February 6, 2023
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ColumnsMind and Matter

Easing up on our emotions

In an age of black and white, it is easy to place our emotions in steel boxes. The study of emotions and their overall consequences on health has long utilized value judgments that paint negative emotions — fear and sadness — as inherently harmful, and positive emotions — joy and happiness — as inherently good. Human emotion is much more complex than that.

Traditional happiness has been defined as the absence of negative emotions. Much of historical psychological practice has been aimed at reducing negative moods. Such an approach is understandable when an emotion hampers one’s ability to maintain relationships and function in society. But an approach that does not recognize that negative emotions, in moderation, are integral to our well-being can actually encourage patterns of self-punishment.

From an evolutionary perspective, negative emotions help us operate by supplying valuable information about threatening events and harmful problems and patterns, such as unhealthy relationships. Furthermore, our negative emotions can provide us with focus, lead to a higher capacity of creative thinking, enhance our memories, build empathy for others and increase resilience.

Often, people attempt to suppress negative emotions. In a paradoxical fashion, this can create negative feedback loops and stressful mental patterns, increasing feelings of anxiety and depression. A recent study found that those who “engage in repression as a coping strategy” have higher risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Contrary to popular belief, negative emotions are not inherently bad, and an abnormal absence of these emotions can impair the ability to psychologically adjust to difficult situations.

On the other hand, positive emotions are often viewed as inherently good. Contrary to these assumptions is research that suggests that an excess of positive emotions without the balance of negative emotions can lead to selfishness and lower empathetic capacity. In addition, positive emotions can create reinforcement feedback loops that reduce inhibition and lead to a higher proclivity toward harmfully addictive behaviors.

Positive and negative emotions are not entirely bad or good. There is no intrinsic goodness or badness of an emotion. The extent to which one can navigate a mixture of emotions and rebound from stressful situations is a useful predictor of health outcomes. The context in which emotions unfold and whether they hamper our functionality or push us toward healthier patterns is a better determinant of their utility, rather than their perceived and socially predetermined value.