Emotional Sea Level

Striving and maintaining emotional sea level: More than any other group in history, modern Americans are told to be cheerful, no matter the circumstance. In her book, Bright Sided – How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich explores this culture of “toxic optimism” in various ways, but the most persuasive account she provides is a personal one.

Ehrenreich wrote that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she found the wildly optimistic books, support groups and popular media surrounding the condition nearly as daunting as the disease itself. Instead of allowing her to have perfectly normal responses to a potentially life-threatening diagnosis – fear, worry, anger – she was told over and over that cancer was her chance to grow spiritually, to embrace life, to find God. The result, from her perspective, was simply exhaustion – denied the opportunity to react instinctively, recover her emotional balance, and then move on to therapy, she felt profoundly stressed. She surmised that others in her condition felt this way too, at least privately.

Ehrenreich makes a valuable point. The idea that one must be, and look, endlessly cheerful is a uniquely American, uniquely modern, uniquely destructive cultural imperative. I advise you to beware of the endless books, websites, television shows, seminars, religions, drugs (especially drugs) promising ceaseless bliss. Such a condition is, I feel, neither possible nor desirable.

A central premise of my book Spontaneous Happiness is that it is perfectly normal to experience “the blues,” just as it is perfectly normal to experience joy and bliss. Optimizing emotional well-being means gaining greater control of the variability of moods, damping the oscillations, enjoying the rewards of the midpoint.  It also means not shutting down that dynamic variability, not getting emotionally stuck.

I call that midpoint emotional sea level. It is the place from which you can take thrilling excursions up into the mountains of joy, or challenging journeys down to the watery depths of sadness – but through it all, you remain aware and confident of your ability to return to the pleasant vistas of sea level. It is here that you will find resilience, contentment, comfort, and serenity.  This is your emotional safe harbor, which you can leave but to which you should be able to return easily and naturally.

Let me introduce a foreign word that describes this emotional goal. Lagom is a Swedish term that does not have an exact English equivalent; it means something like “just right,” or “exactly enough.” It has been called the most Swedish of Swedish words and permeates the entire culture: architecture, politics, economics, and every aspect of daily life.

Contentment, serenity, comfort, balance, resilience, together constitute a lagom version of positive emotionality and, I think, a sane alternative to the perpetual happiness expected and demanded in our society.  It should be more than enough to sustain us and will not burn us out or condemn us to alternating cycles of bliss and despair.

No matter what it is called – emotional sea level, the balancing point, lagom – the good news is that it can be cultivated until it becomes our default emotional state, through attention to the needs of body, mind and spirit. Adopt simple strategies such as:

Applied with focus and commitment, these may help you to find your own emotional sea level. I wish you success!

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