Negative emotions are beneficial. There I said it.
Ok, ok, I know it sounds controversial that negativity brings health especially in the era of “smile and the world will smile back at you” we live in.
Everywhere we look, there are messages such as, “Smile more often” or “Think positive” as if it was that easy and even the right thing to do.
But being a psychologist and a student of positive psychology, I must say that such messages are dangerous.
Why are they dangerous? Because they aim to drive people away from a very natural and important psychological resource: Negativity.
Yes, negativity can be beneficial. It can help you build a more optimal, resourceful version of yourself and consequently a happier and more satisfying life .
If you have ever read The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas Diener, you will see that there many scientific findings supporting this claim.
I’m not saying that being negative is better than being positive, but there are moments where allowing yourself into some negativity can help you achieve better results in your life, work, relationship, etc.
The secret is to learn to exercise the right balance between positive and negative emotions. Of course positive emotions generate a more pleasurable feeling but that doesn’t mean we should always be in positive states of mind.
Here are 3 good reasons why we should allow ourselves to be negative:
1. Negative emotions are natural
As human beings, feeling sad, stressed out, anxious, afraid is a natural consequence of daily events. Furthermore, it is acceptable to feel that way.
When we enforce expressions like, “Smile more often”, we are telling ourselves that this is the optimal state we can be in and therefore denying a very natural emotional state of mind. We are telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel sad or anxious or stressed when our mind desperately wants us to let those feelings come out and be listened to.
If we always tell ourselves to smile when all we want to do is cry, we are psychologically mistreating ourselves, which on the long run will negatively impact our psychological welfare.
2. Negative emotions make you aware
Negative emotions exist for a reason. They protect us, makes us aware of dangers,and let us know something is not working for us.
For instance, fear helps you react to danger, anxiety makes you more aware of potential threats around you, and guilt makes you reconsider past actions that may have been harmful to others and make amends with them (Rosen, 2008; Tibbetts, 2003).
On the other hand, positive emotions can make you more aloof. It’s good to be carefree but this also carries some threats: less aware of risks happening in your life, less attention to detail in your work, or being unconcerned of how your behavior is negatively impacting others (Biswar-Dienar & Kashdan, 2014).
3. Negativity is a motivator
No one changes because he or she is feeling good. We change when we feel something is wrong and making us unhappy and we can’t bear it any longer.
Negative emotions prompt us to act upon our current circumstance and generate positive changes, Such as anger (Biswar-Diener & Kashdan, 2014). Anger is one negative emotion closely related justice.
I mean, can you imagine a country fighting for independence without feeling angry towards your rulers? Emotions are psychological metrics of our well-being. They tell us when are we more or less happy.
Negative emotions however, serve as a motivator. They tell us we are not happy with the path our lives are taking and when they reach a certain level of intensity, they motivate us to act. Therefore, we should listen to them as soon as we start to feel them, regulate their intensity and start acting in more healthy ways towards the changes we wish to establish in our lives.
As we can see, negativity is useful and should be looked at as such.
Again, I’m not trying to demerit positivity.
But it is important to tell ourselves that we are human beings who feel both positive and negative emotions. The key to a better life is to understand when and how to use our emotions properly, in order to build more authentic, resourceful versions of ourselves, and more fulfilling versions of our lives.
Baumann, J., & DeSteno, D. (2012). “Context explains divergente effects of anger on risk taking.” Emotion, 12(6), 1,196-1,199.
Biswas-Diener, R., Kashdan, T. B. (2014) The Upside of Your Dark Side. New York: Hudson Stree Pass
Csizkszentmihalyi, M.(1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harpe rand Row
Forgas, J. P., & Koch, A. (2013). “Mood effects on cognition” In M. D., E. Harmon-Jones, E.R. Watkins (Eds.), Handbook of Emotion and Cognition (pp. 231-252). New York: Guilford Press
Forgas, J.P. (2013). “Don’t worry, be sad! On the cognitive, motivational and interpersonal benefits of negative mood.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 225-232.
Hayes, S.C., Luoma, J.B., Bond, F.W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1-25.
Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (2007). “The optimum level of well-being: Can people be too happy?” Perspective on Psychological Science, 2 (4), 346 – 360.
Rosen, R.H. (2008). “Just enough anxiety: The hidden driver of business sucess.” Portfolio; retrieved from : http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/02/06/how-successful-people-stay-calm/.
Storbeck, J., & Clore, G. L. (2005). “With sadness comes accuracy; with happiness, false memory: Mood and the false memory effect.” Psychological Science, 16 (10). 785-791.
Tibbetts, S.G. (2003). “Self-conscious emotions and criminal offending”. Psychology Reports, 93, 101 – 126
Diogo works as a trainer/project manager at Wilson Learning Portugal.
He majored in Psychology and did his Master Degree in Organizational Psychology, where he started studying the field of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Since then, he kept studying Positive Psychology.
He holds a positive psychology certificate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a program conducted by Barbara Fredrickson and a Positive Psychology Coaching certificate by the Inntal Institut where he was trained by Robert Biswas-Diener.
He has just co-started his own Positive Psychology project in Portugal, which aims to make the knowledge and practices of this field available to the general public.