Why You Should Embrace Your Negative Emotions (Book Extract)

I'm feeling equally excited and nervous about this blog post because it's the first extract I'm publishing from the book I'm working on! If you've been following my blog for a while, you know that I'm working on a book about Finding Happiness. I've made really good progress and am excited to share a first glimpse with you. In the book, the below is part of a bigger section about understanding what happiness actually is but I feel it is just as valuable on it's own which is why I choose it as the first extract to share with you. Hope you like it :) 

 

When we think about what makes us unhappy or what gets in the way of our happiness, it’s easy to think about negative emotions like pain, fear, anger and stress as the main cause for our unhappiness. However, there is reason to believe that this line of thought is not just wrong but it could even be harmful. 

In the bookThe Happiness Trap, Russ Harris presents a very compelling case for the argument that one of the main reasons why many people struggle to find happiness is that they are stuck on the idea that happiness requires the absence, or at least minimization, of negative emotions. Therefore, they try to control their emotions, attempt to completely remove negative thoughts and feelings from their brains, and avoid situations that could possibly lead to negative feelings – and when none of that really works, they feel guilty and frustrate (more negative emotions). As Harris, and many others, argue, the problem is that negative emotions are an unavoidable part of life and the more we try to fight them the more damaging they will be – this is what Harris calls The Happiness Trap. No matter how happy you are, you will experience suffering at some point in your life. Whether it’s through the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship or friendship, being overlooked for a promotion, cutting your finger while chopping vegetables or being hurt or disappointed by another person. I don’t think anyone can make it through life without experience some of these, and other challenging situations and emotions at some stage. The only way you can fully avoid negative emotions is by not developing any close relationships, never taking any risks, staying to yourself as much as possible and never watching dramatic movies – and even then, most of us would probably struggle with feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness. I don’t know about you, but to me that does not sound like a very happy life to me. Striving for and living a happy, fulfilling life requires us to be prepared to deal with negative emotions occasionally. 

Research has shown that experiencing negative emotions does generally not have a direct impact on how happy we are and how many positive emotions we experience – with the exception of people who experience a very high amount of negative emotions who have been shown to have fewer positive emotions and are less likely to be happy. Several studies have found that people can have both higher than average negative emotions and higher than average positive emotions [1][2]. Other studies have found that even very happy people have negative emotions, among them one by two leaders in the field of positive psychology; Ed Diener and Martin Seligman. In their study, Diener and Seligman compare those participants who are in the top 10% happiest with those who report average and below average levels of happiness [3]. While this study is limited by its small and narrow sample size (222 undergraduate student), the findings do show that even very happy people have negative emotions. Diener and Seligman express relief over this finding saying that not experiencing any negative emotions would suggest a dysfunctional state because “these individuals would not be reacting to events happening to them and would not receive calibrated feedback from their emotions”.  

Another study even shows that we can experience positive and negative emotions at the same time. Researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Chicago conducted an experiment where they asked participants about their feelings immediately after watching the film Life Is Beautiful, moving out of their dormitories, or graduating from college [4]. While the majority of people surveyed reported feeling either happy or sad, many of the participants reported feeling both indicating that we are capable of feeling both extremes at the same time. 

Further support for the theory that negative emotions do not have a direct impact on happiness comes from gender comparisons. It is well established that women are more likely to suffer from depression and studies have shown that women, on average experience more negative emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, stress and sadness than men. At the same time, several studies have shown that women tend to report higher levels of happiness than men [5]. In other words, women seem to experience both, more negative emotions and higher levels of happiness than men do. 

Experiencing negative emotions does not make us unhappy in much the same way that positive emotions do not automatically make us happy. Happiness is not so much about what happens to us (positive or negative) but about how we interpret and respond to what happens. This is one of the reasons why some people are able to find happiness even though they had to deal with great adversity in their lives. One example of this is  U.S. Army Sergeant Travis Mills. In April 2012, Sergeant Travis Mills was on patrol as part of this third tour of duty in Afghanistan when an explosive device went off, leaving him critically injured. While his life could be saved, he lost portions of both his legs and both his arms. After extensive surgery he woke up in a hospital in Germany several days later to the news that he is a quadruple amputee. Understandably, his initial response was anger, a sense of loss, frustration and shame. I don’t think anyone could have blamed him for feeling like this for the rest of his life considering the circumstances. However, after the initial negativity, Sergeant Mills found the strengths to move on and focus on all the positive things he still had in his life, like his wife and baby girl, and was able to find appreciation for the fact that, unlike so many other soldiers, he was still alive. In an interview he once said that he doesn’t think his problems outweigh anyone else’s but I think many of us would have to admit that most of our problems and challenges seem pretty insignificant in comparison. I’m sure Sergeant Travis still experiences the occasional negative emotions due to his situation. He probably still occasional feels angry or frustrated, like when he can’t keep up with his daughter on the playground, but he is not letting it get in the way of living a fulfilling meaningful life. Today, Travis is a motivational speaker, actor, author and an advocate for veterans and amputees helping others overcome similar challenges and finding happiness again.[6]

