Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

Valuing negative emotions protects people from lasting health effects of bad moods

By Janina Steinmetz

 

From time to time, we all feel sad, anxious, or angry. And research has shown that frequently feeling these emotions can be bad for our health and make us sick. On the one hand, negative emotions are useful to motivate people to change their behavior. For example, without feeling anxiety when in danger, people wouldn’t feel the need to avoid danger, and thus might risk their health. On the other hand, the prolonged experience of negative emotions (such as fear, anxiety, or sadness) is associated with a number of negative health outcomes. People who frequently experience negative emotions report lower life-satisfaction, lower life expectancy, and a higher likelihood to contract various diseases. Thus, negative emotions can protect people from harm and danger, but can also threaten their well-being and purposeful pursuit when these negative emotions are frequent.

Image ©: Thomas Mueller 2010

But these negative effects of unpleasant emotions on health may not be inevitable. In fact, some people see these emotions as a meaningful opportunity for growth and learning, as unpleasant as these emotions are. One critical factor can influence whether the experience of negative emotions is really harmful for one’s psychological and physiological well-being: The subjective valuation of the emotion. A recent study by Gloria Luong and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany highlights that it is more important what people make of negative emotions, and less important how frequent negative emotions are. Specifically, the authors found that for some people, negative emotions are not only bad, but can also feel empowering (for instance when they are angry) or meaningful (when they are sad). The more people felt that their negative emotions carried meaning and the more they saw a silver lining in experiencing negative emotions, less harm was done to these people due to the negative emotions. Interestingly, even people who frequently experience negative emotions do not suffer from negative psychological and physiological consequences if they see meaning and positive aspects in these emotions.

These results show that what we think about experiences is sometimes more important that the experiences themselves. When we are angry, maybe we should focus on what we can do to improve the situation, instead of being carried away by anger. When we are sad, we could take this is a sign that we care about something or someone enough to feel sadness. When we are anxious, our body and mind might signal to us that a challenge is coming up, and we should appreciate the challenge and get ready for it. So, the next time you feel negative emotions, try to find a silver lining. Your health might thank you later.   

 

Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

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