The Positive Side of Negative Emotions

October 30, 2013 Katharina Lochner

Is striving for happiness always the best thing to do?

On the Association for Psychological Science (APS) websiteEric Jaffe outlines some of the research that looks at the positive side of negative emotions or unhappiness. For example, psychologist June Gruber of Yale University reviewed research on the flip side of happiness. One study in this line of research found that our striving for happiness in Western cultures often comes at the cost of becoming lonely. Social connections seem to suffer when we pursue happiness too much. This is paradoxical because a wide range of research shows that it is exactly our social connections that make us happy.

Furthermore, as the review shows, positive emotions are not appropriate in each and every situation. When having to evaluate information critically, it seems that positive emotions make us gullible, whereas negative ones put us into the mind state that is necessary for really evaluating the information at hand critically. Negative emotions also seem to be beneficial for memory, forceful persuasion, and avoiding the fundamental attribution error (the tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behavior). Finally, researchers found that accepting a negative emotional state is more beneficial for our mental health than actively struggling against it. This is, by the way, also what meditation and mindfulness practice teaches us.

Eric Jaffe comes to the conclusion that universally striving for happiness and positive emotions is not beneficial at all and that we ought to acknowledge that both – positive and negative emotions – have their place in our lives and are appropriate in some situations, whereas in others they are not. Moreover, too much happiness (like too much of almost anything in the world) is not good, but the secret lies in moderation. Finally, emotional stability seems to be very important for life satisfaction.

These ideas reflect some of the research we reported in previous posts: For example, Shigehiro Oishi, Ed Diener, and Richard E. Lucas found that “that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of closerelationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation.” Activating negative moods can enhance our creativityAdversity can make us stronger. Too much optimism makes it difficult to adjust false beliefs And, finally, as already stated above, actively seeking happiness instead of meaning does not necessarily make us happier.

Thus, both positive and negative emotions are there for a reason. We should accept them both instead of intensively pursuing happiness and struggling to avoid unhappiness. Emotional stability and a moderate level of happiness are just as important to our well-being as social connections are.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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