Feel Bad To Feel Good: Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being

Before reading this article, I challenge you to do a little experiment, categorise the following emotions into Good, Bad, Neither. UncomfortableFearHurtAngerFrustrationDisappointmentGuiltInadequacyOverloaded and Loneliness. How easy was this exercise and did some automatic thoughts and answers come to mind while others you had to think twice? Due to a number of cultural difference and a move towards "Life is Short, Be Happy" and overriding bias towards positive thinking, most people, strive to be more happy, less negative, more confident, less hurt, less disappointed, less angry, less jealous. There is a general consensus that certain emotions are good to have, and others should be eliminated. Who hasn't heard the phrase "think positive, and everything will turn our right"?

A recent article published in the Scientific American cites research by Jonathan Adler points out that both unpleasant and enjoyable feelings play a significant role in helping us make sense of life's ups and downs. Anger and sadness are an essential part of life, and the new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.


Meaningful Misery


Positive thoughts and emotions can, of course, benefit mental health. Hedonic theories define well-being as the presence of positive emotion, the relative absence of negative emotion and a sense of life satisfaction. Taken to an extreme, however, that definition is not congruent with the messiness of real life. Also, people's outlook can become so rosy that they ignore dangers or become complacent.


Research by Adler investigated the link between mixed emotional experience and psychological welfare in a group of people undergoing 12 sessions of psychotherapy. Before each session, participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their psychological well-being. They also wrote narratives describing their life events and their time in therapy.


Participants who said they felt cheerful and dejected at the same time (for example, by expressing the notion that "I feel sad at times because of everything I have been through, but I am also happy and hopeful because I am working through my issues") saw overall improvements in their sense of well-being.


"Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being," the researchers found.


Negative emotions also most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention, Adler points out. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. In a 2009 study psychologist, David J. Kavanagh of Queensland University of Technology in Australia and his colleagues asked people in treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction to complete a questionnaire that assessed their drinking-related urges and cravings, as well as any attempts to suppress thoughts related to booze over the previous 24 hours. They found that those who often fought against intrusive alcohol-related thoughts harboured more of them. Similar findings from a 2010 study suggested that pushing back negative emotions could spawn more emotional overeating than simply recognising that you were, say, upset, agitated or blue.


While negative emotions may be painful, they may also be our best friend. We can use negative emotions to change and inspire change. If you feel that your emotions are overwhelming, seek help and learn ways to embrace your emotions while leading a fulfilling life that allows you to be the person you aspire to be.