Mental Aikido: The Necessity of Unhappiness in the Ideal Life


I believe happiness is important, and all else being equal, the happy life is better than the unhappy one.

But this doesn’t mean I believe the ideal life is free from unhappy moments. I have plenty of unhappy moments, and I think that’s okay, perhaps even necessary, to live well.

Some Unhappiness is a Necessary to Live Well

I see a few powerful arguments for claiming occasional unhappiness is essential for the ideal life:

#1 – Uninterrupted Joy is Impossible

First, there’s the argument that perfectly sustained bliss is impossible. There is strong evidence that genes play a role in determining happiness. That is, we might all have a particular set-point of internal happiness and the goal of self-improvement can only be to shift this set-point–not to disregard it.

Some people will live happier lives simply by being born with a different personality. It’s unfair, but complaining about it is like whining about not being taller. It won’t help and it ignores all the things you can do to live better.

Even if a genetic set-point didn’t exist, uninterrupted happiness is unlikely. I know of no person who has ever lived this way. Ironically, expecting zero unhappiness will probably make you stressed and miserable in the attempt.

#2 – Pain Pays for Future Happiness

Second, there’s the argument that unhappiness fosters happiness. Our most challenging and difficult moments that define us. Pain and sadness carve the space needed to experience real joys.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say all happiness is derived from past pains. Otherwise, what would the point be in striving to live better if happiness can only be gained through misery? However, some unhappiness is often the down payment for future joys.

#3 – Happiness Isn’t the Point

Third, there’s the argument that happiness versus unhappiness isn’t even the right ruler to be measuring the ideal life. Without a purpose, life is meaningless, happy or unhappy. The question isn’t to live well but to live good.

This argument resonates strongly with me. Going to hypothetical extremes, I’d say a wretched life devoted to a purpose would be closer to ideal than a blissful life without one.

Living good also tends to result in living well. Having a meaning for your life fosters the kind of happiness that normally can’t be attained just by consuming pleasurable things. Whole books have been written on this argument, so I won’t develop it much here, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful one.

#4 – Functional Unhappiness

A final argument is that the amount of unhappy moments isn’t what counts. Rather, it’s the direction these thoughts are aimed at that should matter. If pain or depressing moments are channeled properly they become tools for the ideal life instead of a detraction.

Many so-called negative emotions serve important purposes. Fear keeps you from taking stupid risks. Anger ensures you assert yourself against an aggressor. Pain keeps you from putting your hand in an open fire.

Sure, there are times when these emotions backfire. When you’re afraid of risks that don’t have much downside, angry when you need diplomacy or feel pain when you’re objectively fine. But just because you can cut yourself with a saw doesn’t mean saws aren’t useful.

Ben Casnocha cites Jonah Lehrer in writing about the potential function of unhappiness:

“Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes ‘information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.’”

Adding, from his personal experience:

“I have long noticed that when I am most joyous and happy I tend to get little real work done.”

Channeling, not Choosing, Your Mental State

We don’t often get the chance to choose how we feel about something. At best we can change how intensely bad or good we feel about something. Rarely can we change how something makes us feel outright.

Even though you can’t always choose to feel in the short-term, it’s a lot easier to choose what you’re going to do with those emotions, once you have them.

If I get rejected, I usually don’t have the opportunity to choose to react with this the same way I might react to winning a million dollars. I can rationalize, cope or distract myself to lessen the intensity, but getting rejected will still suck.

However, once I have that blip of unhappiness, I do have a choice in how I use it. I can spin it into something self-destructive where I use that single example as a means to attack my self-worth. Or I can spin it into something positive, refocusing myself on self-improvement.

Mental Aikido and Redirected Unhappiness

Aikido is a Japanese martial art that emphasizes “redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on.” From this perspective, the attacker’s own aggression can be turned against him.

Similarly, if you’re stuck with a negative emotion, you can redirect that energy back towards something useful. This kind of mental aikido certainly isn’t something I practice perfectly, but I think it’s a better way to look at the problem of unhappy moments.

