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The Cost of Avoiding Emotional Highs and Lows

From joy to heartache, feeling deeply holds many benefits.

Key points

  • Both emotional highs and lows can be beneficial.
  • In times of uncertainty, people have a tendency to avoid emotional extremes and seek a stable middle ground instead.
  • Avoiding emotional highs and lows comes with notable risks to one's well-being.

One week into graduate school, I found myself weeping on the floor of my new apartment. I had just returned from a year abroad working in Africa, moved to a new city, and my beloved grandmother had just died. My world felt upended. And yet, when I called my father, he uttered his typically brilliant wisdom: “Celebrate the depth of your heartache. Feel it deeply and fully. Triumph in how much it hurts.” Nearly three decades later, my father’s comments still ring true.

It’s natural to want to avoid emotional lows, but this doesn’t mean you should. Both highs and lows feed us in unique ways, and this may be an especially important lesson to bear in mind now.

The Quest for Emotional Control

During the pandemic, seeking control became a functional necessity for many of us. As our taken-for-granted systems started to break down due to remote work, remote schooling, and social distancing mandates, achieving some form of equilibrium became increasingly important. Naturally, with most of our familiar routines, habits, practices, and rituals disrupted, we were desperate to do anything possible to mitigate anything that felt out of the norm, including emotional highs and lows. But is the middle ground necessarily the best way to live all the time?

There are some people who benefit from avoiding emotional peaks on either side of the spectrum. For example, people with bipolar disorder generally do better when they avoid either extreme. For most people, however, experiencing emotional highs and even the occasional emotional low is beneficial. After all, emotional peaks aren’t necessarily stressful. For most people, they are part and parcel of the emotional experience of learning, exploring, and forming new relationships.

The Benefits of Emotional Highs

The benefits of emotional highs have been widely documented. Among other things, we know that people who are happy tend to report better life outcomes, and this includes greater financial success, better relationships, better mental health, and even better physical health and longevity (see among other studies Cohn et al., 2011 and Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener, 2005). Similarly, there is evidence that happiness often precedes and predicts positive outcomes rather than the other way around. Said differently, we are better off because we’re happy and not simply happy because we’re better off.

As a result, intentionally avoiding activities that might make us happier (e.g., attending celebrations with friends, marking special occasions with loved ones, pursuing activities that bring us joy, etc.) isn’t simply something that seems likely to make us less happy in the present moment but also something likely to have long-term consequences on our overall success and wellness.

The Benefits of Emotional Lows

While no one likes to feel bad and it is never good to feel bad for an extended period of time, avoiding or suppressing all emotional lows can also adversely affect one's health and wellness.

To begin, people who accept versus judge or repress negative emotional experiences reportedly have better mental health overall, primarily due to the fact that their acceptance helps them handle emotional stressors when they do arise (Ford et al., 2018). Other studies have found that avoiding or suppressing negative emotions over time may put one at higher risk of certain illnesses and even reduce one’s life expectancy (see among other studies Grossarth-Maticek, 1980; Mund and Mitte, 2011; Chapman et al., 2014). But this isn’t the only reason it is important to embrace emotional lows from time to time.

As my father reminded me so many years ago, we also learn the boundaries of our love by celebrating the depth of our heartache. In this respect, letting ourselves feel sad and grieve deeply isn’t necessarily bad. As discussed in my interview with Michelle Palmer, a LICSW and the executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington, D.C., which I published early on the pandemic, feeling sad and even grieving seem to have a distinct purpose.

Living the Full Spectrum of Emotions

In the face of ongoing uncertainty due to the pandemic’s continued impact and political and economic upheaval, many people are naturally looking to maintain an even keel in their daily life. While this may be a great way to live daily, steering clear of emotional highs and lows all the time also comes at a cost. Even if it feels counterintuitive in these uncertain times, remember, we’re at our best when we permit ourselves to experience the full spectrum of emotions, from joy to heartache.


Chapman BP, Fiscella K, Kawachi I, Duberstein P, Muennig P. Emotion suppression and mortality risk over a 12-year follow-up. J Psychosom Res. 2013 Oct;75(4):381-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.07.014. Epub 2013 Aug 6. PMID: 24119947; PMCID: PMC3939772.

Cohn MA, Fredrickson BL, Brown SL, Mikels JA, Conway AM. Happiness unpacked: positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion. 2009 Jun;9(3):361-8. doi: 10.1037/a0015952. PMID: 19485613; PMCID: PMC3126102.

Ford BQ, Lam P, John OP, Mauss IB. The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2018 Dec;115(6):1075-1092. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000157. Epub 2017 Jul 13. PMID: 28703602; PMCID: PMC5767148.

Grossarth-Maticek R. Psychosocial predictors of cancer and internal diseases. An overview. Psychother Psychosom. 1980;33(3):122-8. doi: 10.1159/000287422. PMID: 7384381.

Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E. The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychol Bull. 2005 Nov;131(6):803-55. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803. PMID: 16351326.

Mund M, Mitte K. The costs of repression: a meta-analysis on the relation between repressive coping and somatic diseases. Health Psychol. 2012 Sep;31(5):640-9. doi: 10.1037/a0026257. Epub 2011 Nov 14. PMID: 22081940.

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