by Denise Riebman Fowler
No one cautioned me that when you are lucky enough to marry the love of your life, surrounded by friends, family, and butterflies, and have an ice cream wedding cake, there will be a huge crash and burn when you return to regular life.
I cried the morning after our blissful honeymoon when I had to go back to my job; I sobbed the following week, wishing we were still planning our wedding rather than planning our workday; I choked up seeing my wedding dress all zipped up in our closet as I put on proper professional clothes.
Does anyone ever warn us about adulthood letdowns? Definitely no one warned me about post-wedding letdown. This wasn’t about wanting to be the center of attention (which I don’t love) or not being excited about our marriage (which I do love) or not feeling gratitude (which I definitely do). This was about how sometimes adulthood can feel blah.
Amusement park rides come with big warning signs; where are the ones for the Roller Coaster of Adulthood?
I knew I needed an antidote for adulthood, so I turned to positive psychology for some answers.
Permission to Be a Sad Human
Positive psychology teacher Tal Ben-Shahar reminds us over and over again that we have “permission to be human.” Many of my coaching clients interpret this to mean that, as adults, we are only allowed brief moments to be with our difficult emotions before fast-forwarding to “happy face.” The weekend after our wedding, I was standing in the middle of a state fair, holding both a huge bag of candy and a giant stuffed sloth that my husband had just won for me, and yet I felt really blue. My husband turned to me and said, “It’s okay to still feel sad. Let’s go home.”
Difficult emotions don’t have an expiration date. Whether you’re passed over for a promotion, grieving a personal loss, or simply struggling with being a grown-up (bills, commutes, wobbly grocery carts, oh my!), give yourself permission to feel your emotions. None of this pretending to be okay or glossing over your feelings—give yourself the gift of experiencing your emotions deeply. When we allow this long, full pause, the emotions almost always lose their white-knuckled grip on the limbic part of our brain so we can shift into our neocortex—the thinking mind—to rationally explore what to do next.
Permission to Find Your Own Happiness
Positive affirmations, happy music, funny cat videos, forest bathing, power posing—you name it, research can prove or disprove these positive psychology interventions. We will likely never be able to definitively prove which interventions works best because we are all different.
The impact of positive psychology interventions depends on how we experience the world (i.e., introvert/extrovert; high/low self-worth; visual/tactile) so finding your own happiness often means that you have to be willing to try a lot of things that maybe won’t work at first. I ate a lot of chocolate and fruit, exercised tons and then not at all, read both trash magazines and heartwarming animal rescue stories, but it actually wasn’t until I started writing this blog post that I started to feel like myself again.
For me, writing brings eudemonic happiness—the deeper kind—as it helps me both process and express. Next time you’re singing the adulthood blues, ignore what research, articles, or friends say you “should” do, and instead keep exploring until you discover your own happiness interventions.
Permission to Write Your Own Story
When my clients talk about their careers and lives, especially in comparison to everyone else’s story, they often talk about feeling shame, stigma, guilt, or remorse. The problem is that, too often, we’re watching the “movie” of other’s lives while we’re in the midst of our own messy movie set. But the making of an interesting life, just like the making of a movie, is both messy and boring—sets collapse, plots change, characters leave mid-scene and scenes repeat. Instead of embracing the process, we think our movie is a failure, while everyone else is having a blockbuster life!
We need to give ourselves permission to own our process—pitfalls, pratfalls, surprising plot lines and all. Or, as Kermit sings much more eloquently in The Muppet Movie, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing …”
I gave myself time to rediscover what inspires me about my work and find joy in the everyday realities of adulthood. And while I am finally ready to send my wedding dress to the cleaners, I told my husband that every year on our anniversary, I’m going to put it on and we’re going to eat ice cream cake together. He laughed and agreed, because he knows that we all have permission to write our own story.
Denise Fowler, an alum of WBI’s Certificate in Positive Psychology, has spent 20 years in the nonprofit and higher education sectors, specializing in career advancement, professional leadership, and community development. She is currently the Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, and also provides coaching, workshops, and keynote presentations through her company, CareerHappinessCoaching.com. Denise is a graduate of The Coaches Training Institute, and her certifications include Global Career Development Facilitation, Gallup Certified Strengths Finder, Applied Positive Psychology, and Positive Psychology Coaching.