Two things have happened since I started taking this approach. First, the intensity of negative emotions goes down. Unhappiness doesn’t get a chance to fester when it is properly redirected. Second, the feeling of control increases. Yes, you still feel lousy, but knowing you have some control as to where that energy is going gives a bit of calm in the center of the storm.

Training Your Mental Aikido

Practicing mental aikido is mostly two steps:

  1. Separating the constructive uses of negative emotions from destructive ones.
  2. Reminding yourself to use the first when you’re feeling unhappy.

For the first step, I’ve started to pay attention to what I’m good at when I’m facing a particular mental state. If I’m angry about something, I’m often better at exercising. When I’ve been rejected, that energy often helps in working harder. Stress allows me to do better on routine, non-mental tasks.

Your deflection strategies will differ from mine, but if you try out many things you may be surprised to find you’re actually stronger, more creative or diligent when caught up in some bout of unhappiness than when you’re joyful.

The second step is perhaps more difficult. Mental states have an addicting quality to them. Good or bad, we want to feed our emotions, not cancel them. Sad people listen to depressing music, not cheerful songs. Even if they don’t like feeling sad, they take steps to intensify that feeling.

This is one reason I’ve found mental aikido more successful than trying to change my emotional state. Since we’re irrationally addicted to the emotions we experience, it’s often easier to convince yourself to take steps to channel that experience rather than change it.

Mental Aikido in Action

I can recall a time a few years ago after being rejected by some girl I had liked. It was a successful moment of deflection for me because I used a lot of the energy to brainstorm for my own self-improvement. I remember spending more time than usual defining what I wanted from life and re-dedicating myself to putting in the energy to reach that.

During the time I felt lousy. Redirection didn’t change the fact that I had been struck. But it did mean I was able to keep myself from feeling worse, and to channel that remaining energy into something constructive.

My brainstorming session probably wasn’t as successful as if I had been filled with confidence. However, channeling that energy meant that I could accomplish something constructive instead of simply wallowing in the blip of unhappiness.

What are your thoughts? Are there any activities you do better when experiencing an unhappy mental state? Do you practice your own form of mental aikido? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Image thanks to tharso

  • Amy

    I am with you that happiness is not the point. It is sooo much deeper than happiness. I can make myself happy with a beach, some champagne and a good book, yet is that what I am truly looking for? No. Theres something deeper.

    What I am looking for is contentment, joy, and this overwhelming feeling of love that pours out of me. For when I am most loving and giving is when I am truly alive. And I mean the kind of alive where you find tears in your eyes because life is so beautiful. Happiness comes out of this, yet happiness is not the goal. Finding your connection to the divinity that resides in each and everyone of us is the goal – finding love, divine love, is the point.

  • Amy (a different one!)

    Scott, I very much like your idea of mental aikido and finding the best way to channel negative energy. There is a use for everything!
    Thanks for the blog

  • Hotrao

    Below are my comments:

    a) Some Unhappiness is a Necessary to Live Well: at least because if you don’t experience unhappiness you’re not able to appreciate at full your moments of happiness. Unhappiness, in case, acts both as an enabler and empowerer of joy.
    b) Uninterrupted Joy is Impossible: true, for the reason above. Our being able of living our life at full goes through our ability to pass into moments of unhappiness to learn and appreciate those at the opposite
    c) Pain Pays for Future Happiness: this is quite tricky, because, as i said before, no happiness is possible without unhappiness. But is not true that the deeper is the valley of pain and bigger the climax of happiness. I think that this varies from person to person, but small variations of the level of joy are appreciated, while big differences bring to “strange” reactions
    d) Happiness Isn’t the Point: True, also because it ranges a lot from person to person. But I agree, living good is the key.
    e) Functional Unhappiness: This one is also tricky, because being so rational to separate emotions is a difficult business to pursuit.

  • Jason

    You certainly have been thinking about happiness a lot lately Scott! 😛 Really enjoyed the post though. Useful technique.

  • Nick

    I like the focus on living the good life- not just trying to be happy all the time. And I try to embrace the bad emotions I have, as well as the good ones.

    I’ve worked with kids a lot, and I’ve often told them that you can choose your emotions- but I’ve kinda always felt thats a BS statement. This article can help me get my students to refocus their negative emotions, not try to cover them up.

