Tuesday, December 16, 2014

If you’re not having a “great” day, is it your fault?

Can anyone identify when the seemingly standard farewell changed from “Have a nice day,” to “Have a great day?” And did people’s experiences of their day actually get better either during or after that transition?

Just recently I saw a Coca-Cola™ advertisement on a billboard with, of course, two young, active, incredibly good-looking people, obviously having a great day, that said, “Open happiness.” And I wondered, how many people actually feel happier after they open a Coke? Most importantly, however, I wondered if anyone felt worse because opening a Coke didn’t make them happier.

Now the reader may want to assure me that, of course, people are not really influenced to believe such magical cause-and-effect relationships as the world of advertising consistently tries to persuade us to believe; we know that opening up a bottle of Coke won’t actually lead to happiness. But, do we?

Consumer culture, which abuts nearly our every move, exhorts us constantly to do, eat, drink, bet, buy, or go, generally promising that to do so would make us somehow better off, happier, ensuring a better (now even, perhaps, “great”) day. My question is whether the underlying message leads us to question that, if we are not having a “great day,” is it our fault for not doing so?

Many people suggest that greetings and farewells are usually experienced as benign transactions. When our coworkers greet us in the morning with, “Hi, how are you?” they don’t really want to hear that we just learned that the sewer pipe needs to be replaced, do they? Or that our spouse ran through a list of irritations about us just before we left the house. The “How are you?”, “Fine” exchange doesn’t set up the expectation that we are doing “great,” however. “Fine” is a generally benign word; “great” tends to set up a different, hyperbolic expectation.

I wish to present some anecdotal evidence to support my concern about a possible unforeseen negative consequence of changing “Fine” to “Good,” to “Great.” Sometimes, when I hear that one of my clients is feeling down or depressed, I ask her if she can distinguish what percentage of her is just the feeling, and what percentage is feeling badly about having the feeling.

My experience is that, most of the time, she identifies a greater percentage of the latter than the former, sometimes with twice the percentage in the “feeling badly about feeling badly” portion of the equation. I then suggest that the portion that she probably has some immediate control over is the “feeling badly about feeling badly” portion. What if she just allowed herself to feel the feeling? To just feel sad, or lonely, or angry, and let go of the negative judgment for having such feelings?

The desire to avoid negative feelings is common, but the drive to avoid them all together is also, unfortunately, common. This drive sometimes leads to addictive behaviors (the kinds of behavior we are encouraged to engage in by consumerism--do, eat, drink, bet, buy, and go). If you are not feeling good (or better yet, great!), there is surely something you could be paying for that would change that.

Author Ann Wilson Schaef contemplated this connection in her 1987 book, When Society Becomes an Addict. Schaef observes the United States culture as a whole to be a breeding ground of addiction and describes the enormous challenge of trying to live a healthy and engaged life in a culture that promotes addiction (i.e. the pursuit of feeling “great”, often at the expense of reality).

So what is the cost of running from sadness, loneliness, anger, and other normal feelings while chasing that fun-filled, happy, “great-day” life? When people actively seek the avoidance of negative feelings, it can inadvertently lead to an even worse experience: clinical depression. Sadness and loneliness are a normal part of the experience of being human; depression need not be. The perennial exhortation to “Have a great day,” may unwittingly lead some people to feelings of self-doubt: “Why aren’t I having a great day?” and then, “What’s wrong with me for not having a great day?” and finally, possibly, “It’s my fault for not having a great day.”

So I’ll stick with “Have a nice day.” Although, come to think of it, I generally prefer people to have whatever kind of day they’re having anyway, without feeling badly about it.

By Lise Osvold, Ph.D; Psychologist at Grew, Morter & Hartye P.A. in Raleigh, NC. She works with adults and adolescents in individual, group and family therapy, and has special interest in working with people with eating disorders.

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