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The Impermanence of Emotions

A woman has many emotions

"The truth is, we all go through cycles of emotions and eventually return to neutral. We then remain in a neutral state of equilibrium until some stimulus acts on us again, and then we feel an emotion until it too fades away and we return to neutral again."

So the good news is that all unpleasant emotions are impermanent. Feelings like anger, sadness, and nervousness all eventually fade away. (They might return, obviously, as in the case of depression. But even in cases of clinical depression or generalized anxiety, there are always moments of contentment or ease, even if they are very subtle or short-lived.) Unfortunately, however, the other news is that pleasant emotions like happiness, joy, and contentment also change and disappear. No one is truly “happy all the time.” The truth is, we all go through cycles of emotions and eventually return to neutral. We then remain in a neutral state of equilibrium until some stimulus acts on us again, and then we feel an emotion until it too fades away and we return to neutral again. Disappointment and suffering often occur when people think they should remain happy “all the time,” or when they resist feeling sad or angry because they think “I should never feel upset.” Again, the truth is, we all go through cycles of emotions in our lives, but if left alone, our emotions fade—even the happy ones—and that’s okay.  

Do your best to simply be mindful and aware of your emotions. Recognize that they too are impermanent. Whatever it is that is giving you joy will eventually disappear, so be mindful of it, appreciate it, enjoy the pleasure that it brings to you, but don’t cling to it and try to make it something that it is not. Do not expect to feel only joy and happiness forever. Whatever it is that is bringing you pleasure will someday stop causing you to feel that way, or will cause you to feel something other than pleasure—either when it disappears or when your nervous system gets habituated to the stimulus and gets bored by it. For example, other people in your life will bring you joy, but eventually your relationships with them will also cause disappointment. That’s normal. Your favorite possessions can also bring you joy, but they too are impermanent and will wear out, break, or disappear and cause you disappointment. So, appreciate the persons and possessions in your life. Recognize that when they disappear or die, that there will be pain, loss, and sorrow. But recognize also that acute pain will likely fade over time if you resist clinging to the belief that the physical world should be permanent. Remember that our spiritual connections are eternal even if our physical bodies are not. Living a mindful life in which you accept impermanence can deepen your emotional experiences, because there is an awareness that this moment, this person, or this possession is special because it is temporary.

Accepting impermanence in the physical world is not the same as saying that there is no joy in the world, nor happiness, nor positive relationships. But it does mean not attaching yourself to the hope that any of these things will last forever. Therefore, be in the present moment and enjoy it while it is occurring! Because it might not be there tomorrow.

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This is an excerpt from The New Happiness: Practices for Spiritual Growth and Living with Intention by Matthew McKay and Jeffrey C. Wood, published by New Harbinger Publications. Copyright 2019.


Matthew McKay, PhD, is a psychologist and professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA. He has authored and coauthored numerous books, including Self-Esteem, Thoughts and Feelings, and The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook with Jeffrey C. Wood.


Jeffrey C. Wood, PsyD, is a psychologist in Las Vegas, NV, who specializes in brief cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT); executive coaching; and guidance for spiritual development. He is coauthor of The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook


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