  • Richard @ Lifestyle Design Unl

    I have read a number of books over the years – including FISH! and The Sedona Method – and essentially “choosing your attitute”. That we have a degree of control over how happy we feel and that there are a range of exercises that can be done to make you feel better even in a bad situation so your post really resonated with me.

    To add to your suggestions above, another technique I use is to carefully try to examine from a distance not only (a) why I feel unhappy in a certain situation but also (b) what I can learn from it or how I can prevent it happening in the future. There are many things we can learn about ourselves with careful observation like this I believe.

  • Ben Weston

    This is something I’ve been working on for some time. I know I want to be happy more often than not and have an overall more positive state of mind, but sometimes that desire to be positive masks “messy” issues.

    I’ve had to learn that going through the messy issues, accepting them fully without judgment, and letting them take their natural course has helped open me up to more joy.

  • David

    By pushing yourself to grow, I feel you increase your capacity for happiness. Isn’t that worth pushing yourself towards?

  • Jon

    Could Mental Aikido possible be confused with deflecting your emotions. Which could in fact be a bad thing. It would be like letting your emotions bottle up and ignoring them. Then, it would slowly eat away at you. Also,

    Channeling your emotions may help with something or it may make you perform less optimally because your mind would be clouded with that emotion. If you are writing a book about a kid with problems and you are depressed it might not have the meaning you were looking because it would be really about you being depressed and have no thesis or point. Also, say you were a fighter and you were anger and you tried to use that anger you might lose sight of the big picture and lose your match.

    I do however agree that happiness and unhappiness are not something you look for in life as you have to have a healthy balance of both. It would be like having day without night. What would define day? Happiness could also be defined into different types of happiness. Like you take a trip to a beach and live in a vacation state at first it is fun and you are happy, but then it could become an illusion of happiness. I could be wrong though.

  • Jen Gresham

    If you read my last comment, you’ll know this post resonates with me as well. I still argue that defining what we mean by happiness is critical. It’s not that happiness is unimportant. It’s that our expectations are all wonky, and I think that’s what you’re really trying to get at. As I said before, you need unpleasant, even unhappy moments, in order to lead a happy life, which I think you are defining as purposeful or meaningful.

    I just said to my husband today, “Often it’s not until things take a turn for the worse that you realize how good you had it.” For example, it’s not until someone gets very sick they appreciate their health. We take so much for granted that supports happiness. We shouldn’t take happiness for granted, nor should we idolize it. All things in moderation, including moderation (I think that was Julia Child who said that).


  • Eric Normand

    I don’t know if I agree that I am more productive when I’m upset. I tend to think that I’m more productive when I’m happy. I’ll have to explore that a little more.

  • Priya Florence Shah

    Unrequited love has been the source of much of the world’s creative energy. Poetry, plays, songs, lyrics, so much of that inspiration comes from pain and unhappiness that is creatively channeled. Embrace your pain and adversity – it makes you a stronger, more resilient and more compassionate human being.

  • Maxim

    Very thought-provoking post, Scott!

    I’ve posted a video on my blog just today on the very similar topic: “Is the pursuit of happiness making us miserable?” Highly recommend it:
    (hope you don’t mind the outgoing links on your blog)

  • Adrianne

    Scott, Thank you for this post. It seems you and I are thinking about similar subjects quite frequently. This was perfectly applicable to me right now as was your previous post and attached video that made my mind reel quite intensely.

    In this post when you said that we are irrationally addicted to our emotional states and that we aim to feed our emotions not cancel them. What insight that is. Like you mentioned about the music, I actually have play-list on ipod called “miserable and sulking” made specifically to feed my emotions.

    Much to think about, but definitely helped me become more conscious of these ideas and how to make the most of each emotional state.

  • Wendy Irene

    My favorite form of mental aikido is when the energy is redirected and beautiful works of art are created, and it in turn creates happiness for others. However, I do not believe their is ever a blissful life without purpose because I feel that we all have purpose even in the most blissful of lives, it just may not always be apparent.

