“Emotion in itself is not unhappiness. Only emotion plus an unhappy story is unhappiness.” ~Eckhart Tolle
When my mother told me, “Honey, you don’t understand; you can’t,” initially I felt like she was being condescending.
It was Mother’s Day and, unbeknownst to me, the last time I’d see her before her final hospital visit.
We’d spent that Saturday updating her computer, watching waves at the beach, and picking up seashells, then eating dinner at a popular local restaurant frequented by travelers, including famous musicians on tour buses because of its location off of the interstate.
By early evening, we were lying on her bed talking mostly about nothing important. However, when she mentioned that she was organizing all her pictures in zip lock bags for her two sisters, my brother, and me, it sounded strange yet significant.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m not going to live forever,” she said.
“But you’re doing fine right now,” I responded referring to her health at the moment. Her health challenges in the past few years had made it necessary for her to move to live closer to her older sister.
The conversation segued to how much she missed her mother, my nanny, who’d passed away twenty-two years earlier. The emotional angst in her voice caught me off guard. I was close to my nanny and missed her too but could tell that my mom missed her at a deeper emotional level than I understood.
I asked questions, trying to understand exactly what she missed. Did she miss talking to her? Her cooking? Her laugh? But she didn’t or couldn’t answer. Instead, she looked into my eyes with one of those motherly looks that said, “enough of the questions.” Then she said, “Honey, you don’t understand. You can’t.”
I knew it was time to change the subject, so we watched TV and continued chatting about lighthearted nothings before going to sleep.
Although the conversation felt unsettling, I did what most of us do when something rattles our gut—I ignored it.
Three months later, I received a call from my aunt telling me that my brother and I needed to get there quickly because my mom was in the hospital. After two surgeries and almost three weeks in ICU on a ventilator, she passed.
That’s when the journey started and I’d finally be able to understand the meaning of my mother’s haunting words.
It’s been almost eighteen years since she passed. Even now, there are moments when grief shows up and her loss feels as painful as the day she left. When that happens, I replay the conversation we had on Mother’s Day in my head and realize how right she was. Then I cry more because I want to tell her how right she was but can’t.
There are some things you can’t really understand until you experience them. You can imagine how you’d feel in a situation, how you’d react to it. That’s empathy. Or you can just know the experience would feel awful. That’s sympathy. However, you can’t really understand until you experience it.
As the founder of the Society of Happy People, I’ve spent a lot of time understanding happiness. I even identified thirty-one types of happiness because I wanted people to recognize all of the happiness that they might not notice or take for granted.
However, after losing my mom, I also realized what is really obvious yet not always acknowledged—all unhappiness isn’t the same. There’s a huge difference in grieving a loss and being stressed because you’re late for a lunch date due to traffic annoyances.
Although both cause you to feel bad or unhappy in the moment, their lingering effects are vastly different. All experiences that make us feel unhappy are not equal. Yet we’ve been taught to think if we aren’t happy, we’re simply unhappy. It’s an oversimplification of our emotional experiences.
I started thinking of experiences that took me away from feeling good as Happiness Zappers.
Then I started categorizing them: unhappiness, stress, fear, chaos, and annoyances.
Then, depending on the type of Happiness Zapper, I’d decide how to manage it. Some zappers simply didn’t have the same effects as others. However, in all cases if I didn’t acknowledge the zapper, it would manage me instead of me managing it.
Each day, every single human being on the planet will experience different Happiness Zappers. How we choose to manage them significantly impacts how long they impact us and our lack of happiness.
The five types of Happiness Zappers are:
Unhappiness is most often connected to loss when we must create a new normal over time.
Obviously, the death of someone or a pet we love is the ultimate loss.
Yet other losses redefine our lives, too: unwanted career changes, health challenges, friend or family estrangements, and other normal, expected, or even unexpected life changes such as aging, empty-nesting, caretaking, or retiring.
Unhappiness results from experiences that we rarely have control over and probably didn’t want to happen yet have to learn to live with. It takes time to adjust to life with the missing piece or changes we have to make due to circumstances beyond our control. And there may always be moments even after we think we’ve adjusted or healed from a loss when the void is triggered, and it can shoot a pang in our heart that makes us feel sad again.
