Are Negative Emotions Good For You?

happysadfeetWe live in a "Don't Worry, Be Happy" "Boston Strong" "Life Is Good" culture.

So what happens when we feel bad? Well, many of us feel guilty about it.

But, according to research by psychologist Jonathan Adler, negative emotions should be celebrated — or at least not be discounted — because they serve a critical function.

Adler, of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., spoke to Scientific American recently about the work:

...anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” says Adler...

Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as the enjoyable ones in helping you make sense of life's ups and downs. “Remember, one of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences,” Adler says.

Here's a bit more on the mechanics of the study:

Adler and Hal E. Hershfield, a professor of marketing at New York University, investigated the link between mixed emotional experience and psychological welfare in a group of people undergoing 12 sessions of psychotherapy.

Before each session, participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their psychological well-being. They also wrote narratives describing their life events and their time in therapy, which were coded for emotional content. As Adler and Hershfield reported in 2012, feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time—for example, “I feel sad at times because of everything I've been through, but I'm also happy and hopeful because I'm working through my issues”—preceded improvements in well-being over the next week or two for subjects, even if the mixed feelings were unpleasant at the time. “Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being,” the researchers found.

Readers, are you oppressed by overwhelming pressure to be bubbly and positive all the time? Does this notion of embracing complexity — both the good and the bad — ring true? Let us know.

This program aired on May 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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