For the first time since I started this blog three years ago, I’m skipping the Wednesday Tips in order to bring you this series on the happiness myths. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 2: Nothing Changes a Person’s Happiness Level Much .
Happiness Myth No. 3: Venting anger relieves it.
Wrong. Contrary to popular notion, aggressive “venting” doesn’t relieve bad feelings but fuels them. Studies show that blowing up, punching a pillow, yelling, or slamming doors makes you feel worse, not better.
Although we think we act because of the way we feel , in fact, we often feel because of the way we act . For example, studies show that even an artificially induced smile brings about happier emotions, and a recent experiment suggested that people who use Botox are less prone to anger because they can’t make angry faces. Philosopher and psychologist William James explained: “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”
Although this “fake it ‘till you feel it” strategy might seem fake or inauthentic, I’ve found it to be almost creepily effective. You really can change your emotions. It takes great presence of mind, and a lot of self-discipline, but whenever I can manage to act lighthearted or friendly or receptive to criticism or whatever is the opposite of my grouchy, gruff, defensive instinct in the moment, I really transform my mood.
Bottom line: If you’re feeling angry or sad, instead of expressing negative emotions in a dramatic way, try to act the way you wish you felt by finding a calm way to express your feelings—or take steps to distract yourself.
For a discussion of the catharsis hypothesis, check out “The Uses of Adversity” chapter in Jonathan Haidt’s terrific book, The Happiness Hypothesis .
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