Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad? Don’t!

Block out the bad news is the suggestion of one recent social-media news feed: Why expose yourself to police shootings that evoke your anger, or why labor on election outcomes that make you fearful? The advice is sound. Recent studies find that sustained negative emotions undermine the immune system, increase the risk for disease, and feed depression. Conversely, positive emotions, such as happiness, interest, pride, and connectedness are important for wellbeing, health, and longevity. But while it is good to feel good, it is not always bad to feel bad.

Negative emotions keep us on track. Anger, fear, shame and even sadness, far from being distracting, mobilize us to act on what is important. Movements like Black (or Blue) Lives Matter were born out of anger. In anger comes the recognition of injustice, and a motivation to challenge it. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth tried to evoke fear, and thereby motivate a generation to start new habits and endorse new policies; just knowing about climate change does not do the trick, we need to feel the fear. Of course, fear may sometimes work toward goals that are less lofty, but the point is that it motivates you to move away from what you perceive to be dangerous.

Shame, an emotion that many Americans would prefer not to claim, is in many cultures a way of protecting our connections with others. Next time I have visitors over, I will make sure to hear the bell over the sound of my exhaust. Last Sunday my guests were left waiting outside in the cold for a full 15 minutes before I let them in. Shame works to avoid future similar goofs, but it also works to appease others once you have made a misstep. In one study where a confederate knocked over a pile of toilet paper in a small supermarket, onlookers liked him better when he showed some shame or embarrassment; better even than when he rebuilt the stack. And even sadness ultimately keeps us on track. When we lose a game or fail an exam, even when we lose a friend, sadness makes us stop and reflect on what went wrong; it makes us change strategies. And therefore, while thriving depends on positive emotions, it cannot exist without negative. Negative emotions are our compass to the world: they give direction to our action when it is needed most.

How much negative emotion is still healthy? Negative emotions orient us, and prepare the body for action, but the latter is precisely the reason that negative emotions are costly when sustained over longer time. When all we have is negative emotions, and when we experience negative emotions at the exclusion of positive emotions, the result can be illness and depression. But ignoring the problems in our life does not make us thrive. Blocking out the news will not make injustice or climate change go away, it will just help to temporarily ignore these problems. Therefore, while turning off the TV may lead to better feelings in the moment, it will not make you thrive in the long run. Instead, allowing anger as it leads you to fight injustice, by writing a letter to a Congress person, for example, and allowing fear as it leads you to avoid climate change, by contributing to green energy, will ultimately lead to more productive strategies for thriving than just trying to feel good all the time. Allowing anger, fear, shame, and sadness, and acting on them, does not mean letting them overtake your life. It is always good to cultivate positive feelings, as well, by connecting with other people over the issues that we find important, and by keeping hope and optimism. But if the news makes you feel bad, do not turn it off, do not feel bad about having bad feelings, but let them speak to action.


Image courtesy of Heidi Sandstrom/Unsplash

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