Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The positive side of negative emotions

Many of our posts here on cut-e Scienceblog are on Positive Psychology, Positive Emotions, or Positive Health. This reflects the current trend in research, with lots of studies on the beneficial effect of positive emotions and happiness on health, career, and even society. However, it would be a great mistake to say that positive emotions are always good and negative emotions are always bad. It seems rather that both play important roles in our lives.

On the Association for Psychological Science (APS) website, Eric 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.


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.

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