Three Negative Feelings That Can Sometimes Be Good

Research shows that negative emotions, in measured amounts, can be helpful.

Posted Oct 30, 2018

c12/Shutterstock
Source: c12/Shutterstock

A few years ago, I gave a talk at a conference for cancer survivors. In attendance were more than a thousand people in various stages of their battles against this daunting disease, ranging from those who had just received their diagnosis to people years into remission. Somewhat spontaneously, I asked the audience a question: "What is the least helpful piece of advice anyone offered you during your cancer ordeal?" Given the number of people, it shouldn’t be surprising that there was a plethora of opinions. But, there was a wave of agreement that one of the very least helpful things they heard — often over and over again — was, "Look on the bright side! Just put your mind on the positive, and everything will be all right." The main problem with this advice, the audience told me, was that it's simply impossible to follow. "The more I try to force myself to think positively," one woman commented, "the more I just feel like I’m lying to myself and the people I love."

 "I think it should be okay to feel bad sometimes," she added.

American culture seems obsessed with positivity. We tell people to "Have a nice day!" when we depart their company. When we see them in passing, we ask, "How are you?" and are genuinely shocked if they tell us anything other than, "Great," "Good," or at least, "Fine." Even if you don't remember most songs from past decades, chances are you recall Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," and Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."

It's what psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener call "gung-ho happyology." In their book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, they argue that trying to be so positive all the time can easily backfire.

As just one example, they argue that being overly happy can make us gullible. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, investigators asked research participants to watch videos of people denying an alleged theft — some of them were lying, and some were telling the truth. The participants were asked to judge the actual culpability of the people in the videos. But here’s the catch: Just prior to making those judgments, some of the participants were put in a good mood by being asked to watch a video excerpt from a comedy television series, whereas other participants were put in a bad mood by being asked to watch an excerpt from a film about dying of cancer. The results showed that when people are in a bad mood, they’re much more accurate at detecting deception than their happy counterparts. While the participants in a bad mood were able to detect the lying at rates significantly above chance, people in a happy mood were no better than a coin flip.

So negative feelings, though unpleasant, can sometimes be useful.

To most psychologists, this is an uncontroversial claim. There is a good reason that human beings evolved the ability to experience negative emotions: In measured amounts, they protect us from harm and help us to be successful. When our species (homo sapiens) first emerged more than 200,000 years ago, dangers lurked everywhere. Our ancient relatives were probably just as likely to fall prey to animals as the animals were to fall prey to them. Ancient humans who were capable of experiencing suspicion, fear, anxiety, and even anger would have been less likely to place themselves in harmful situations or would have been better able to navigate their way out of them than those not susceptible to these feelings.

Psychologists believe that many seemingly negative emotions can serve useful functions. Here are a few:

Anxiety

Anxiety is the emotion perhaps most responsible for keeping us safe. "In the early Sahara, our hominid ancestors living in small hunter-gatherer communities survived because of a specific set of anxiety circuits [in the brain]," write Kashdan and Biswas-Diener. If our ancient ancestors were out gathering berries and encountered a tiger or other predator, it would behoove them to become anxious and even afraid. The ramped-up response of their autonomic nervous system would allow them to fight or flee the situation. If you’ve ever avoided going down a dark alleyway late at night or prepared extra hard for a test (or any task, for that matter), because you were nervous about failing, you've benefitted from this same anxiety response. Anyone who has been on stage also knows that sometimes a small amount of "stage fright" can heighten awareness and facilitate performance. In one study, skilled billiards players were observed by an experimenter as they attempted to make as many shots as possible. At some point, the observer moved closer to the pool table and continued to watch intently. Presumably, being scrutinized so closely would lead most people to feel a bit nervous. When this happened, skilled players' performance actually increased by 14 percent. Known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, numerous studies show that as autonomic arousal increases, so does performance — but only to a point. Too much anxiety can paralyze us, of course. Just like most negative emotions, the feeling itself isn't necessarily bad, but too much of it can be.

Guilt

We hate feeling guilty — that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach when we believe we've wronged another person. But our desire to avoid the unpleasantness of this emotion is precisely what makes it useful. According to research, people prone to feeling guilty are less likely to drive drunk, use illegal substances, steal, or assault others. In one longitudinal study of jail inmates, researchers found that those who expressed greater guilt for their wrongdoings shortly after being incarcerated were less likely to re-offend in the year following release. To be sure, not all guilt is helpful. We all know people who feel too much guilt, even when they've done nothing wrong. Guilt can also turn to shame and self-loathing, which aren’t useful feelings. But in manageable amounts, guilt can help us keep out of trouble, right our relationships, and ultimately do the right thing.

Anger

"Anger itself is neither good nor bad," write Kashdan and Biswas-Diener. "It's what we do with it that matters." The emotion of anger can cause us to become violent and hurt other people, but it can also motivate us to argue persuasively for our position in peaceful and assertive ways. In one study, for instance, experimenters asked participants to play the role of a seller negotiating with a buyer. Their task was to sell a batch of mobile phones to the "buyer" (whom they believed was another participant like themselves) at the highest rate possible. The better the deal they were able to strike, the greater the reward they would receive in the real world at the end of the experiment. Some of the participants in the experiment were led to believe that the buyer was growing angry with them, whereas others were led to believe that the buyer felt happy. The results were stunning: By the end of the negotiations, participants who believed they were dealing with an angry buyer offered their cell phones at more than a 30 percent discount over participants who thought they were dealing with a happy buyer. Of course, there’s a big difference between feeling the emotion of anger (and its less intense cousins, annoyance and frustration) and acting aggressively. Violent behavior is never excusable. But, as this and other studies show, just the right amount of anger acted on in a peaceful, but assertive way can be a useful tool. So, next time you call your cable, internet, or phone provider to dispute a hefty bill, remember that a little judiciously placed anger may help achieve a fair outcome.

Nobody is arguing that the secret to a fulfilling life is to feel angry, anxious, or guilty all the time. In fact, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener propose a "20 percent rule." A healthy life, they assert, includes feeling generally pleasant feelings about 80 percent of the time and unpleasant feelings approximately 20 percent of the time. Clearly, most of us would prefer to feel happy, content, and satisfied 100 percent of the time. But negative emotions, in moderate amounts, are unavoidable. Trying to push them away ignores what they may have to teach us. "We know pain sucks," Kashdan and Biswas-Diener write. "We're just arguing that accumulating emotions that feel good right now and avoiding emotions that feel unpleasant right now is not the best strategy for living well."

Ultimately, in order to lead a good life, we must learn how to deal with all our emotions, not just the happy ones. And it's good to know that even feeling bad can sometimes work in our favor.

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