Cognitive Dissonance and the Misery of Spring

Vintage photo of wild flower in sunsetIt’s spring. The soft air gently caresses my skin, the sun wakes me, and when I walk in the park I see tulips and daffodils and smell sweet honeysuckle blossoms. Could it get any better? And yet, at this moment, I am not happy.

It’s not just me. In fact, many people feel more miserable in spring than at any other time, because if you feel depressed, spring joyfulness makes you feel worse in comparison. You’re out of step with the times, so you may just make believe to yourself and everybody else that everything is okay.

One name for this experience is “cognitive dissonance,” defined as the discomfort you feel when you’re holding two opposite trains of thought simultaneously. In this case, “It’s spring! I should feel wonderful!” versus “It’s spring and I feel more like dirt than flowers, but who wants to feel like dirt? That means my heart isn’t a bouquet, it’s a wasteland. That just can’t be.”

Leon Festinger developed the concept of cognitive dissonance; he theorized that people like to maintain inner consistency, even in the face of contrary facts, which can lead to irrational behavior. So people smoke, even though they know they might develop cancer; others vote against their best interests because they believe empty political slogans. People buy things they don’t need because advertising tells them they’ll feel good, happy, and powerful as a result. So we tell ourselves we are not really addicted to cigarettes, or the politician is someone we might like to have a beer with, and we really can afford that new thing, we want it so much, and it’s really not so expensive at all, in fact, it will save money in the long run, and so we’ll just charge it now and pay for it next month—there’s a reason charge cards are sometimes called the “never never.”

So what can you do about that?

  • Don’t deny your feelings—you’ll only feel worse. Plus the feelings will come out anyway, and you won’t be in control of them. And believe me, the consequences can be a lot worse.
  • Examine your belief that buying something or other will make you feel good. That’s called retail therapy, a product of advertising—don’t fall for it.
  • A quick fix, like a cigarette or new shoes or video game, will not help you feel better for very long.
  • If you feel bad, what do you feel bad about? If something is bothering you, figure it out—you could do something about it if you knew what it was.
  • Try smelling the real roses, not some manufactured false scent.

Let’s look at feelings:

  • Are your feelings and thoughts at war? That’s another way to define cognitive dissonance.
  • Can you figure out which is right, your head or your heart? Sometimes, if you sit still, or conversely take a good long walk or run, you will find clarity.
  • Spend some time with good friends, and talk it out.
  • Write in your journal or paint. You might learn something new about yourself.
  • Feelings can transform, like the weather in Vermont. You know what they say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes; it will change.”
  • I like to tell myself that I don’t let things bother me—but sometimes they do. I think that I should be able to handle everything, but clearly I can’t, and nobody else can either. It’s called being human.

How else do I deal with uncomfortable feelings?

  • I recognize them and give them their due.
  • I work on figuring them out.
  • I meditate.
  • I find ways to soothe my feelings: reading a good book, going to the movies, taking a restorative yoga class, walking near the river, planting tomatoes.
  • I count my blessings.
  • I remember that not even Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama is happy all the time—and I’m definitely not either of them.

What are some other ways that work for you?

If you like, write in with your suggestions—sharing ideas helps everybody!

What’s wrong with this woman?

Why am I blogging about misery and spring? Why don’t I have it all figured out? I’m a psychologist and a yoga teacher, so some may think my life should be one stream of continual bliss. Don’t I like spring? What’s up with that?

You know what? I love spring, flowers, trees, birds, soft air, but sometimes I feel sad anyway, or strung out; I know I’ll feel better eventually when I figure out what’s bothering me. I bear in mind also that feelings are temporary—soon I’ll be overcome by the sweet air.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • dakota huff

    dakota huff

    June 14th, 2012 at 11:12 AM

    There will always be those for whom nothing will make them happy.
    They will see the rebirth and beauty of spring as a reminder fo the beauty that they don’t have in their lives.
    They will see the desolation of winter as a reflection of what they have, and get depressed by that.
    I really am more of an upbeat kind of girl, so while I sympathize with the forlorn, that doesn’t mean that I am to allow this to affect my own viewpoint on life.
    Sometimes you have to pick and choose your friends wisely, and no matter how harsh this sounds, I try to cut out those who are constantly looking at the negative.

  • Ann B

    Ann B

    March 22nd, 2017 at 9:17 AM

    I understand your need to protect yourself. But people with major depression read posts like this and become suicidal, realizing that the only way to keep our friends and family from abandoning us is to lie or stay away. BTW, this is my first post.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    June 14th, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    Dear Dakota-
    Thanks for writing. As you say, constantly looking at the negative is definitely a bad idea– but sometimes the negative does arise, and it needs to examined so it doesn’t take over.

  • Vanessa

    Vanessa

    June 14th, 2012 at 7:59 PM

    In Chinese Medicine, the Spring season is associated with the Wood energy. It makes sense — in Winter all the plants and roots had been dormant, and in Spring they begin to awaken and grow, move forward. Our bodies are a reflection of this as well, and the internal Wood energy wants to move forward and grow as well. However, this is often in a tension with the part of ourselves that wants to keep things as they are, because it’s familiar and safe. This creative tension creates the internal discord: we see and feel things growing and moving forward, but internally we have not matched this yet. I think of it as creative tension when it’s not an overwhelming state. If it’s overwhelming, then it just plain sucks.

    As for ways to deal with it, especially in the Spring, the way is to move the body, to do lots of stretches, maybe Sun salutations — anything that engages the muscles and tendons to encourage the movement of lymph and blood in the body, which encourages the flushing out of the old and making space for the new. Oh, and therapy helps a lot too. :)

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    June 15th, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    Nice comment Vanessa. My woody part dreamt last night about sketching small objects like twigs, plants, etc.

  • Teri

    Teri

    June 18th, 2012 at 5:02 AM

    Do you really feel like there are those for whom this is only a seasonal thing, or is it simply that they are never able to discover a way to be appreciative of the life they have been given, no matter the time of year that it is?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    June 18th, 2012 at 6:36 PM

    Teri, I could answer yes to both of your ideas- some people feel discomfort by the change in energy, and others are simply unappreciative. Also there are anniversary reactions: a time of year when something significant happened, like losing a job or the death of a loved one.
    Thanks so much for sharing your ideas.

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