How moving from sadness to joy can affect the brain - analysis

It is no coincidence that Independence Day follows Remembrance Day, as the shared grief must turn into shared joy. How does this affect us psychologically?

 IAF aircraft fly over Jerusalem’s Sacher Park for Independence Day.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
IAF aircraft fly over Jerusalem’s Sacher Park for Independence Day.

Remembrance Day is one of the most difficult days on the Israeli calendar. For 24 hours, people gather in collective mourning for the country’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Two sirens mark the day, one at nightfall and one the following morning. The country’s cemeteries are packed with families and friends of fallen loved ones, and with those who did not know them, but still wish to remember them.

From shared grief - to shared celebration 

Then, as the sun begins to dip and the sky begins to darken, a change occurs. Firework displays are prepared, grills are fired up and the country shifts into celebrating Independence Day. After 24 hours of shared sadness, the country turns to 24 hours of shared celebration.

The holidays of Remembrance Day and Independence Day are not one after the other by coincidence. Rather, they follow the belief that without one we cannot have the other, and that the shared grief must turn into shared joy, to honor what was saved and created by those who fell protecting it.

But how does this affect us psychologically? Is it really something that can be done with ease, this shift from intense grief to happiness? What toll does it take on the human mind and body to make this transition? Can we trick our brains into feeling happy?

A common belief is that faking a smile can actually make you experience real happiness. A 2013 study carried out by researchers at the University of Cardiff in Wales found that a surprising side-effect in people who had undergone Botox injections was that the inability to frown appeared to actually make them happier.

Can we trick our brains into feeling happy?

Israeli singer Shlomi Shabat lights a torch during the 73rd anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 14, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)Israeli singer Shlomi Shabat lights a torch during the 73rd anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 14, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The study involved 25 people split into two groups. The first group of 12 participants receiving shots of Botox to the forehead. All participants then completed a mood questionnaire more than two weeks later, documenting their emotions over the duration of the study.

The researchers found that the patients who had received Botox treatment were significantly less depressed, anxious and irritable than the other group.

The study was led by Dr Michael Lewis, a senior lecturer at the university’s school of psychology. He noted, “Both groups had had some form of cosmetic treatment, and there was no difference in how effective they thought their treatment had been, so this result is most likely due to the effects of Botox specifically.

“This research may help the development of a new treatment for depressive illnesses. But as the cosmetic effect of Botox is temporary, so the emotional effect will also be. As the effect of the Botox wears off, one’s mood is likely to return to normal levels.”

Other similar research has backed up this idea that faking a smile, or being unable to frown, can cause real happiness.

Dr. Isha Gupta, a neurologist from the US-based IGEA Brain and Spine, explained in an article for NBC News that a smile can create a a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing hormones that include dopamine and serotonin.

“Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness,” Gupta said. “Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression. Low levels of dopamine are also associated with depression.”

However, other research argues that the opposite is actually true, and that forcing happiness can actually be harmful.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts” found that people who accept their difficult emotions are better off in the long run than those who try to force their way out of negative emotions.

The data for the research were collected through three separate studies. The first study was an online survey in which 1,003 people described how they related to their emotions. Participants were asked how strongly they agreed with statements such as “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way I am feeling.”

The second study was framed as a mock job interview, in which 156 participants were told they would be giving a speech describing their skills and qualifications that would be played for a panel of judges.

The last study instructed 222 people to spend two months recording and writing about difficult moments they experienced in their day-to-day lives. Six months later, the researchers spoke with the participants to see how they were feeling.

All three experiments showed the same outcome: People who let themselves feel their feelings were, on average, less stressed, anxious and depressed than those who tried to avoid or control them.

Forcing happiness after trauma

REMEMBRANCE DAY is painful day for many people. It can be a day in which intense trauma is relived – whether it is the trauma of learning of the loss of a loved one, or the trauma of actually watching their death, as is the case with many IDF veterans who lost friends in military operations.

So how do people reliving and re-experiencing trauma manage to “switch it off” in order to celebrate Independence Day?

Psychologists believe that with trauma comes a certain level of dissociation, ranging from a mild feeling of disconnection from the body to depersonalization and out-of-body experiences. However, while dissociation can be harmful and damaging, it can also play into the way we experience joy, allowing people to still feel positive emotions, even after extensive trauma.

Left untreated, post-traumatic stress can result in a person learning to shut off their emotions at will, whether they be anger, fear or sadness. However, because a person cannot select which emotions to shut out, positive ones such as joy, curiosity and excitement also become blocked out. Only through correct treatment can a person restore the ability to feel the full extent of their emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

This process, although lengthy, will also allow a person to develop a healthy relationship with dissociation, allowing them to feel their full range of emotions, while still being able put them at the back of the mind when needed. This allows them to shift dissociation in a healthy and fluid process.

This is one way in which a person might be able to shift from the intense sadness of Remembrance Day to the celebratory atmosphere of Independence Day.

A shared support system

Another big part of Remembrance Day is the idea of shared mourning. It is a day when the entire country comes together to mourn their lost loved ones, and when each person understands the pain those next to them are also experiencing.

One of the most effective methods by which people can seek help when experiencing trauma is to find a support system of people who understand what they are going through.

Therefore, even though Remembrance Day is a painful and traumatic day for many, the pain is slightly alleviated through the knowledge that they are not suffering alone. This fact may help ease the transition from Remembrance Day to Independence Day.

Knowing that the entire country is going through the same thing with you allows for a shared bittersweet experience. Rather than feeling that you are the only one suddenly having to force happiness after a day of mourning, you know that everyone around you is in the same boat, and that no one is effortlessly transitioning from one day of intense emotion to the other.

The most important thing to remember is that while the idea of transitioning from sadness to happiness is a key part of the Israeli calendar at this time of year, it does not need to be forced. And if Remembrance Day is difficult for you, you do not need to push those feelings of sadness away the moment Independence Day begins.

In fact, according to journalist and author Helen Russell, speaking to The Well+Good Podcast in November 2021, feeling sad allows for more authentic feelings of happiness later on.

“It feels as though we’ve all been sold a very narrow definition of happiness, a definition that means never being sad or doing hard things or having difficult conversations,” she explained.

“If you follow that narrow definition, you might be tempted to replace bad feelings with good ones. But repressing your sadness and attempting to replace it with happiness won’t work because sadness is a natural human response. If we suppress our negative thoughts, we end up feeling worse.”

So next Independence Day, instead of shaking off the residual feelings of Remembrance Day and forgoing allowing yourself to experience your lingering sadness, sit with your feelings for a moment.

Allow yourself to let go of the desire to force the feelings down in exchange for plastering on a fake smile, and instead, know that it is OK, and even beneficial, to carry over the heaviness of the previous day into the lightness of Independence Day.