Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Role of Negative Emotions in a Positive Life

“Think positive!”

“Look on the bright side!”

“Every cloud has a silver lining.”

Our culture is filled with aphorisms encouraging us to choose positive over negative thinking. In general, that’s very good advice. Positive emotions—joy, peacefulness, satisfaction, love, optimism—are good for us, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Negative emotions—anger, depression, frustration, guilt, hate—are bad for us and those around us.

Doctors have known for decades that people who spend most of their time on the positive end of the emotional spectrum tend to be healthier (not to mention happier) and live longer than those who are chronically or habitually negative in their thinking.

So why hasn’t nature edited out those nasty, energy-tapping negative emotions? Why don’t we all walk around in a haze of happiness, contented as cows in a corn field?

Well, from an evolutionary point of view, if we didn’t have the capacity to react negatively to certain situations—to feel terror when threatened, anger when abused, and guilt when we’ve caused harm to others—we’d have died out as a species long ago. Negative emotions are necessary for us to know when something is seriously awry and do something about it.

Negative feelings are analogous to pain in the body. A person who can feel no physical pain (a condition that results from a rare genetic disorder) is in grave danger of dying very young of injuries the rest of us would instinctively avoid. Feeling no pain, they also feel no fear of things that could harm their bodies. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for these people to live normal, productive lives.

Similarly, people who live with chronic pain due to nerve disorders or injuries also tend to live diminished, distorted lives. Much of their energy is drained off every day in just the effort of coping with pain.

So to live well and be happy, we need to have physical pain in our lives—an optimum amount of pain, at the right times and for the right reasons. The same is true of the psychological “pain” caused by negative emotions.

In a healthy life, negative feelings operate like physical pain: alerting us to the existence of something that ought to be changed. Fear alerts us to danger and spurs us to action so we can avoid it. Anger helps us recognize less-than-ideal situations and relationships that ought to be changed. Guilt allows us to realize when we've done harm and either correct the situation or make amends. Without these kinds of feelings, growth and personal development would be very limited—especially in terms of interpersonal relationships.

These emotions are healthy—so long as they motivate us to do whatever needs to be done to correct the situation that’s causing them. But they can be bad if we fail to take corrective action or—worse yet—just choose to live our daily lives filled with fear, anger, guilt, or other negative thought patterns.

This is where personal choice comes in: Under usual circumstances, no one has to live life full of chronic, negative emotions. Those who do are like people who get up every morning and shoulder a backpack full of boulders: they go through their daily lives weighted down with feelings that rob their lives of joy, peace, good health, and good relationships. (As a counselor, I spend a good deal of my time encouraging people to “drop their rocks.”)

So in a positive life, negative emotions should serve as guideposts—letting us know when we’re off the path of safety and righteousness and showing us how to get back on track. They should not become permanent features of our lives. People who lead good, happy, productive lives—intentionally or not—develop certain skills for dealing with negative emotions:
  • Recognizing negative feelings, when they occur, as problems that need to be dealt with

  • Developing an action plan to resolve the problem(s) causing those negative feelings

  • Letting go of the fear, anger, guilt, resentment, frustration, etc., once action has been taken to deal with it

  • Avoiding people and situations that tend to stimulate chronic, unproductive negative emotions.

My favorite coffee mug reads, “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.” It’s amazing how much truth and wisdom can fit on the side of a cup!