Guess what? Negative emotions are good for you.

By John Elder

Do you remember the greats of X-Factor? What about the not-so-greats? One of the guilty pleasures of watching the audition episodes were the spectacular ‘flame-outs’ - those who couldn’t see how terrible they were. These singers were so woeful, and so defiant in the face of brutal rejection, they made perfect car-crash television.

Some of them understood they couldn’t sing and their defiant pose was part of the joke. But others insisted that their voice was beautiful, that being a pop star was their dream – and that the judges were fools for not seeing their greatness. And they seemed to mean it. They lived by the idea that dreams were destiny.

We cringed, we plugged our ears, we wondered: were those guys for real? Well, why not? As our society broadened the great dream from having a place to call your own to loftier ambitions of prosperity (wealth creation!) and social advancement (celebrity!) so grew the mantra that if you just keep thinking positive (hold to your dream!) you’ll get there in the end. In other words, these deluded, would-be superstars were natural by-products of a culture that encouraged the sorts of dreams achievable only by a small minority.

Dig a little deeper, and the question becomes: how were those contestants feeling under the bravado? Surely there was not only disappointment, but some measure of pain, anxiety and even fear – but this negative aspect, they would keep from the world, and as best as they could, from themselves.

 You don’t have to think and act positive just because some self-help book told you to. Especially when you’re not feeling it! We’re with Grumpy Cat on this one. Image via: https://bit.ly/2LNG8fP

You don’t have to think and act positive just because some self-help book told you to. Especially when you’re not feeling it! We’re with Grumpy Cat on this one. Image via: https://bit.ly/2LNG8fP

It’s a primal instinct that occurs in animals and birds – called pain masking. It serves to maintain a posture of health and vigour – and therefore dissuade predators or social rivals from wasting their energy chasing them down and eating them. From this we have inherited, deep down, the urge to show no weakness. An unfortunate consequence is that we often don’t – even when we’re not doing that well. The mask of positivism isn’t just fooling the watching world, it can fool the person wearing it. You might say, oh well, ignorance is bliss. But it’s not. It’s a trap.

So what’s up with being down?

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that working at a positive attitude, especially an attitude of gratitude for what’s good in your life, regardless of your circumstances, can be transformative and sustaining. There’s a whole school of positive psychology as founded and championed by Dr Martin, US psychologist, former president of the American Psychological Association, and author of a neat book called Flourish. For a quick study, check out this uplifting article: ‘Happiness Isn’t the Absence of Negative Feelings’.

The author of the above article, Jennifer Moss, is a leader in the happiness field, honoured by President Barack Obama himself. She writes:

"Healthy positivity doesn’t mean cloaking your authentic feelings. Happiness is not the absence of suffering; it’s the ability to rebound from it. And happiness is not the same as joy or ecstasy; happiness includes contentment, well-being, and the emotional flexibility to experience a full range of emotions."

So there’s that. Feeing sad, angry, frustrated or full of doubt is all part of being real.

 It's OK to be real. Illustration by  Jim Benton , via: https://bit.ly/2JxskJM

It's OK to be real. Illustration by Jim Benton, via: https://bit.ly/2JxskJM

But wait there’s more. A 10-year longitudinal study found that giving your emotions a frequent and varied workout was strongly associated with relatively good physical health. It also found that an increase in the frequency of emotional agility over many years diminished ‘typical age-related health declines.’ In other words, being able to take the good with the bad helps you stay in good shape.

The down side of holding your downers down.

A 2016 study found that parents who try to suppress their negative emotions, and amplify positive emotions, when caring for small children, suffered diminished well-being. And the ‘high quality bonds’ they were seeking between themselves and their child, were compromised.

You obviously don’t want to bombard your babies with your anxieties and worries, but if you don’t identify and share how you’re really travelling – be it with a friend, partner, counsellor – those bad feelings will seep into the crib anyway. And pretending that everything is OK will be just as unnerving on your little ones. How can they grow up to be themselves if you’re not being authentic?    

