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The Many Forms of Happiness

Learning to name happy feelings can increase your happiness.

Key points

  • Unhappy people often have a small happiness vocabulary.
  • To be happy, you must notice happy moments.
  • Learning to identify your happy emotions can help boost your happiness.
Source: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash
Source: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

You want to thrive. But your biology’s drive to survive constantly scans for threats, which gives it a chance to then avoid or combat them. And that is clearly a good thing. But it can also work against your desire to be happy by overlooking positives in your life as it focuses on problems. Can you see this in your thoughts? Do you notice that you are quick to see actual or potential problems? And that you don’t “dwell” quite as long on uplifting experiences?

When I’ve worked with patients who fall into this dismal pattern, I’ve noticed that they are often sad or depressed, missing an ability needed to pull themselves up and out of it. They have a voluminous vocabulary to describe their emotional pain, but they are short on words for emotions related to a sense of well-being.

Does this apply to you? Think about it. Reflect on emotionally painful times and name as many emotions as you can. Then reflect on different positive experiences and name as many positive emotions as you can. If you are overflowing with labels for positive emotions, great! Enjoy your sense of well-being in its many forms. But if the number of painful emotions that you name overwhelm the positive, then you likely feel incredibly distressed way too often.

The Power of Naming Positive Emotions

When I work with patients, we spend a lot of time talking about what makes them unhappy. That’s a given. But what can get lost in doing this is the importance of talking about what gives them a sense of well-being. After all, if you only talk about emotional pain, then there is no space to feel better. And if you only have the words for different kinds of emotional pain (e.g., sad, hurt, angry), then you cannot move your attention to more uplifting emotions (e.g., excited, peaceful, hopeful).

So, I often encourage my patients to observe the moments that elicit positive emotions and then to name those emotions. As I stated earlier, it’s amazing how often they are at a loss as they try to name those emotions. They often find it helpful to have a list of emotions close by to help them find the words. Using the examples of positive experiences that you reflected on earlier, see if this abbreviated list of positive emotions helps you to gain greater self-awareness in this area. (My book Bouncing Back from Rejection includes a full list of emotions.)

  • Happy: At ease, Energetic, Optimistic, Ecstatic, Inspired, Satisfied, Hopeful, Relaxed, Wonderful
  • Competent: Adept, Strong, Secure, Capable, Arrogant, Together, Independent, Confident, Cocky
  • Valued: Accepted, Cherished, Favored, Belonging, Loved, Understood, Included, Revered, Appreciated
  • Loving: Affectionate, Adoring, Enchanted, Attracted, Desirous, Infatuated, Fond, Horny, Passionate
  • Caring: Compassionate, Tender, Liking, Connected, Concerned, Forgiving, Warm, Empathic
  • Interested: Absorbed, Eager, Resolute, Challenged, Fervent, Ardent, Determined, Motivated, Dedicated

What did you notice as you reviewed this abbreviated list of emotions (or the full list)? If you are like many of my patients, you may have noticed that it helped you clarify emotions you were less aware of. Also, just taking the time to think about positive emotions may have heightened your experience of them.

The Value of Naming Your Emotions

The lesson here is not that you can make yourself happy by naming positive emotions. Rather, learning to observe and name these emotions opens you to experiences that are already there. By shining a light on them, you take them out of the shadows and can appreciate them more. You might even begin to find new experiences that bring out those happy emotions. (For more on this, check out my brief video, Finding Happiness in Daily Life.) The main lesson here is that an increased awareness of feel-good emotions can lead to greater serenity, playfulness, courage, validation, passion, empathy, and more!

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