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Let’s talk emotions.
Unhappiness. Anger. Envy. Guilt.
Joy. Gratitude. Fulfilment.
Do you categorise the first group as negative, and the second group as positive?
Do you aim to maximise positive emotions, and minimise negative ones? Do you express them equally? Is happiness something you strive for?
It’s a veritable Pandora’s box. How do you even define happiness, anyway?
But we have to start somewhere, and the ancient Greeks are as good a source as any.
Socrates (469-299 BC) has a unique place in the history of happiness, being the first known figure in the West to argue that humans could obtain happiness through effort. (Prior to this, it was considered more of a rare occurrence and reserved for when the gods smiled down upon you.) Socrates argued that the key to happiness was to pay attention to the soul, harmonizing one’s desires to pacify the mind.
He was also interested in the analysis of pleasure, and was one of the first people to start interpreting Hedonic motivation. His view was that a person should follow a course of action for which pleasure exceeds pain and if a person doesn’t follow that path, it’s because they do not fully understand the knowledge of the pleasure or pain that could result. Socrates was highly concerned with morality and ethics, and how people could best live their lives according to these principles.
One of the central concepts of ethics in ancient Greece was Eudaimonia. It’s commonly translated as “happiness”, but “human flourishing”, “prosperity” or “blessedness” have been proposed as better translations. Eudaimonia is inextricably linked to virtue of character, and it was the subject of much disagreement amongst the philosophers, but most agreed it was what humans should strive for above all else.
Flashing forward to the current millennium, the Western world is fascinated with “positive psychology”, a relatively new branch of psychology dedicated to defining and increasing happiness.
“Hedonic theories define well-being as the presence of positive emotion, the relative absence of negative emotion and a sense of life satisfaction,” psychotherapist Tori Rodriguez describes in an article published in Scientific American. “Eudaemonic approaches, however, emphasise a sense of meaning, personal growth and understanding of the self-goals that require confronting life’s adversaries.”
How emotions can help and harm
To find out more about emotional expression and well-being, I reached out to Dr Elise Kalokerinos. Elise is a new researcher and lecturer at the Uni of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences who spent three years at the Uni of Newcastle, researching (amongst other subjects) emotion regulation.
“Every day, we experience lots of different emotions,” says Elise. “Those emotions can be helpful, but they can also be harmful, getting in the way of our daily lives.” Some examples might be feelings of anxiety surfacing during an exam, or wanting to yell at your particularly irritating boss. This is where emotion regulation comes in.
“I study how and why people regulate their emotions, trying to understand when things go wrong and how we can fix these problems,” Elise explained in a Newcastle Herald article last year.
“In my research, I often follow people in their normal daily lives over weeks using a smartphone app. I send people texts checking in with them during the day to see what they’re doing, how they’re feeling and how they manage those feelings.”
Emotion management strategies: the helpful and not-so-helpful
Elise explains that there are numerous techniques for emotion regulation.
“Some of those strategies tend to be more effective at making us feel better – for example, a strategy called acceptance, which involves non-judgmentally accepting our emotions for what they are, or a strategy called cognitive reappraisal, which involves taking a new perspective on the thing making us sad (e.g. seeing the bright side, or being more objective).”
However, not all ways of regulating our emotions are helpful.
“Some of those strategies tend to be less effective, and might actually make us feel worse – for example, a strategy called rumination, which involves constantly thinking about and dwelling on the things making us upset, or a strategy called expressive suppression, which involves hiding how we feel from other people.”
The research is clear that suppressing emotions (whether positive or negative) can be very detrimental to well-being. “We need to express our negative emotions to be able to get help from other people, and we know that getting help from other people is a strategy that people use a lot to manage their emotions,” says Elise.
But there’s also some nuance to the subject.
”For example, a lot of research finds that expressing positive emotions is really good for your social relationships, but in some of our research, we’ve found that people who express emotions when they’ve beaten somebody else in a competition or when they’re in a negative situation are seen as unlikeable. To me, this suggests that there is a time and a place for every emotion.”
