17 Dec 3 negative feelings that can actually be good for you
via Psychology Today by David B Feldman
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…
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