The Permission to Be Human

When was the last time you gave yourself the permission to be human?

This is a powerful concept that was first introduced to me by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. His course on positive psychology is the most popular class at Harvard University, drawing over 800 students a semester and over 20 teacher’s assistants.

You never thought you’d see happiness taught at Harvard right?

I first heard Tal speak at a positive psychology summit in Washington D.C. He showed a video clip of a baby who was playing and giggling, then all of a sudden crying, then back to giggling and crying again.

It was quite a funny feat. Everyone in the crowd was laughing.

Tal points out that children express a wide range of emotion in a short period of time… She’s running around laughing, then her sister takes her toy and she starts crying, until something distracts her and suddenly she’s back to being happy again.

You don’t see a child going, “I’m upset because someone took my toy and I want to cry, but no, I should not cry. I’m not going to cry.” For the most part, kids just express their emotions as they experience them.

Many adults, on the other hand, do not. Now, of course there is a difference between adults and kids. We like to think of adults as being more emotionally stable. Not crying one moment and laughing the next.

But experiencing and expressing emotions is vital to living a healthy life.

So if you’re feeling sad, allow yourself to experience that sadness. If you’re feeling angry, experience that anger. Problems occur when people hold on to emotions or try to hide them.

A few months ago, my boyfriend and I broke up. We had a really beautiful relationship and it was a mutual decision. I was upset. I cried and expressed my sadness.

My friends and family who all care about me were trying to cheer me up. Stop me from crying. Now, I love them dearly and know they were trying to do what they felt was best for me but I wanted the permission to be human.

I wasn’t a hurricane wreck after this breakup. Even though it was mutual, I knew that I would miss the relationship. Feeling sadness was an appropriate reaction. I allowed myself to experience and express my sorrow and shortly after that I was fine.

That’s because I know about the permission to be human.

If I were to have tried to swallow the pain, or hide it, or pretend it wasn’t there, I would pay for it later on. I would have never actually dealt with it.

There is nothing wrong with negative emotions. Negative emotions become a problem when you get stuck in them. If I continued to cry my eyes out for weeks and fell into a heavy depression, then it would have been a problem.

Most of us want as much positive emotions in our lives as possible. But it’s important not get stuck in positive emotions either. You can’t be happy ALL the time. If you are then you are most likely bi-polar and in a maniac state (possibly facing an equally extreme depressive state soon).

A fear that keeps us positive psychology practitioners up at night is that positive psychology will turn into “happiology”, where people feel they have to be happy all the time. Or that negative emotions are bad and should not be experienced.

The other day I read an article in Yoga Journal that compared our emotions to spices. A healthy diet should include a variety of different flavors salty, sweet, spicy, bitter and sour. Similarly, our lives are filled with lots of different emotions and you want to experience that variety as they come up.

I love this analogy because it reminds us just how rich our emotional spectrum can be. You can feel happy, sad, angry, content, joyful, playful, embarrassed, surprised, mad, bashful, excited, romantic, calm, tired, and so on. We get so caught up in “I feel good” or “I feel bad,” that it is sometimes difficult to even find the words to describe what emotion you feel.

The permission to be human involves honoring that emotions (both positive and negative) serve a purpose. Allow them to pass through you, as opposed to fighting back or holding on to them.

Once you start giving yourself the permission to be human. To make mistakes and fix them. To not always be perfect and to be a work in progress. You’ll find you can give other people in your life the permission to be human as well.

It’s a powerful yet challenging process to integrate into your life. But try it on. We spend so much time and mental energy being hard on ourselves.

We tell ourselves things like, “You should do this!” “Why didn’t you say that?” Most of the time that voice inside your head is not serving you. It’s not helping you get what you want out of life. And it most certainly is not giving you the permission to be human.

This week, make this your mantra, “I give myself the permission to be human”. Try it out.

E-mail me ( and let me know how it worked for you.

Humanly yours,

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about how positive psychology differs from “happiology,” check out my article, “What is Positive Psychology?” at

P.P.S. Sign up for my weekly newsletter and receive a FREE copy of “5 Ways to Increase Your Happiness in Under 5 Minutes.” Go to


2 Responses to The Permission to Be Human

  1. Lori says:

    Found this post by surfing the net this evening. It is very thought-provoking. I am afraid that I am afraid of negative emotions & of feeling bad. I avoid it at all costs – hence the panic attack I had at the grocery store today. You’ve definitely given me something to think about.

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