There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Emotion

Marc Brackett, Ph.D.
3 min readJan 9, 2023
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Co-authored with Robin Stern, PhD

More than once, we’ve been asked, “is it possible to be happy all the time?” How interesting that people think that’s the goal. Today, there are more happiness books, manuals, apps, and pills than ever before. There are even happiness coaches. It seems everyone wants to be happy.

No doubt people enjoy feeling happy — and people also prefer to be around other happy people. But believing we need to be happy all of the time is misguided. Life, including our relationships and jobs, is complex and filled with a range of emotions that are not only unavoidable, but add to the texture of our lives.

From an emotional intelligence perspective, all emotions are information. They are cues, signals — telling us to approach or avoid, to stay or to go. Fear is neither a desirable feeling nor a pleasant one, but it gets you out of the way when a fly ball is coming at your head, or a big spider is crawling toward you. No one likes to feel disappointed or discouraged, but the expression of these feelings can let others know when to comfort us or offer to help. Both of us tend to be worriers. While we don’t like feeling this way, we’ve learned to accept our tendency to worry and see it as a sign — that we had too much coffee or that there’s a difficult situation we’ve been ignoring that we need to work through, or maybe simply just that we need to find more opportunities to relax and unwind. That shift in mindset alone has been freeing.

Emotions also provide a lens through which we interpret information. Consider this: if we were happy all the time, our rose-colored view would ignore the realities of a world in need of our attention. Frustration can make us aware of our obstacles and push us to look for creative ways around them. Boredom in our careers or our routines can motivate to us to spice things up, to look for something more challenging or fulfilling. It is the range of emotions that we experience — not any specific one, that opens our eyes and encourages us to grow, learn, and become catalysts for change.

It’s what we do with our emotions that really matters. Aristotle got it right when he said, “Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Sure, anger can be destructive, but it also can push us to seek justice in an unfair situation. We can let anger eat away at us, or we can channel it toward standing up for what’s right.

We teach this to schools with RULER– our Center’s evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning (SEL). A big part of RULER is helping people of all ages really understand that emotions matter — all of them. And how we deal with them matters most. If you haven’t checked it out, I (Marc) unpack this idea in much more detail in my book, Permission to Feel. In future articles, we’ll explore how emotions influence our memories, decisions, relationships, health, and ability to think and solve problems creatively.

In the meantime, we challenge you to think about the emotions in your life that you have considered “negative” or bad…the ones you usually push aside, ignore, try to suppress, or hope will go away. Now ask yourself: is there another way to see these emotions? What kind of information are they providing you? What are they teaching you? How might you change your relationship to these emotions from wanting to rid yourself of them to accepting them? How do, or how can these emotions serve you? And if these emotions are not serving you well, what might you need to manage these emotions more effectively?

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Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; Professor, Yale Child Study Center; Author of: Permission To Feel; www.marcbrackett.com