The third Monday after Christmas is thought to be ‘the most depressing day of the year’. It’s a time when; the thrill of the festive period has worn off, the weather is bleak and icy, any new resolutions seem dubious, and our pockets are feeling a little empty. The evidence for ‘Blue Monday’ may not be scientifically sound but there is something to be said about how to cope with dips in our mood at the start of the year. How then, to see the positives when days can seem a little grey?
Negative emotions are not necessarily bad. While scientists have many theories about how many emotional systems we have, I find the three-system model developed by Professor Paul Gilbert the easiest to follow. We have a threat system that includes emotions of anger, fear and disgust, which help us to identify dangers in the world; then a drive system, linked to excitement and joy, which motivates us; and finally a soothing system, which is linked to feelings of calm and safety, and which allows us to care for, and receive care from, others. The key point is that all three systems evolved to allow us to survive, and all three are important.
Armed with this knowledge, I find it easier to rethink what I previously considered dark emotions. They are a natural and necessary part of the way humans are wired, and without emotions we would have no sense of values or what matters to us. Even supposedly rational decisions made by our cognitive brain are often based on our emotions. The Cartesian division between rational (our thinking brain) and irrational (our emotional brain) suggested by the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes (thus its name) is oversimplified. Both influence each other.
Emotions can also be a positive force for change – we can indeed sing in the rain! Sadness, for instance, can be a sign we may need to withdraw and signal to our loved ones that we need help. Fear can lead to us finding our courage. Guilt can motivate us to reach out to others. While being angry is natural, it can be expressed safely and can even be harnessed in a good way as energy for causes we care about. Often social change is fuelled by anger at the status quo. For instance, anger about the stigma around mental illness has led to more acceptance.
If, for example, you were feeling angry at work right now, you could acknowledge your moment of anger and say to yourself, ‘I am having a moment of feeling furious with my boss,’ and then move to, ‘I will harness my anger to make sure some important things change in the office’. If you were feeling sad, instead of saying ‘I am miserable,’ you could accept a moment of sadness and then say, ‘I will allow myself some quiet time to chat to someone about how I am feeling, and I will become closer to that person in the process, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been feeling sad.’
We appreciate the good times that follow even more by having experienced the bad. In fact, we would not appreciate sunnier times without living through the rainy ones. I love the way this idea is expressed in this poem by the 19th- century Scottish writer Charles Mackay.
Oh you tears,
I’m thankful that you run,
Though you trickle in the darkness, You shall glitter in the sun
The rainbow could not shine if the rain refused to fall,
And the eyes that cannot weep are the saddest eyes of all.
Thank you for reading and I hope that finding the positives helps you on your way this year.
Adapted from my new book Singing in the Rain: An inspirational workbook out now.