy, there was no questioning why, they weren’t even interested. It gave the impression that if you give the right answer, or if you are genuinely happy we don’t care why, the reasons aren’t important. Almost as if “Happy” should be our default state, the ideal level we all hang out on without having to do anything to get there.
This furthers the belief that there’s no effort in happiness. As if it will just happen to you. All these people are just magically happy, it’s normal. Why aren’t you happy? Why aren’t you normal? What’s wrong with you?
This approach to feelings not only reinforces that you’re broken if you’re not happy – you’re also helpless. If your sadness means you’re broken, there’s no way you can do anything about being healthy or happy. There’s just something wrong with you. This mindset that if we weren’t broken we’d have this passive happiness state makes it really difficult (or impossible) to get better. You need to understand that you are not powerless in order to make the efforts that will in turn make you feel better.
I know this circle time at daycare is a mere replica of conversations everywhere. We get so caught up in the idea that “I’m good” is the right answer, that ‘happy’ is what we should feel, and that ‘happiness’ is this passive state we don’t have to work for.
Now, I realize I may be a bit bias on this subject. Getting the message that happy is the norm, the “right” answer, and learning to cover up all “negative” emotions caused, and continues to cause, me a lot of pain and stress in my life. In order to heal it has been something I have had to unlearn, and that makes me passionate about others not being taught the same lessons.
When it has come to healing I have found it very important to realize the role we can play in happiness. That happiness is not just going to happen, that it is an active state. We can’t just wait to be happy, we have to do things that will make us feel better.
I would have loved the teacher to ask every child equally why they feel the way they do. Set up opportunities to reflect on what does make us happy. I think this is an opportunity so often missed in our society. If someone asks “How are you?” and you respond with “Good” -there are no follow up questions. A fellow life coach in my course shared that he has begun asking people WHY when they say things are going well. I LOVE THIS IDEA!
How are things? Good. How come?
This idea reminds me of the positive psychiatry movement. They aren’t just focusing on what’s wrong, they are interested in what’s right.
Knowing what makes us feel good is a huge part of being well. Being healthy and happy requires awareness and ongoing effort. Just like keeping up with our physical health, we also need a mental health diet. Read more about that here.
I invite you to join me on my quest of sending the message that unhappy doesn’t equal broken, that happiness isn’t a passive default state, and that all emotions are the right answer.