Why It’s OK to Not Feel Happy All the Time, According to a Psychiatrist

Because “Just be happy!” can be toxic.

As we get older, health becomes one of the most overwhelming stressors in our lives. Not only do we worry about maintaining a healthy mindset and getting in daily movement for ourselves, but we also worry about our children’s overall health and wellbeing. Plus, we often also become the caretakers of our aging parents. 

New York-based psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, MD calls those worried about all three age groups part of “The sandwich generation: They’ve got kids they’re worried about, but also have aging parents,” she says. “They’re super stressed out about how to care best for them.”

It’s not always smooth sailing — and it doesn’t have to be. “Culturally, we have a lot of pressure on us to be happy all the time, and if we’re not, there’s something wrong with us,” says Dr. Boardman. “But we have to give ourselves permission to feel what we’re feeling and instead, use it as data and information. Ask yourself: What is this telling me?” 

We asked Dr. Boardman, who recently penned the book, Everyday Vitality, to explain effective ways to navigate the winding road of life, despite all of its bumps, bridges, and (what can often feel like no-end-in-sight) bumper-to-bumper traffic. Read below for her insights on the key to wellbeing, why toxic positivity is harmful, and why you shouldn’t tell someone struggling to “Just be happy!”

KCM: We all go through life’s ups and downs. What should we stay mindful of during incredibly turbulent times?

Dr. Boardman: First of all, it’s okay to not be positive. Women tend to ruminate, which is dwelling on something by going over and over it in your head. It’s like a ticker tape in your mind, saying, ‘Why did I do that? Why did I say that dumb thing?’ It really undermines our mental health because it keeps us stuck in one place. We also co-ruminate, which is going over the same issue with a friend, child, or partner without transcending it, making any plans, or finding a resolution. It leaves us sort of paralyzed in some ways. We can experience and embrace negative emotions — they’re usually there to teach or tell us something — but be careful not to ruminate. 

What are ways to stop the endless cycle of ruminating? 

  • Go out in nature: It really interrupts our brains from ruminating. 
  • Gain some distance: Ask yourself, ‘What would a fly on the wall say to me right now?’ Usually, that gets us out of our heads — which I sometimes think is the key to wellbeing.
  • Don’t self-neglect: Lifestyle decisions around moving, eating, and sleeping are so critical especially when we’re feeling down or having a hard time. Make those a priority, because no matter what’s going on in your life, if you’re feeling well-rested, well-nourished, and like your body has been moving around, it’s an incredibly powerful way to help give our moods a boost and to feel stronger.

What are other ways to boost your mood during rough times?

I think we tend to self-focus when we’re having a tough time, but reliable research shows us that having an other-orientation, not a self-orientation, during those moments — being a value to somebody else — is a reliable booster. We live in a world that’s telling us we have to find ourselves and be ourselves all the time. I think when we are less focused on ourselves, it’s a better pathway to strength.

What advice do you have for handling tumultuous emotions when you’re dealing with an unexpected medical diagnosis — for yourself, or someone you love?  

That’s where the toxic positivity messages of, ‘Everything’s going to be alright,‘ or ‘Don’t worry about it — be happy!’, sometimes come up. And I think that’s a really unfair expectation. 

The best thing to do is divide up what you can control, and what you cannot control. You could go into a Google abyss and a doomsday scenario of everything going wrong, but that is not a healthy response. Instead, talk to a friend — don’t keep it all in — and think about what you can control. Can you control how you’re sleeping, eating, or moving during this period? 

I also think we undervalue the role of rituals. Is there a ritual that you have in the evening that helps you wash off the residue of a stressful day? Whether it’s taking a bath, going for a walk around your block, or changing into your slippers, create some rituals around whatever is bothering you to cleanse yourself of that thing. There’s no magic wand to get rid of it, but think about the choices you can make to help you feel not completely flattened by it.

Are there questions you should ask yourself when things feel bleak?

We often have habits we develop unconsciously, like people who automatically put salt on their food without tasting it first, or who always have a cigarette with their coffee. Think about uncoupling those behaviors and figuring out if there’s something else you can do instead? There are behaviors you might not even be aware of that aren’t helping you feel strong and are undermining your wellbeing.  

So, how can we make the most out of each day?

  • Have a sense of curiosity: When you’re approaching anything with a curious mindset, even something seemingly negative, ask yourself: What can I learn from this? 
  • Look for what’s new in the people closest to you: When we get stuck in a place of knowing what’s going to happen next, or we’re predicting the future all the time, that can be self-fulfilling. With your loved ones, keeping a sense of unpredictability can bring more joy and surprise into your life.
  • Make it all about experiences: Put yourself in the position of experiencing, whether it’s watching a sunset or playing with a little puppy. Anything that gives you a sense of wonder is so essential for your wellbeing. 
  • Create hobbies: Develop a passion that isn’t constantly measured by some external force — something that you do just for the love of the game. 
  • Get outdoors: We underestimate how little time we spend outside, especially if you live in a car culture, or in a city. Sometimes you think you’re walking much more than you do. If you live outside of urban areas and rely on cars, try to get in nature.