Another equally empowering story is that of Ashley Sullenger and her family. Ashely and her husband lost their 18 months old baby girl in a very tragic drowning accident in 2010. I don’t think anyone can even begin to imagine the grief, sadness and loss Ashley would have felt following that tragedy. The loss of a child is probably the worst thing that can happen to any parent and I think everyone would have understood if Ashley and her husband would have gotten lost in their grief. But they didn’t. In an article she wrote, Ashley once said that after a really dark period she got to a point where she was able to realize that she still had a long life ahead of her and that she needed to strive to find happiness again. It must have been incredible hard to move on after something like that but Ashley and her husband did it. Today they have a beautiful family and while I’m sure they still experience periods of grief and sadness about the loss of their daughter, they are living a happy, meaningful life. And by sharing her story on her blog, Ashley also supports and inspires others who have to deal with a great loss. [7]

These stories show that even the biggest tragedies imaginable don’t have to prevent us from living happy lives. The loss, the anger and the sadness will probably always stay with us to some extend but we don’t have to let them control us and our life. Stories like Ashley’s and Travis’ show that the right attitude and mind-set can help us find happiness no matter what. I think these stories also help us to put our own challenges and negative emotions into perspective and can give us the inspiration to find happiness despite the negative events and emotions that might be part of our life. As Ashely’s family motto says; “We can do hard things”. 

 

Negative emotions aren’t all bad

There is another reason why we shouldn’t just avoid and suppress negative emotions. Throughout human history negative emotions have been instrumental to keeping us alive. Early humans lived in a dangerous world with threats around every corner. Their brains had to evolve to constantly be on the lookout for predators and other danger. Emotions like fear and anxiety are what trigger our fight-or-flight response. Imagine our ancestors hadn’t felt fear when predators threatened them – the human race would probably be extinct by now. The better humans became at worrying, at anticipating risks and at feeling fear, the better their chances of survival became. Similarly, emotions like loneliness and sadness make people seek out the company of others and being part of a group significantly increased the chances of survival as well as reproduction for our early ancestors. 

Of course today we don’t have to worry about being attacked by giant mammoths anymore and we’re not as reliant on the protection of a group either. On the whole, our lives are easier and safer than they have ever been. However, that does not mean they are completely without risks and our negative emotions still often help to keep us safe. It’s fear that’s stopping us from walking through a shady neighborhood on our own and that stops us from running across a street without looking no matter how much in a hurry we are. It’s anxiety and worry that makes us think carefully about how big a mortgage we can afford and it’s pain that alerts us to early warning signs that we might be sick and makes us see a doctor. 

But negative emotions are not just valuable in keeping us safe and alive. They can also play a huge role in helping us find happiness. Just like positive emotions tell us something is good and right, negative emotions can tell us what is not right and when we’re on the wrong track. While some amount of negative emotions is perfectly normal, an increase in anxiety, doubt, sadness or fear is often an indication that something in our life is not as it should be and that we need to change. However, in this context it is important to differentiate between an occasional increase in negative emotions in an otherwise fairly positive and overall healthy person and the regular and reoccurring negative emotions that people with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems experience. Depression and anxiety are serious conditions and I will not claim that I can even begin to understand how they feel or how they can be overcome. If you feel overall negative a lot of the time or experience episodes where you feel overcome by negative thoughts and emotions and you find yourself worrying to a point where it feels completely demobilizing and you can’t see a way out of this state of mind, I would strongly recommend you seek the support of a mental health professional. However, if you are generally a fairly positive person and find you have a good balance of positive and negative emotions than consider that some negative feelings are your mind’s way of telling you that you’re off track and that you need to change something. Of course, if you’re anything like me, it’s just as likely that it’s just your mind running wild and your worry is completely unfounded and unnecessary but it’s worth checking in with yourself and finding out exactly what the reasons for your negative thoughts are. 

Negative emotions can make us aware to the fact that a relationship might be at risk and needs work, that we need to watch our spending to ensure our financial security long-term, that we need to spend more time with our loved ones, that we need to go get a health check and many, many other everyday situations. Of course not all negative emotions are calls to action from our mind. Some are just our imagination running wild and result in us worrying over nothing and overthinking everything. But I think if you start listening to your negative feeling for a while you will learn pretty quickly which ones to take seriously and which ones to just sit out. 

 

All of this suggests that negative emotions not only do not prevent us from being happy but can, in fact, be something that helps us find happiness by guiding us away from thing that are dangerous or simply not right for us. The key is for us to learn to live with our negative emotions and accept them rather than trying to avoid or suppress them and to learn to listen to them to identify the ones we need to action. The most important thing to remember is that both negative and positive emotions are about what happens in the world around us while happiness is about how we view and respond to what happens. 

 

References: 

[1]Bradburn, N. M. (1969). The structure of psychological well-being. Oxford, England: Aldine.

[2]Watson, D. and Clark, L.A. (1992). Affects separable and inseparable: On the hierarchical arrangement of the negative affects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 489 – 505.

[3]Diner, E. and Seligman, M. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 2002.

[4]Larsen J.T., McGraw A.P., Cacioppo J.T. Can people feel happy and sad at the same time? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001 Oct;81(4):684-96.

[5]Wood, W., Rhodes, N. and Whelan, M.. Sex differences in positive well-being: A consideration of emotional style and marital status. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 106(2), Sep 1989, 249-264

[6]To learn more about Travis’ story, visit www.travismills.org

[7]To learn more about Ashley’s story, visit her blog: www.sullengers.com