In our relentless pursuit of happiness, it’s easy to shove aside, make light of, or otherwise evade negative emotions. But the truth is that unpleasant feelings are not only inevitable, they can also play a key role in health and well-being.
A small study from Olin University published earlier this year showed that being comfortable experiencing and expressing mixed emotions was a predictor of improvements in well-being, while ignoring or evading negative feelings was not associated with boosts in well-being.
“We found that those participants who were making meaning out of their experiences with a mixture of happiness and sadness actually showed increases in their psychological well-being, compared to people who were just reporting sadness, just reporting happiness, or some other mixture of emotions,” Jonathan Adler, Olin assistant professor of psychology and one of the study’s authors, told HuffPost Live. “It seems that there is something to be gained for your mental health in taking both the good and the bad together.”
When we allow our negative emotions to become a source of shame or guilt, we could inadvertently be making those feelings worse and missing out on their benefits. And paradoxically, negative emotions can be a powerful catalyst for positive experiences and realizations, if we respond to them well.
Here are six negative emotions worth embracing.
Anger can be fueled into creativity.
Negative emotions sometimes stifle creativity, but science suggests that they can also be used to spark it. Recently, Ghent University researchers studied the habits of 100 creative professionals, having them rate their emotions at the beginning and end of each day. They found that those who stared the day with negative emotions but ended it with positive ones had the greatest creative output — uniformly, the most productive days were those that began with some sort of negativity, meaning that they channeled their anger into their work 99U reported. In a separate experiment, the researchers found that negative emotions could help subjects focus longer while brainstorming.
“When you’re in a bad mood, it may be best to return to a particularly difficult problem or a project that has stalled out,” Myths Of Creativity author David Burkus wrote on 99U. “Think of the negative emotion as fuel that you can burn on the path to creation. The negative emotions might just help you dig deeper into the problem and find a solution your happier self would never have uncovered.”
Struggling with adversity can profoundly alter your perspective.
The old cliche that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger might have some truth to it. Life’s greatest challenges can be opportunities for significant personal growth and development. Many people say that life-threatening health scares became blessings in disguise that fundamentally altered their perspectives and highlighted what’s really important in life.
“On reflection, I realized that my most valuable lessons arose from difficulties and setbacks I had to confront, and imperfections I had to accept,” Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, author of The Gift Of Adversity, wrote in a Huffington Post blog. “Paradoxically, these adversities yielded unexpected gifts.”
Sometimes these unexpected gifts come in the form of a new career path or life direction. When 32-year-old Kris Carr was diagnosed with a rare and untreatable form of cancer, she didn’t lose hope: Instead, she challenged her diagnosis and turned to holistic healthcare, eventually becoming a wellness expert and New York Times-bestselling author. Now, she spreads inspiration to thousands who are looking to live healthier lifestyles.
Working through shame can help you cultivate compassion.
What did Daring Greatly author Brene Brown discover in more than a decade of researching shame and vulnerability? “Shame is deadly,” she told Oprah. “And I think we are swimming in it deep.”
Shame — that painful feeling of humiliation or distress rooted in the belief that we’re somehow deficient — is what causes us to avoid connecting with others for fear that they’ll see the flaws we are trying to hide. But the one upside of shame is that we can overcome it, building greater connections with others and becoming more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
“Shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone,” Brown says. “Shame cannot survive being spoken … It cannot survive empathy.”
Pessimism can make you more productive.
As a culture, we tend to prize looking on the bright side over seeing the glass half empty. But optimism untempered by some degree of negativity or pessimism isn’t necessarily a productive attitude. As Wharton professor Adam Grant explains in aLinkedIn blog post, studies show that “defensive pessimists” — those who tend to picture what could go wrong in any given situation — perform just as well as “strategic optimists” in a variety of tasks.
“At first, I asked how these people were able to do so well despite their pessimism,”psychologist Julie Norem writes in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “Before long, I began to realize that they were doing so well because of their pessimism … negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.”
Ultimately, Grant notes, what most determines success is achieving the right balance between optimism and pessimism, and choosing preparation strategies that match your thinking styles.
“If you’re a defensive pessimist, when preparing for a performance that really matters, you might want to list your weaknesses instead of your strengths, and drink a glass of anxiety rather than a shot of confidence,” Grant writes.
Envy can spur you to become better.
From a young age, we’re told to beware the green-eyed monster. Envy can trigger us to feel that who we are and what we have is in some way lacking. But the emotion (in its more benign form) can actually spur us to better ourselves, according to a recent Scientific American article.
“After you realize other people don’t necessarily have everything you think you want, the next logical step is to figure out what that really is. What is it you really envy? Your sister’s boyfriend, or a sense of belonging? Your cousin’s job, or a sense of accomplishment? Your uncle’s schedule, or a sense of adventure?,” writes Lori Deschene, founder of Tiny Buddha, in blog post. “You can have everything you want in life if identify specifically what those things are, and accept they may look different for you than they do for someone else.”
Loss can lead to gratitude.
It can sometimes take losing something important to us to feel grateful for what we still have. But in the long term, overwhelming loss can become a powerful catalyst for deep, life-affirming gratitude.
Lynne Hughes, founder of Comfort Zone Camp for Grieving Children, says that losing both her parents at a young age ultimately taught her to appreciate the gifts, both big and small, that stem from every relationship in her life.
“That’s one of the gifts and lessons from loss,” Hughes wrote in a 2011 HuffPost blog. “Sprinkled with sadness, I felt blessed for the moments I had and the unexpected gifts that [my relationships] gave.”
Negative thoughts and emotions present an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness.
The practice of mindfulness — which aims to cultivate a focused awareness on the present moment — can change our relationship with negative emotions, allowing us to experience them without judgement or shame.
“Feeling bad about having a negative emotion is a surefire way to compound and amplify the situation,” writes Google’s Search Inside Yourself Training Program. “You can quickly build a tower of negative emotions that can all come crumbling down.”
But as Tibetan Buddhist teach Sogyal Rinpoche explains, mindfulness practices like meditation allow us to experience negative thoughts and emotions without judgment, resistance or struggle.
He writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
“We often wonder what to do about negativity or certain troubling emotions. In the spaciousness of meditation, you can view your thoughts and emotions with a totally unbiased attitude. When your attitude changes, then the whole atmosphere of your mind changes, even the very nature of your thoughts and emotions. When you become more agreeable, then they do; if you have no difficulty with them, they will have no difficulty with you either.”