Positive and negative emotions: why we need both
“We shouldn’t think our positive emotions are inherently “good” and our negative emotions are always “bad”,’ says Elise. “Our negative emotions can be useful – people have told us that they use their negative emotions to get things done, to understand and learn from situations, to find personal meaning, and to address problems in their relationships. I think that the movie Inside Out is a great example of how we need our negative emotions to find the richness in our world!”
Psychologist Susan David of Harvard Medical School, who has spent two decades researching the science of emotions, is equally convinced of the importance of negative emotions.
“Our so-called negative emotions encourage slower, more systematic cognitive processing,” she writes in her bestselling book Emotional Agility. “‘Negative’ moods summon a more attentive, accommodating thinking style that leads you to really examine facts in a fresh and creative way.” For instance, envy can motivate us to do better, and anger can help us confront something important.
Sadness is highlighted as a signal that something is wrong. “Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.”
Unhappiness can therefore have a constructive rather than detrimental effect, encouraging us to seek out alternative paths, or information with contrary views, helping us keep an open mind.
Image credit: Mrfiza/Shutterstock
No happiness without adversity?
We’ve stablished the benefits of negative emotions, and why expressing them is essential for well-being. But now let’s go back to the study of happiness and well-being.
It might surprise you that positive and negative experiences have more of a similar effect on our lives than you might think. Recently published research from the Uni of Melbourne shows that both extremely pleasant and extremely painful events share a common set of characteristics compared to more neutral events. The authors of the paper suggest that it’s not necessarily the sadness that’s enjoyable per se, but the intensity of the experience that has a positive effect, because it lends more meaning to our lives.
Negative emotions and serious adversity have actually been linked with improved well-being in several studies. A 2012 study of around 2,400 subjects surveyed over several years found that those who experienced negative life events (which included serious illness, violence, bereavement, social stress, relationship stress and disasters) reported better mental health and overall well-being than those who didn’t. It gives credence to that old adage, “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The researchers investigated the link between mixed emotional experience and psychological welfare in a group of people undergoing psychotherapy. They found that experiencing both positive and negative emotions – such as cheerfulness and dejection – preceded improvements in well-being, even if the mixed feelings were unpleasant at the time.
The authors suggested that “taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being.” Co-authoring psychologist Dr Joseph Adler added, “Remember, one of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences.”
Image credit: Sangoiri/Shutterstock
Pursuit of happiness: a flawed approach?
Conversely, striving for happiness has been linked with lower well-being. Some psychologists and therapists are concerned that the overriding bias towards positive emotions in Western culture is having a detrimental effect, such as people expressing guilt about negative emotions. “Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time,” writes Rodriguez.
Studies published in the journal Emotion determined that the more people valued and pursued happiness, the lonelier they felt on a daily basis (measured by self-reports and levels of the hormone progesterone). It seems that striving for happiness above all else can be a self-defeating prophecy. David is vocal about the dangers of avoiding negative emotions, telling Psychology Today that “undervaluing some emotions and overvaluing others can be toxic in an increasingly complex world.”
Accepting all emotions – negative ones included – has been found to be effective in helping overcome anxiety disorders. In a study at Boston University, therapies such as mindfulness training focused not on minimizing the number of negative feelings, but by training patients to accept them. Lead author of the study, psychologist Dr Shannon Sauer-Zavala, explained, “It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts.”
If you need to reach out
It’s definitely refreshing not to have to worry so much about being happy and seeing the positive in negative emotions. But clearly negative emotions have adverse effects, and they shouldn’t be ignored.
“We know that non-judgmentally accepting our negative emotions is associated with better outcomes, so it’s generally a better idea to try to understand and confront your negative emotions where you can,” says Elise. “Once you get more familiar with how you feel, you’re better able to label your emotions, and that’s often the first step to figuring out how you might overcome them when you need to. “
If you need help with managing your emotions, or are struggling with stress or adverse circumstance, help is always available. Contact the UoN’s Counselling service for support and resources at any time.