While the ongoing pangs of pain from loss usually reduce over time, the scars they leave can flare up without notice and we feel the sad, hurt, and loss all over again.
Stress is when we feel pressure or tension from things that require a response from us that can impact us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Most of us feel stressed more than once most days. Although everyone has different stressors, some common ones include having too many tasks, facing too much uncertainty, making decisions, coping with difficult situations, or dealing with difficult people/events.
Whatever the source of our stress, it’s important that we learn to manage it because it adversely impacts our overall health when we don’t. Of course, managing stress is different for everyone and every situation. Sometimes, a situation needs to change. Other times, it’s about utilizing tools that soothe our hearts, minds, and souls, such as meditation, exercise, aromatherapy, a thinking walk, a hot bath, or any fun activity.
The situations that create stress are fluid—which means once one is gone, another one shows up. That’s why it’s important to understand your stress triggers and the tools that help you manage your stressors.
Fear creates a physiological change that influences our behavior when we are threatened by a dangerous situation or we believe something may threaten our physical or emotional safety in the future.
While some fears are real—your home is in the path of a hurricane landing, or you’re being abused, for example—the majority of our fears pertain to “what could happen,” and they’re usually worst-case instead of best-case scenarios.
When we don’t manage the fears in our mind, they often lead to regret. They stop us from trying new things, meeting new people, and doing things we’ve dreamed about. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “A man’s life is the history of his fears.”
Sometimes, simply doing something that triggers a fear—like eating at a restaurant alone, applying for a job, or going to a party where you don’t know many people—regardless of the outcome, is our success. And successful is one of the Society of Happy People’s thirty-one types of happiness.
Chaos happens when things are in disarray, unorganized, and confusing.
Chaos could be anything from your alarm going off late, an unexpected guest showing up, or your boss changing your day’s to-do list, to dealing with an act of mother nature in your neighborhood.
It’s in those moments when you really aren’t in control that you simply have to move into a triage mode of tasks and priorities based on the current situation.
The best thing to remember when in the middle of a chaotic situation is that the actual chaotic moments are usually temporary. The chaos will subside. There may be lingering stressors after the actual chaos, but the heightened emotionally charged moments end.
Annoyances are when someone or something irritates or bothers us to the point that our mood is adversely affected.
What annoys you one day may not annoy you another day. Annoyances are subjective to what’s going on around you at any given moment.
However, they have a common theme—you probably won’t remember them a year from now. So you need to ask yourself, “Is this really worth taking away from my happiness now?”
My mom’s death taught me many things. One of the most important lessons was that unhappiness isn’t everything that makes you feel bad. There are varying degrees of feeling bad. Real unhappiness is usually centered around loss and grieving, and not only deaths.
Acknowledging loss and grief empowers us to manage it. It gives us permission to feel our myriad of feelings when our grief is triggered. It gives us permission to cry, to be angry, to feel numb, to mourn. Although unhappiness feels lonely, in most cases there are others who’ve been in similar places who can help us navigate our experience if we reach out.
Our other happiness zapping experiences—stress, fear, chaos, and annoyances—rarely have lingering pains. In most cases we get to manage these Happiness Zappers and to a degree determine how long we will allow them to zap our happiness.
Unhappiness comes from experiences that most likely changed us and our lives in a way we didn’t want changed. Then it becomes part of us and will revisit our heart from time to time. The more we understand what unhappiness actually is and how it works in our lives, the better we can manage it.
About Pamela Gail Johnson
Pamela Gail Johnson has been a Practical Happiness Advocate since 1998 when she Founded the Society of Happy People and created the first globally celebrated happiness holidays. She helps people learn how to manage their Happiness Zappers while expanding how they define happiness so they can live happier lives. Pamela's a Life Transition Coach (CPC), author of Practical Happiness: Four Principles to Improve Your Life, Speaker, and Founder of the Society of Happy People (sohp.com).