  • Wendy Irene

    I mean there not their, caught it too late 😀 I know one of my strengths is NOT grammar, but that is OK…I’m embracing it! 🙂

  • Iván Pérez

    If I had to sum up this post I would do it by saying: “intense emotions fuel whatever purpose you have, the choice is yours: constructive or destructive purpose”.

    Really unconventional, I like it!

  • Megan Zuniga

    Interesting article. I agree that one cannot possibly be happy all the time and that negative emotions play an important part in a person’s life. It’s all part of growing up. Just look at artists, songwriters, poets, playwrights, they produce their masterpieces at the lowest point of their life.
    Btw, that’s a pretty good approach to being unhappy.

  • tara

    One form the pursuit of happiness takes is wanting to be in love and having crushes on people who don’t notice us and then wasting time to fantasize about them or idealize them.The feeling of being in love is great,but it can be disastrous if you give up on your personal interests for the sake of it.

  • Dave

    As an atheist I struggle with the idea of happiness not being the point. I only have so many years to experience life, so I want them to be enjoyable as possible. So unless the unhappiness is a “down payment” that’s worth it with a good happiness ROI, then it may not be worth my time.

    That being said, I acknowledge that continuous joy is all but impossible.

  • Jawaad Ahmad Khan

    Hey Scott.
    Just something that kind of caught my attention in the first point. You said they’re beginning to discover genes that actually determine internal happiness or unhappiness?

    When I read that, it reminded me of a narration of Muhammad in which it talked about the conceiving of a person. (These are just my beliefs, just some food for thought for you). It says that at about 3 months while a woman is pregnant, the baby gains its soul, and determined for it are a few things, one of which is whether his life will be happy or sad (obviously, from this it can’t directly be derived about a completely happy or completely sad life, but it’s just something I thought about).

  • Scott Young


    I didn’t say they had discovered “genes for happiness” rather they have identified that happiness is influenced by genes. Very different issues.


  • Jim Greenwood

    Hi Scott,
    I was just doing some weekend catch up reading and went over your post. As always … very provocative. I like the reference to Aikido, it give the user a tool and power in any situation.

    Let me add my two cents…
    A powerful argument # 5: Life happens on a continuum. You can be at any end or in the middle. Moving toward happiness (or meaning, or purpose, or relationships, or…anything else in life) is great but sometimes there can be good and sometimes there can be bad. Good is better, but it is not always.

    Expecting to be happy (or anything) all the time is also great (positive thinking and all that) but at the end of the day, month or year you will have to deal with the opposite…it’s just a place on the continuum.

    The more you’re aware of the intertwined areas of life the more you can use them in support of making change in any area of life. You do have a level of control, not always, in all things, but there are steps anyone can take. Your aikido reference is a good small step in many instances…

    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Thanks for letting me contribute.
    Hope you have a great weekend and have fun,

    P.S. You know I define happiness as … appreciating what you have. Big or small, in the moment.

  • Dave

    I’ve returned to this article after 9 months because I, who seems to avoid unhappiness at all costs, have come to realize I probably suffer more from it. Having over-committed myself with a job related to my career, a second job doing research at my uni’s lab, writing lessons for a nearby school, and trying to stay on Dean’s list. I should have felt overwhelmed, but I refused to entertain the thought’s that would let myself be overwhelmed. I didn’t entertain the unpleasant thoughts that would cause me stress because they were…unpleasant. This has continued at a pace where I have had little time between waking and sleep, and resulted in my having to cram for one of the hardest exams I’ll have as an undergrad. But in all this time I’d never say I was stressed. My study partner knew I was toast, she wanted to comfort me, telling me that I shouldn’t worry about it. I replied that I was strangely at peace with it. I spent two hours wracking my brain in that exam; I have never worked so hard to fail a test. I should have left devastated, or angry or anything.

    I now realize that I need to feel these “negative feelings” to drive me the right direction. I don’t particularly care about the grades, although it might affect my scholarship chances—it’s that I don’t actually know the material in a subject I care about that i’ll need in my career to help people. I want to transform some anger or disappointment into drive, to learn this material, and knock that next exam out of the park. But here I am “strangely at peace.”

    So here I am to reread this article.