Home All Happy in an Irresolvable Dilemma: Part 1, The Sad-Happy Dilemma

Happy in an Irresolvable Dilemma: Part 1, The Sad-Happy Dilemma

written by Laura Musikanski 6 October 2015

Laura Musikanski is executive director and cofounder of The Happiness Alliance home of the Happiness Initiative and Gross National Happiness Index. Prior to that she was the executive director of Sustainable Seattle. She believes passionately that you get what you measure, and that it's time to measure and manage for the well-being of people and the planet. Laura is the author of How to Account for Sustainability and Sustainability Decoded. She is a lawyer with an MBA and devoted grandmother to Bruno. Laura's articles are here.

For the last five years, my life has been consumed with happiness. You may think this means I have been deliriously happy. I haven’t. Over the course of the last five years, I’ve had my fair share of sadness, anxiety, anger, insecurity, stress, shame, and all the other undesirable feelings. I’ve been happy too. In fact, I have been the happiest I have ever been in my life. Part of the reason for this is that I have been willing to feel all my feelings.

When I say I have been consumed by happiness for the last five years, I mean that I have been working full time in the happiness movement. You are probably wondering what the happiness movement is and what it can do for you. This is the first of three posts that explores these two questions.

What is the Happiness Movement?

The happiness movement is an effort to shift economic policy so its purpose is happiness, well-being, and sustainability rather than economic growth, wealth accumulation, and consumption. I came to the happiness movement through my work in the sustainability movement because I felt that the people part was missing there.

One of the key features of the happiness movement is measuring subjective well-being. People take the survey, policy makers use the data, and so people’s happiness counts. Policy makers in Bhutan and the United Kingdom are doing this. The work I do with my organization, the Happiness Alliance, is helping to spread the message and model elsewhere.

In this discussion of the happiness dilemma, we broadly survey the main lessons about individual happiness and conclude with the one factor I think is the most important for your happiness. Let’s start with the broad survey.

The Broad Survey

There are mountains of information on how to be happy. In the book, Flourish, Martin Seligman has a formula called PERMA paraphrased here:

  • P: Positive Emotion: choose to spend your time with happy people or in situations that make you feel good.
  • E: Engagement: follow your bliss and do things that you love doing.
  • R: Positive Relationships: take the time to build and foster your relationships with your loved ones and volunteer, join a club or get active in your community center, place of worship or other place where you will be a part of a group.
  • M: Meaning: whether it’s your work, your volunteer activities or your community, be engaged in something that feels bigger that you and is deeply meaningful to you, so that you feel like you are a part of something greater than you.
  • A: Accomplishment/Achievement: make sure you have some wins, even if that means resetting your expectations and goals.

Intentional Activities

When I first started working in the happiness movement and learned about PERMA, I was in the middle of a difficult relationship with a man I loved but could not make happy no matter how hard I tried. I even tried just focusing on being happy myself and detaching from our pattern. I found myself sinking into a deeper and deeper depression in spite of dedicating myself to happiness.

After two years of working in the happiness movement, I finally I found the strength to follow the P part of PERMA. I gave myself a simple directive: go towards what makes you happy and away from what makes you unhappy. For me, that meant a break up. It was not an easy decision, but by the time I made it, it was unavoidable.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is another happiness expert that I learned about from my work in this field. She is most famous for suggesting that intentional activities have a larger impact on well-being than life circumstances. I do not entirely agree with her findings for populations that face exceptionally hard life-circumstances such as poverty, discrimination, long-term unwanted unemployment, abuse, or war. Nevertheless, many of the exercises she suggests as intentional activities are very helpful.

I group her exercises into three categories: Gratitude, Giving, and Compassion. Here is how I practice them:

  • Gratitude: Besides saying thank you as much as I can, I practice gratitude in my life and work is to really appreciate the people in my life, and to tell them this. Internally, when I find myself using negative self-talk, I make myself turn around what I am saying into a gratitude statement.
  • Giving: Because I live on a very small budget, I can’t buy lots of gifts. What I can do is understand what the person I want to give to needs, and craft an act of service to that need. This can mean taking the time to solely focus on listening to someone, or offering to give help that they would otherwise have to hire someone to do. My work in the happiness work is an act of giving, and my touchstone is a sense of flow in giving combined with the goal of providing value in the work.
  • Compassion: I define compassion as taking action when seeing others or myself hurting, and understand that mindfulness, or being present in the moment is the way to see someone or myself hurting. I develop compassion by practicing mindfulness meditation regularly.

