Why It’s Okay to Feel Bad
I talk a lot about happiness. But there’s a lot of things I feel people misunderstand about it.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that negative emotions get in the way of happiness. So let’s be clear.
It’s okay to feel bad.
When we put too much emphasis on happiness, we tend to get the idea that bad feelings are, well…..bad.
This can give us unrealistic expectations, which is potentially harmful to our overall happiness. And new research finds that accepting negative emotions can actually improve well-being.
The Pressure to Be Happy
Here’s the thing. In the US, and western societies in general, we place a lot of emphasis on being happy and having intense positive emotions.
While being happy is a worthy pursuit, it can be taken too far. When we’re bombarded with our friends’ happy moments and amazing lives on Facebook or Instagram, we begin to think that everyone is happy all the time.
And this just isn’t the case.
We get advice that, while having the best intentions, is potentially misleading. They say that if you’re feeling down, you should pretend to be happy and happiness will ensue.
For example, people point to a classic study where people who were made to smile without knowing it, were happier afterwards. So you should smile even when feeling blue, right?
Not necessarily. Recently, this claim has been called into question when other psychologists tried and failed to replicate the results.
This is contradictory to the advice that we should “fake it till you make it” when it comes to happiness. Many companies are also learning that trying to force positivity through policy can backfire spectacularly.
It seems that creating an environment where people feel pressure to be upbeat and positive can end up making people less happy. And a new study says that all of this may be taking a toll on your mental well-being.
Accepting Your Negative Emotions Helps Happiness
Psychologists from UC Berkeley may have found answers to why forced positivity may backfire.
Their study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at the mental well-being of over 1,300 people in the US. Brett Ford, an author of the study, says that negative emotions aren’t as bad as people think:
It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being.
They conducted over 3 different types of experiments to gather evidence. One using data from a long term study, one using diary, and a final one conducted under lab conditions.
And the key to greater happiness? Accepting the fact that you sometimes feel bad:
We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health.
It’s not just about acceptance. It’s also about how you judge those feelings:
People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.
Why Accepting Your Negative Emotions Works
Acceptance can be a tricky thing. It doesn’t mean that you have to endure bad situations that you have certain control over. Like an abusive spouse, or a boss that berates you in front on your coworkers.
And research surrounding what “acceptance” is and how it works is still young. But reseachers have a couple of guesses about how acceptance can lessen the psychological impact of negative emotions.
1. Accepting and allowing negative feelings to run their course allows you to give them less attention and focus. Other research has shown that suppressing these things can end up making it worse.
2. Constantly judging your emotions can increase the negative emotions your feeling. Accepting them allows doesn’t intensify the experience.
This could be why researchers found that people who allowed themselves to feel sad or disappointed reported fewer mood disorder symptoms six months later than people who were self-critical or avoidant.
Bad Feelings Can Be Good for Happiness
The study from Berkeley doesn’t stand alone. It complements research from other psychologists who’ve found that acceptance and self-compassion are two key habits of happiness.
And guess what other research found as the least practiced habit of happiness? Yup, self-acceptance.
Happiness isn’t about rejecting, suppressing, or ignoring negative emotions. It’s okay to feel bad. And we should do a better job of helping people understand that it’s perfectly normal.
Negative emotions have even been found to be beneficial in a variety of situations. To view them as completely “bad” harms our ability to effectively deal with them. And, ironically, it makes us less resilient and happy in the long run.