Let’s analogize sadness so that it is easier to understand. Firstly, let’s remember that the sadness we feel is actually a reaction to the chemicals our body is secreting in reaction to both our physical state and the stories we tell ourselves. So if you were listening to a joke, (which is a form of telling it to yourself), you would find the absurdity funny and you would get the chemistry for laughter. But if you tell yourself a sad story about your past, you will get the chemistry for sadness.
People who are sad a lot are people who tell themselves a lot of sad stories. This idea upsets many depressed people, but the healthier people around them know that it’s true because when the sad people tell their sad stories, they bring everyone else down with them.
Happier people can feel the effect of listening to the sad stories because they usually don’t tell themselves that many of them. Which is the same reason the sad person can’t sense them—because they always hear them. That’s why pig farmers can’t smell pigs. They’re around them too much.
Sadness is an action. If you take all the steps to get there, don’t be surprised that that’s where you end up. Just remember you can walk out the same way you came in. For example: let’s put someone in an office situation. And let’s say that each employee’s neurochemicals are all stored in their desks. And let’s say the very sad person is an accountant and they are talking to a co-worker just outside the accounting office.
The co-worker would walk up with a cup of happy in his hand and cheerily ask the accountant how the day is going? The accountant would go into his office, grab a bottle of sadness, and then he would come out and tell a very sad story about how the weekend didn’t turn out as planned. The other employee would go back to their office and grab a cup of empathy and return with it, but the sad employee is stuck in an unwitting pattern, and their response isn’t to go get some gratitude, or even love, it’s to go back and get more sadness.
It is important to remember that this is work you are doing. You have to ask for these chemicals. They don’t just show up because you or your doctor agreed to pick a disorder to label you with. Your requests for chemistry are a verb. You need to put effort into generating them. So I get that you’re innocent. I get that you truly thought your life was awful—but it isn’t. It isn’t good and it isn’t awful. It’s whatever you think it is. You’ve proven that by making it unnecessarily sad. Now it’s time to use the exact same skill to do the opposite.
Pay attention to your feelings. Note where your thoughts are taking you. And if you feel pain, that’s your signal to change direction—to turn your thoughts to something else. But… you’ll say. But this, but that. Blah blah blah. That’s just more thoughts about something other than gratitude. The simple fact is, if you want to feel better then you have to take more responsibility for your thinking. And if you don’t, you’re not failing or losing or lost. You’re just enduring more suffering than you need to.
Pay attention to the verb that is you. This is why Suzuki said, “We can think of the soul not as an entity, but as a principle.” You are thought in motion. You are a spinner of experience. You have incredible freedom. So next time you’re at your desk, skip the sadness and grab a bottle of appreciation. It’ll do wonders for your day.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.