There are many other experts and people claiming to be experts in happiness. If you put “happiness” into the search box for books on Amazon, you will get over 89,000 results.

What Can the Happiness Movement Do For You?

This brings us to the question of what the happiness movement can do for you. Even with all those happiness experts, few address the importance of fully feeling your unhappiness (and all the other difficult feelings) to feeling happy.

To feel truly happy, loving, joyous, confident, peaceful, grateful, loving and all the other positive feelings, you have to allow yourself to feel the negative feelings (within a healthy range). An article in Scientific American by Tori Rodriguez backs me up on this. I call this the sad and happy irresolvable dilemma. From my observation, this is a necessary lesson to get the full benefit from all the other happiness lessons.

Fully Feeling All Feelings

That is easier said than done, especially when you are down. The key to fully feeling is being able to talk about your feelings in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Non-Violent Communication (NVC) lays out a process for safely talking, and so does the online tool I created with one of my board members, a family and emergency medicine doctor, “Feeling Sad, Feeling Happy.”

I love the work I do in the happiness movement even though it is not paid, is against the dominant paradigm, and is not well understood. For these reasons, sometimes my work in the happiness movement makes me miserable. Before I understood the sad and happy irresolvable dilemma, I felt like a fraud for not being happy. This compounded my difficult feelings.

I learned to use the process of NVC and the “Feeling Sad, Feeling Happy” tool to talk about my difficult feelings. Talking about how I feel allows me to process the feelings and not get stuck in sadness. I have found that allowing myself to fully feel and process my negative feelings has another benefit. I am more aware of the impermanent nature of emotional states. This has helped to ease the suffering when feeling down.

I have come to appreciate the sad and happy irresolvable dilemma. My sense is that the answer to dealing with the things that make me miserable is be found by allowing the irresolvable dilemma to just be. This means not rushing to fix or change things. It means fully being in the present with a feeling, thought, or situation. It means allowing for things to be as they truly are. I means seeing things as they truly are, not as I wish them to be. It means allowing what naturally unfolds to come into being.

In my view, allowing for irresolvable dilemmas is not only crucial to personal happiness, it is crucial to the happiness movement.

In the next post in this series, I explore the irresolvable dilemma facing Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness policy.



Happycounts.org (2013) Personal happiness handbook. Slideshow.

Happycounts.org(2014). Feeling Happy, Feeling Sad. Slideshow.

Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment. Hudson Street Press.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Musikanski, L. (2015). Five ways to measure happiness. Positive Psychology News.

Rodriguez, T. (2013, April 11). Negative Emotions are Key to Wellbeing. Scientific American, 24:2.

University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness (n.d.) Positive psychology theory.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Image Credits:
subarcticmike via Compfight with Creative Commons license
Sketch of Sonja Lyubomirsky by Ted Benson
Marshall Rosenberg lecturing in Nonviolent Communication workshop, Neve Shalom ~ Wahat al-Salam, Israel (1990) courtesy of Wikimedia

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Judy Krings 9 October 2015 - 6:43 am

Congrats on your living what you learn about all emotions, Laura. Breaking up a two-year relations in service to yourself is admirable. I felt your heart-ache, but you walked your strengths/positivity talk. Terrific. I particular enjoyed your NVC discussion and look forward to your next post. Thanks much!

Jeanne 9 October 2015 - 1:35 pm

Hi Laura,

I am enjoying the new trend to address and embrace ALL feelings and “selves” so that the special joy of authenticity fills our days. I feel that we are kindred spirits as I, too, am involved with the environmental issues and solutions in Los Angeles. (mvccgreentent.blogspot.com)

I have been working with a dynamic self-guided set of tools for the past 2 years called The Gene Keys. Are you familiar with this system? If you want to more, please get in touch. There is a community of Gene Key “voyagers” in Seattle which you may want to explore if it speaks to you.

Love and Blessings,



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