Counsellors have taught us to avoid sadness at all costs. But sometimes it's right to feel unhappy

In the left-hand corner, the pain-relief junkie, addicted to psychiatrists, painkillers and Prozac; in the right, the stoic with his stiff upper lip. Which camp do you belong to? If you're under 50 and raised in this country, probably the former.

Blame it on the counsellors. They taught us that emotional containment is not heroic but unhealthy. They told us that injunctions like "buck up, damn it" (or its Catholic version, "offer it up") are not only old-fashioned but downright noxious. Let it all hang out, the counsellors counselled, and obediently we allowed our feelings to flap about like Hugh Grant's shirt-tails.

These ideas percolated to all of us through books and broadcasting, group sessions and one-on-one visits. So the counselling fraternity - to say nothing of the poor suckers who'd gone in for expensive 50-minute sessions of primal screaming to vent their rage and "find themselves" - was decidedly embarrassed when a recent study found that bottling up your anger is better than blowing your top. They were further dismayed by a second study which challenged the orthodoxy that children need counselling following the death of a parent.

These findings serve as whistle-blowers on a profession whose 1,700 registered practitioners (and up to 25,000 unregistered ones) enjoy an extraordinary influence on an extraordinary number of people in this country. They also call for a rethink of our attitude to pain, rage and general discomfort.

For years, these "negative" emotions have suffered social exclusion: we wanted to share the Disney-style optimism and positive mind-set of American self-help gurus who, from Jane Fonda to Deepak Chopra, taught us that sad was bad. Their feel-good philosophies raised our expectations of happiness - and lowered our pain threshold: the slightest headache sent us to the medicine cabinet, the merest twinge of melancholy to the therapist, and the tiniest slight made us erupt in expletive-spitting rage. We wouldn't put up with anything less than perfect contentment.

Brainwashed by a culture which said happiness was the natural state of being, we turned to everything from homeopathic herbs to Tantric yoga, from the television confessional to the psychiatrist's chair to rid our lives of disturbing thoughts.

The myth of contentment is more difficult to sell these days: there's the war, for one, with its everyday pictures of suffering; and there are paedophile kidnappings, celebrity killings and schoolground massacres. Now's the time to rehabilitate unhappiness, hurt and even anger. They no longer seem so out of place, or strike us as frightening furies that reduce us to psychosis. We recognise, instead, that they are part of everybody's emotional make-up, the inevitable result of unavoidable incidents - an insult, a death, an injustice suffered or witnessed.

But once we have recognised their proper place, how do we deal with these uncomfortable emotions? You can fob them off on others - you can weep on your counsellor's shoulder or "share" with a therapy group - but you won't get rid of the urge to weep or rage.

And why should we? Instead of looking (and paying) for their release, why don't we learn to control and contain these emotions as we were once taught to do? Look to the artist, the journalist or the soldier for their management of our darker instincts. Picture Damien Hirst, channelling his rage at bourgeois values into his dead cows; the reporter working herself up to angry eloquence in an article about Kosovo; or young British soldiers, flying to Yugoslavia, containing their feelings with uniform fortitude. In all these instances, the pain threshold has been raised and the source of unease trawled for inspiration: no wailing walls necessary, just a bit of self-discipline. Feeling bad is only natural; the blues are nothing to worry about. So go ahead, be unhappy.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - A culture of pretence