Beyond Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down

No one questions the value of feeling good. In fact, it seems that for the past 20 years, everyone in America has been on a relentless quest for a blue-sky state of mind, in pursuit of permanent residence on the spectrum between contentment and ecstasy.

Feeling bad is another matter entirely. Emotions that generate unpleasant feelings have been called sins (wrath, envy), shunned in polite interaction (jealousy, frustration), or identified as unhealthy (sadness, shame). We suppress them, medicate them, and berate ourselves for feeling them.

Because such feelings are aversive, they are often called “negative” emotions, although “negative” is a misnomer. Emotions are not inherently positive or negative. They are distinguished by much more than whether they feel good or bad. Beneath the surface, every emotion orchestrates a complex suite of changes in motivation, physiology, attention, perception, beliefs, and behaviors: sweating, laughing, desiring revenge, becoming optimistic, summoning specific memories. Each component of every emotion has a critical job to do—whether it’s preparing us to move toward what we want (anger), urging us to improve our standing (envy), or allowing us to undo a social gaffe (embarrassment).

We have the wrong idea about emotions. They’re very rational; they’re means to help us achieve goals important to us, tools carved by eons of human experience that work beyond conscious awareness to direct us where we need to go. They identify trouble or opportunity and suggest methods of repair or gain. They are instruments of survival; in fact, we would have vanished long ago without them.

Negative emotions are not only crucial to our existence but also—ironically—to feeling good. To live optimally in the world and endure its challenges, it’s necessary to engage the full range of psychological states we’ve inherited as humans.

“The science of well-being has forgotten that the world is an uncertain, complex place filled with people who often are annoying and obnoxious,” says Todd Kashdan, a psychologist at George Mason University and coauthor, with Robert Biswas-Diener, of The Upside of Your Dark Side. Knowing when and how to deploy all our emotions, we can better live with ourselves and with each other.


An ex-girlfriend once told me she didn’t know how much I cared about her until I yelled at her. That succinctly summarizes a decade or two of research on what may be our most misunderstood emotion. Anger results when we feel undervalued. It prompts us to reassert the importance of our welfare by threatening to harm others or withhold benefits if others don’t recalibrate our worth. This explanation clarifies why you might get angry when people needlessly try to be helpful; they haven’t shown malicious intent, but they’ve underestimated you.

In his research, psychologist Aaron Sell has shown that strong men and pretty women—those who, over the course of evolution, have had the most power to cause harm or withhold benefits—are angered more easily than their peers. “The primary benefit of anger for an individual,” Sell says, “is preventing oneself from being exploited.”

If you know what you deserve, and someone else sees things differently, anger arises. Your heart rate increases, you start to sweat, you think about all the things you could do to set the other party straight. Safety, civility, practicality—such concerns evaporate. When really enraged, you can’t contain your physical energy. Across cultures, people use metaphors for anger related to hot fluids in containers: You’re a tea kettle or a volcano, ready to erupt. [Read More…]

Source: Psychology Today

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