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The Backwards Law

Initially, you may think that the Backwards Law contradicts the common goal that we aim for in life: being happy. Isn’t life supposed to be about finding happiness? Yes, life is about finding happiness but we don’t necessarily have to chase for it. We tend to overestimate the bright side of happiness, perceiving it as something we should constantly seek for in life. However, I would like to challenge you with a different perspective on happiness.

Happiness is a positive feeling – more simply, a good feeling. And, it is our basic instinct to want to feel good about something. According to the Backwards Law by the philosopher Alan Watts, "it is the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place." Mark Manson explains the same concept in his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***: "The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And paradoxically, the acceptance of one's negative experience is itself a positive experience." Allow me to untangle this perplexity.

The key reason why we desperately want to be happy is that we feel that we are not happy enough. Similarly, the reason why we care so much about our appearance is that we feel that we do not look good enough. Likewise, when we seek to be positive about something, it is because we feel negative. We need to confront and accept the negativity instead of trying to cover it up with pretentious or forced positivity. When our minds are often conquered by sadness or worry, distracting ourselves by doing something that makes us happy – watching a comedic movie or hanging out with friends – can help eradicate the sadness for the short-term. But we will always carry the burden in the back of our heads, and this is somehow unhealthy.

As mentioned above, happiness is a positive feeling but it does not mean that it excludes negative emotions. We can conceive of happiness as a range of human emotions categorised under positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions indicate when we have been doing something right, while negative emotions denote the opposite and urge us to take action and make amendments. When we can manage these emotions well, happiness will consequentially come in our way, without us having to chase for it.

Perhaps, we should stop religiously following the go-to advice to most of the unhappiness-related problems: "Worry about it later" or "Just try to be happy for now". While it is practical to not deal with the problems instantly and come back to them later, it is not very effective to put them off for as long as possible and maintain the convenience of postponing them. Easier said than done, it is consistent work-in-progress but a more realistic and constructive approach to face the problems, think of why they exist and overcome them. It may not always work out or produce a favourable outcome but at least, we will not have to carry them around wherever we go. The same applies for negativity in our lives. We tend to induce ourselves into having a low mood by thinking about our past mistakes and framing ourselves as a failure. Instead of trying to pressure ourselves to stop holding such thoughts, acknowledge those feelings. Accept them, to find a solution to defeat them, either by meditating or confiding into someone we trust or reframing our thinking, etc.

In a nutshell, the Backwards Law advises practicing a negative approach to attain happiness. Life is not all about anticipating the sun; we need to appreciate a little rain sometimes. Here are some examples of a negative approach. Realise that there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable or feeling not okay. If we are to resist these feelings, we will be placing ourselves in more tension and stress. Next, eliminate the mindset that labels failure as undesirable. We should learn to embrace failure and sometimes, just laugh it off thinking, "Well it just happens" or "I learned something from it." Lastly and more bluntly, do not be a control freak. Things are not always within our range of control so we cannot insist on making things go smoothly all the time. When we attempt to grasp more certainty and security in life, it subsequently loads ourselves with more insecurity.

In conclusion, my point is that we cannot always expect to be positive about everything in life or be happy all the time, therefore striving for more positivity and happiness does not necessarily lead us to a stress-free life. Cancel the thought, "I need to happy. I should not be feeling this way." and replace it with "It is okay to feel unhappy sometimes. I will try to find out why I am feeling this way and work it out." Do not chase for happiness, because you are setting yourself an expectation that you need to be happy all the time.


Brown, J. (2019). Alan Watts explains why “don’t worry, be happy” is toxic advice. Retrieved from Ideapod:

Cook, C. (2014, August 13). 10 Ways to Practice the Negative Approach to Happiness: Part 2. Retrieved from Capiche:

Manson, M. (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck . United States : HarperOne.

Newsonen, S. (2017, May 9). Why the Happiness Chase Is Making You Unhappy . Retrieved from Psychology Today:

#backwardslaw #happiness #emotions #theory

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