When sadness is your comfort zone, happiness is the challenge to leave it behind.
You have broken up with your significant other.
You have been fired from a job you loved.
You graduated college a year ago, but you still haven’t been able to find a job in your field.
You have lost someone you cared about deeply.
You’re 30, 40, 50 — and you feel like your life didn’t shape up like you wish it would have.
And it makes you miserable.
Of course, those are all valid reasons to be sad. Sadness, as Disney’s Inside Out (2015) so brilliantly explains, is an emotion that helps you put your experiences in perspective, and adequately process what you’re going through. In other words, we all need sadness from time to time.
In the movie, we see what happens inside eleven year-old Riley as her five main emotions try to process her world and her life. There’s Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and the leader of the all, Joy.
Joy tries to keep Riley happy at all costs, shutting down Sadness until Riley has an emotional breakdown. The message of the movie is simple: all our emotions are valid, and they each need a turn “at the wheel” every once in a while if we want to exercise our emotional intelligence and keep our mental health going strong.
So, you have your good reason to be sad, and you allow yourself to feel it. You let sadness just bring it on with everything its got. But when the time comes to move on, to hand over the controls to a different emotion, you don’t. You stick with your sadness, and you wallow in it with enthusiasm.
Before you notice, you’re stuck. Sadness has become your comfort zone, and you can’t bring yourself to leave it.
You’re addicted to a state of sadness and you don’t even realize it.
And that’s the essence of this particular addiction: it’s insanely easy to maintain.
Happiness isn’t a permanent emotional state. It comes and goes, and it’s so precious to us exactly because it’s so fleeting. You can bring yourself to a sustainable state of contentedness if you work on it, but not happiness. That’s the exact mistake Joy makes in Inside Out: she believes it’s not only possible, but reasonable, for Riley to be happy all the time.
No one can be happy all the time, but you can be sad, if you let yourself become addicted to it.
You become addicted to sadness because it requires very little of you. It requires very little effort except that you feel sorry for yourself, and that’s about the easiest thing you can do.
You keep going back to the past, and thinking about everything that could have been, letting your guilt interact with your self-pity to create amazing gems that all start with “if only.”
If only you had been a better partner to your significant other, you would still be together.
If only you had worked harder, you wouldn’t have been fired.
If only you had pushed yourself harder back in college, you’d have graduated with honors and have a job.
And so on, until the next wave of mantras comes up, which sound something like:
If only you two were still together, you wouldn’t be so miserable.
If only you hadn’t been fired, you’d have hope for the future.
If only you could find a job in your field instead of working as a barista, you’d be simply in love with life.
And you stay miserable, because it’s so much easier to enjoy self-pity than to remind yourself that:
It takes two to make a relationship work.
You did everything they asked of you at your job. The company is simply going under, and there was nothing you could have done to save it.
The economy sucks and no one is hiring. The valedictorian of your class is your manager at the coffee shop. Anyone you used to know from college who’s doing somewhat ok has either changed fields, or is crafting their own career out of thin air — probably as either a podcaster or a youtuber.
Everyone has their reasons for grief, but not everyone is sitting alone in the dark, complaining.
But you are, because you’re addicted to how comfortable your sadness feels, how little effort it requires of you, how well it soothes your fears.
Happiness requires you to get out of that comfort zone, to challenge yourself to be better, to seek alternative paths after your first chosen route leads you to a dead end.
Happiness is a peak: it takes effort to climb it.
Sure, after that peak, there will be a valley. After a hard climb comes the steep incline of a fall, and the fear of falling might prevent you from even trying to climb the mountain in the first place. If sadness is guaranteed to show up eventually, than it’s more comfortable to stay with the kind of sadness you’re already familiar with.
What you need to realize, however, is that you don’t always need to fall from happiness into sadness, you can stop halfway at contentment — only you have to work on it as well.
What you need to realize is that becoming addicted to sadness keeps you stuck. Perpetual self-pity is not an attractive quality, and grieving for whatever you have lost may be natural, but needs to come to an end eventually so that you can move on.
It’s up to you to break your sadness addiction.
Just like other addictions, you first need to identify you have a problem. Then, you have to make a decision to overcome it.
Change your mindset. Say goodbye to obsessive and repetitive thinking. Remind yourself you had time to grieve whatever it is that you had to grief, now it’s time to move on.
Find help. You might be right at the border going into a clinical depression. Recognizing it and seeking qualified help can make all the difference.
A relationship, a job, a career, a family: neither of those things can be held solely responsible for lifting you out of sadness. Sure, those things can make you happy — for a while — but life is more complex and nuanced than that.
Aspire to find balance between all of those elements so that you can achieve a state of contentedness, with peaks of happiness, and yes, the occasional valley of sadness. Value your different emotions, but learn to put each of them in their proper place.
Don’t let yourself become addicted to sadness and self-pitying thoughts. Dare to step out of your comfort zone in pursuit of happiness: it won’t just come to you if you stay still.
Dare to live a complex life of ups and downs: it’s more fulfilling than a plain life stuck in the deep valley of sadness.