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Is Accepting Unpleasant Emotions the Secret to Happiness?

Accepting negative emotions can make you happier in the long run.

Source: alphaspiri/Shutterstock

Are you feeling outraged, anxious, heartbroken, or any other type of negative emotion today? If so, there is some good news. Recent research suggests that allowing yourself to experience a spectrum of unpleasant emotions—and not pretending everything is hunky-dory by being a Pollyanna—will actually make you feel better in the long run. In the past week, two separate studies reported on the benefits of embracing authentic emotions during times of sadness or distress.

The first study on emotional acceptance, from the University of California, Berkeley, found that putting pressure on yourself to feel upbeat when you are actually feeling downtrodden or dejected can take a psychological toll. These findings were published August 10 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The main takeaway from this study is: "Feeling bad about feeling bad can actually make you feel worse."

For this multifaceted study, three separate experiments were conducted on various cohorts both in a laboratory and using online questionnaires. The online portion of the study asked 1,000 participants to fill out a survey to rate how strongly someone agreed with statements such as "I tell myself I shouldn't be feeling the way that I'm feeling." Across the board, the researchers found that people who didn’t seem to ‘feel bad about feeling bad’ showed higher levels of well-being than counterparts who beat themselves up about feeling negative emotions.

There Will Be Sunbeams in Your Soul Again

In the abstract of the study, the Berkeley researchers conclude: “Overall, these results suggest that individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.”

Using a meteorological metaphor, this research suggests that viewing darker moods as clouds temporarily blocking the sunshine associated with positive emotions can benefit your long term psychological well-being. Along this line, Frank Gifford was notorious for keeping a positive mindset when his team was losing a football game by saying to himself, “Gray skies are just clouds passing over.” I can relate. Anytime I find myself feeling cynical or hopeless, the mantra I use to buoy my spirits (while still allowing myself to wallow in some melancholy) is to remind myself, "There will be sunbeams in your soul again."

The latest UC Berkeley study reaffirms the benefits of this explanatory style. The researchers found that accepting negative emotions or thoughts in the moment helps individuals avoid catastrophizing or dwelling on temporary negative mental experiences. The bottom line appears to be that accepting negative emotions without judging or trying to change them helps people cope more effectively with various types of stress.

In a statement, senior author Iris Mauss, director of the Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab at Berkeley, said: “We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health. Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention. And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."

Is Accepting Unpleasant Emotions a Key Ingredient to Happiness?

The second cross-cultural study on emotional acceptance involved 2,324 university students from eight countries—the United States, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland, and Singapore—and was conducted by an international team of researchers including Maya Tamir and Shalom H. Schwartz of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shige Oishi of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and Min Y. Kim of Keimyung University in South Korea. Their paper, “The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?” was published August 14 online ahead of print in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

The findings of this study dovetail with the results of the UC Berkeley study on the benefits of accepting negative emotions. Tamir et al. also found that people tend to be happier when they allow themselves to feel the emotions that seem appropriate at the time, even if those emotions are negative or unpleasant.

In a statement, Maya Tamir, who directs the Emotion and Self-Regulation Laboratory described her team's findings: "Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain. Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have. All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant."

Across diverse cultures, the researchers found that people who were open to experiencing both positive and negative emotions tended to report greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression. Notably, Tamir said: "People want to feel very good all the time in Western cultures, especially in the United States. Even if they feel good most of the time, they may still think that they should feel even better, which might make them less happy overall."

The latest psychological research suggests that accepting your negative emotions as something poignant is not only OK but may actually be better for your mental health than putting on a pair of rose-tinted glasses, burying your head in the sand, and pretending that everything is chipper when it's not.

"If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention." —Heather Heyer (1985-2017)

Undoubtedly, all of us can relate to the latest empirical research on accepting or denying our unpleasant emotions based on personal life experience or anecdotal evidence. For example, the atrocities that occurred in Charlottesville last weekend which included the horrific murder of Heather Heyer on Aug. 12, 2017, has created a ripple effect that continues to cause millions of people across the United States (and around the globe) a broad range of very unpleasant emotions.

© Steven Luce and the Hollywood-North Park Community Association
The “Hate Has No Home Here” sign project began with a group of neighbors from North Park, a Chicago neighborhood characterized by its diversity of age, race, religion, nationality, and ethnicity. The phrase and logo used on these signs (which can be obtained through their website) are the brain child of two Peterson Elementary School students.
Source: © Steven Luce and the Hollywood-North Park Community Association

Last night, a candlelight vigil held on the UVA campus illuminated the psychological benefits of embracing our authentic emotions individually and collectively. Many wore purple T-shirts emblazoned with a quotation from Heather Heyer's final Facebook post, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." Of course, this sentiment is not a license to hate. Yesterday, in a eulogy, Heyer's mother emphasized that being outraged is not a clarion call to perpetuate any type of hatred.

As Americans, we must stand together and strongly declare: HATE HAS NO HOME HERE. Hopefully, accepting and processing the anger and sadness so many of us are feeling right now will ultimately result in less violence and more compassion—along with better mental health and improved psychological well-being for people from all walks of life across the United States of America.


Brett Q. Ford, Phoebe Lam, Oliver P. John, Iris B. Mauss. "The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2017; DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000157

Maya Tamir, Shalom H. Schwartz, Shige Oishi and Min Y. Kim. "The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?" Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Online first publication, August 14, 2017) DOI: 10.1037/xge0000303

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