Another study found that the willingness to express negative emotions promotes relationships. Sure, your friends may not want to hear you bang on and on forever about your misery… but they do want to hear about it. It’s about being real with them. 

 EVERYONE is a work in progress. And if they tell you otherwise, run away, because they're lying. Illustration by Gemma Correll & Mental Health America, via: https://bit.ly/2sZhiCX

EVERYONE is a work in progress. And if they tell you otherwise, run away, because they're lying. Illustration by Gemma Correll & Mental Health America, via: https://bit.ly/2sZhiCX

Actually, there are countless studies that identify emotions as the main drivers of decision-making, more than cool thought. This one from Harvard University makes a lengthy and exhausting case.

Still, it seems odd, even unstable, to rely on your emotions, especially negative ones, at the workplace, especially for bosses and leaders – until you understand that negativity is a clever tool granted to us by evolution. A 2013 article on emotional agility tells it this way:

''The prevailing wisdom says that difficult thoughts and feelings have no place at the office: Executives, and particularly leaders, should be either stoic or cheerful; they must project confidence and damp down any negativity bubbling up inside them. But that goes against basic biology. All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls."

In decision-making, negative emotions are found to play a protective role because they make you aware of potential threats and more able to identify an unfair deal. On the other hand, the happy, positive negotiator or decision-maker can be more easily sucked into making bad decisions because they’ve become a little too satisfied and aloof from realties. I.e. Life’s great! What could go wrong? 

Research has also found that negative emotions can help improve your memory accuracy as well as build your resilience against stress at work, which might explain all that healthy, feel-good bitching at the water cooler.

 Go ahead: express the good and the bad. It's better for you. Image via https://bit.ly/2Mn9Fhq

Go ahead: express the good and the bad. It's better for you. Image via https://bit.ly/2Mn9Fhq

Perhaps the last word should come from this study, that found integrating your negative experiences and feelings into your positive self, leads to greater happiness than just disclosing your feelings or putting a positive spin on them. In other words, real happiness comes from identifying and reconciling the bad with the good. The authors boldly declared that you can actually find happiness in negative emotions.

The take-home message – and a few words about HeadUp!

Dreams give us many things: hope, goals, a sense of meaning to why we’re here. Meanwhile life goes on, and always not so easily. There's no point in painting on a clown’s face for the sake of keeping up appearances. For greater health and well-being, you need to recognise where you’re honestly at: emotionally, mentally and physically.

But this isn’t the most straightforward thing to do. If it were, maybe mental and physical illness wouldn’t be so prevalent. This is why HeadUp is on a mission to create a human dashboard app (launching very soon!). We want you to be able to visualise all facets of your health and wellbeing with the touch of a screen.

To test the algorithms that will go into the app, we set up an experiment called the 'Insiders Program'. Using these algorithms, HeadUp's data scientists have been able to analyse our Insiders' FitBit data and give each user personalised health information they cannot access anywhere else. We've also been collecting our Insiders' mood data every day, and have been able to link the way someone is feeling to their exercise and sleep quality. We've even found an association between mood and fruit and veg consumption! 

 Good health is a combination of many variables: we want to help you with all of them. Image via @healthmagazine - https://bit.ly/2JyzPAj

Good health is a combination of many variables: we want to help you with all of them. Image via @healthmagazine - https://bit.ly/2JyzPAj

We thought our Insiders Program would last three weeks, but six months on, we still have almost 100 people taking part in our experiment. What we’re trying to say is this: we’ve created something really special. And we cannot wait to share it with you.

Until then, you can get your daily fix of all things #health and #tech on our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter pages.

 

John is a Melbourne journalist and writer. For 21 years he was senior writer for the Sunday Age newspaper and Fairfax Media, with a special interest in science, medicine and health research – and in philosophical questions facing modern society. He continues to be a life-issues columnist for The Sunday Age, science and health contributor for The New Daily and is an editorial advisor for the Clueless Economist.      

 

*Please note: header image was found here: https://bit.ly/2JQcGIA