Whenever we find ourselves feeling down, we will invariably encounter well-meaning people who are quick to offer up advice along the lines of: “Don’t worry – be happy!”
As we all strive diligently in the pursuit of happiness, there’s a tendency to dismiss or suppress unpleasant emotions as though they are unnatural glitches in the rich tapestry of the human experience.
Happiness, positivity and well-being are currently hot buzzwords. From the office space to our homes, everything should be geared towards the pleasant and the joyful.
As with any other social trend, many of us feel compelled to fit in with the current fad lest we be unfairly labelled.
But before we head to our “happy place”, it’s worth considering that there are benefits to our so-called negative emotions, and that trying to be happy when we feel anything but, can do more harm than good.
Is happiness overrated?
All of our emotions play a functional role in our lives. To deny unpleasant emotions by suppressing them is like sending them to the back of our minds to work out: they only come back stronger.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne suggested that, in countries that place a premium on happiness, depression rates are higher than in countries where happiness comes as a result of, for example, carrying out meaningful work or enjoying healthy relationships.
In an interview with the Daily Mail (United Kingdom), social psychologist, Dr Brock Bastian explained, “Rather than being the by-product of a life well-lived, feeling happy has become a goal in itself. Smiling faces beam at us from social media and happiness gurus flog their latest emotional quick fixes.”
The positivity of negative emotions
As part of a series of workshops I conducted with Dr Eugene Tee at HELP University, we explored the positivity of “negative” emotions and how they often function to serve in our best interests.
We looked at one study that found that individuals who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) made more conservative financial decisions during winter than non-SAD sufferers.
In other words, sadness and depression can lead us to make decisions that minimise potential losses and thus enhance self-preservation.
Another study showed that people who experience a “healthy level” of neuroticism (high sensitivity and reactivity to unpleasant emotions) along with high levels of conscientiousness were more likely to find illnesses and diseases earlier as a result of hypochondriac tendencies.
Anger – an emotion most of us strive to avoid – can actually make us appear more competent and self-assured compared to people who show fear or sadness.
It can also help us to gain the upper hand in negotiations and people are often compelled to offer larger concessions to angry opponents compared to those who are happy.
Don’t ignore your emotions
The point here is not that we should allow our unpleasant emotions to be in complete control. We certainly need to cultivate more positive emotions for our psychological well-being to thrive.
But we should also understand – and accept – the full range of our natural emotions, including those we deem to be unpleasant, and develop an awareness of when they serve a purpose and when they are destructive.
By attempting to inoculate ourselves against our negative emotions, we actually create more suffering.
It’s partly because we’re trying to ignore a very real part of who we are. It’s also because the societal pressure to always be happy means that we gain very little experience in engaging effectively with unpleasant feelings.
This unhelpful norm could arguably be part of the reason for the continuing work-related stress and low levels of employee engagement.
Pretending to be happy when we’re not is simply counter-productive, often to significant degrees.
Besides, trying to cultivate happiness on a superficial level has short-lived results, because we tend to look for happiness in all the wrong ways (e.g. “Once I get the new iPhone, then I’ll be happy!” or “I just need a holiday in Bali, then I’ll be fine.”).
Embrace all your emotions
As Russ Harris notes in his book, The Happiness Trap, “The more we try to avoid the basic reality that all human life involves pain, the more we are likely to struggle with that pain when it arises, thereby creating even more suffering.”
Authentic happiness then starts from the point of developing an awareness and acceptance of the full range of our emotions, and then being able to see them as functional rather than trying to box them up as “good” or “bad”.
Emotions are neither helpful nor unhelpful – it’s how we view and use them that determines how we feel.
All in all
The World Health Organisation has described health as “not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
If business leaders are to help tackle work-related stress, a good place to start would be to review any superficial programmes and practices geared towards well-being, and to instead look into ways of truly nurturing authentic happiness within their employees.
Sandy is currently writing a book on mindfulness and emotions with Dr Eugene Tee, and they both conduct a series of workshops centred on mindfulness and well-being. To share your thoughts on negative emotions, email us at email@example.com. We’ll like to hear from you! To engage Leaderonomics for your organisational needs, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember the animation Inside Out? The story threw up a number of thought-provoking questions about the way we process emotions, and how that changes during our journey from being a child to adulthood. To learn some lessons from the story, click below:
3 Leadership Lessons From Inside Out