How to Be Happy -- Emotional Pain and the Politics of Rejection

The notion of being hurt by other people might appear to be nothing more than a metaphor. But getting your feelings hurt actually hurts.
06/01/2010 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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Did you know there is only one single characteristic that separates extremely happy people from "merely" happy people? They aren't more grateful, kind, or compassionate. They aren't more energized when they wake up in the morning (drinking the same amount of coffee as the rest of us). Rather, they possess an abundance of significant, meaningful, lasting relationships.

That is, there are people they can confide in, call on during difficult times, and share joyous events that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Human beings depend on other people for their well-being and survival. We might even say that human beings have a basic "need to belong." For this reason, it makes sense that being rejected by other people might be as painful as physical injuries.

Across multiple languages and cultures, people use injury-related terms such as hurt, heartbreak, and "emotional pain" to describe what it feels like to be rejected by other people. The notion of being hurt by other people might appear to be nothing more than a metaphor. But getting your feelings hurt actually hurts. Researchers discovered this after scanning people's brains while playing videogames. On the computer, they tossed around a ball with two other people who supposedly logged on from another part of the world.

In reality, the program was rigged so that people were heavily involved (getting the ball for half the throws) or excluded (getting the ball less than a handful of times over five minutes). The results were astounding. Here you have people playing a game with a ball that didn't actually exist with a group of people whom they didn't know and never expected to meet, and they really cared about the extent to which they were included. After the game was over, those who were excluded witnessed a plummet in their self-esteem and they viewed their life as less satisfying and meaningful.

I can't stress enough, all that happened was that they didn't get the ball thrown to them as often as they liked. Clearly, little is necessary to make us feel rejected and devalued as a person. We simply cannot underestimate the power of feeling cared for, valued, and connected to other people.

But let's up the ante. What if you openly despised the people who played catch with you in a videogame? Jews being told the other players thought the holocaust was a hoax, Black people told the other players were members of the KKK, and Christian fundamentalists told the other players were atheists. In this situation, who would possibly care about getting the ball? The ball might even be viewed as contaminated after touching the mitts of these rival group members.

Guess what? It didn't matter. Failing to get the ball thrown to you, even by people you despise, still led to anxious, depressed, and lonely feelings. And in these studies, when ostracized, the parts of the brain that lit up happened to be the same brain regions that light up when you get a migraine or slice through fleshy fingers while cutting bagels. What this means is that overlap exists between the brain systems that control physical and social pain!

Life is an experiment, try it out and let me know how it goes....

***Want to learn about these and other strategies for managing the anxiety and pain of pursuing the good life? Some will surprise you. Contact me for more information.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. For more about his books, research, and services go to