Assay: The Good in Bad Emotions.

Assay: I’m surprised by how often people say to me something like, “Well, of course, you think people should be blissfully happy every minute of every day” or “You argue that people should aim never to experience negative emotions.”

But I never argue that. I don’t believe that.

For me, at least, the aim of a happiness project is not to eliminate all forms of unhappiness from life. Given the reality of existence, as well as human nature, that’s not possible, and even if it were possible, it’s not desirable.

Negative emotions — up to a point — can play a very helpful role in a happy life. They’re powerful, flashy signs that something isn’t right. They often prod me into action.

The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happier, I have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

“Feeling bad” is a very important element. In fact, one reason I started my happiness project was to stop bad feeling such as guilt, resentment, and boredom. Guilt for losing my patience with my children. Resentment toward my husband for his failure to feed me gold stars. Boredom with activities that I thought I “ought” to find fun. Importantly, the pain of seeing others’ pain acts as a prod to action — whether the pain of people in my life, or out in the world.

Figuring out ways to eliminate these bad feelings led me to a happier life — and a more virtuous life, as well.

Also, one key to happiness is self-knowledge, and yet it’s very, very hard to know myself — especially painful aspects that I’m trying to deny or cover up. Negative emotions shine a spotlight on things I’m trying to hide. For example, when I was thinking of switching careers from law to writing, the extremely uncomfortable emotion of envy helped show me what I really wanted; when I read class notes in my alumni magazine, I felt only mild interest in most careers, including the people with interesting legal jobs, but I envied the writers. My guilt about the way I snapped at my family makes me stick to my many resolutions aimed at helping me feel calm and light-hearted.

Along the same lines, the anxiety to deny your true actions can be an important signal. A friend of mine said, “I knew I had to get control of my children’s TV time when I heard myself lying to the pediatrician about how TV they watched each week.” Another friend admitted, “In my new job, I can walk to work. I kept telling people I did walk to work, but really, I’d only walked a few times. I realized that the idea of walking must be important to me — or else I wouldn’t bother to lie about it — and also I needed to be truthful with myself about what I was really doing. So finally I really did start walking.”

Of course, as Samuel Johnson pointed out, “The medicine, which, rightly applied, has power to cure, has, when rashness or ignorance prescribes it, the same power to destroy.” The bitter medicine of negative emotions can be helpful within a certain range, but if it creates severe unhappiness — or certainly depression — it can become so painful that it interferes with normal life. And that’s when you need serious help.

A big part of being happier, I’ve found, is finding ways either to eliminate the causes, or if that isn’t possible, to deal constructively with negative emotions and difficult situations.

Have you faced a situation where a negative emotion helped push you to a beneficial change?


* If you haven’t checked it out yet, “Share your six words on the secrets to happiness” is here. So engaging! It’s fascinating to see other people’s six-word secrets, and very fun to try to devise your own.

* It’s the first Monday of 2011, when the year really gets started. If you want to join the 2011 Happiness Challenge, to make 2011 a happier year, sign up here. Each month, I’ll suggest a theme, and each week, I’ll post a video with an idea for something to try.

  • I try to take the Buddhist approach and be aware of my negative emotions, to be mindful of them. But not to necessarily make them go away, at least not immediately. When negative emotions aren’t embraced and dealt with, they will just simmer under the surface and come back in another form.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, it’s so alluring to try to deny them or hide from them. mindfulness,
      always mindfulness!

  • “Have you faced a situation where a negative emotion helped push you to a beneficial change?”

    I recently got out of a relationship. I didn’t get out of it, I was dumped out of it. Yet, when I look back it was this gradual kind of off-loading of me from the relationship, and I actively played the role of clinging onto the ledge until there was nothing to cling to anymore. So, when it finally came to an end, the large amount of negative emotion is anger. I’m angry because no one forced me to stay in a situation that ultimately would end, I’m angry that it ended at all, and sometimes get frustrated when people ask about it.

    So, the point is, as the intuition started to work in overdrive leading up to that last month I started my own happiness project of blogging. Not quite as far and wide as yours, but it’s reaching some people, and people are identifying with the experience. It’s making me healthier, more kind, and a little bit of a gentler person. It doesn’t mean to say that I don’t have a bit of a snappy reaction to certain things, as I’m still hurting a bit, but it means I am more aware. I’m allowing myself to set boundaries, but be open, and stand for something – so I don’t fall for anything.

    • Modernhousewivery

      Good for you! Good luck with your journey!

  • The Red Angel

    I used to always consider negative feelings to be really overwhelming and uncontrollable. They would always take over me and then I would feel extremely depressed and helpless. But then I finally decide to really take a look at those feelings, and it helped me understand myself a lot more. By standing up to those negative feelings and knowing where they come from, I can actually take charge and find ways to change my attitude.

    So yeah, I definitely know what you mean. 🙂


  • Hi Gretchen.

    I like to always absorb any negativity that I may see so that I can understand it and work through it. The person who can handle the tough stuff is ready for anything, and doesn’t have to worry so much.

    You are right that negative feelings usually signal a problem that could become bigger. We get little warnings before things get worse, and that is a great opportunity.

  • You’ve got to take the good with the bad in my opinion…Negatives bring out the good in people…

    Live, laugh, and love…

  • Contrarian

    Happiness is an illusive effect – not a direct cause. You cannot set a goal to “be happy” in 2011. It is an end value – not a means to an end. It is something you cannot find – it can ONLY find you.

    Happiness is like love … If you want it to find you, then you must compel it, romance it, beguile it, seduce it, and tempt it. Become a compelling prospect. Become someone that happiness cannot resist. Be the person that happiness would want to find.

  • I love how Byron Katie says that negative emotions are like alarm clocks, notifying us that we’re creating suffering for ourselves. While I’m not of the persuasion that we can immediately dissolve all suffering by changing our thought patterns, I do like the thought that those negative feelings can bring more awareness.

  • I used to either stifle negative emotions (faking positivity) or I would become overwhelmed by them. I’ve since learned to think of my state of being as the spoke of a wheel and all of the emotions – positive and negative ones – are on the outer edges. Rather than striving for feeling ‘up’, I strive for balance.

  • Arabelle

    I spent a great deal of time pushing away negative feelings I had towards people who were hurtful, manipulative or taking advantage of me. I made excuses for their behaviour and blamed myself. I read The Happiness Project last year and started my own. The resolutions I made each month helped me see that these people were just drains on my time and energy and my negative feelings towards them were a guide to help me direct my time towards more productive things than forcing myself to like people whose company I did not enjoy. The bonus is the resolutions helped me not be angry with them because I chose resolutions that helped me move in that direction.

  • Miss Heidi

    In my early 30s, a sudden loss catapulted me into depths of despair I had never known. It was an intensly physical as well as emotional experience. My chest felt like a bomb had exploded in it – I felt so ragged and vulnerable. Even in my sadness, I was astounded by my ability to deeply feel something so raw and real. I knew that if I survived, I would someday be able to feel as much joy as the pain I had experienced. I believe that acknowledgeing, coping with, honoring , and overcoming negative emotions stretches our mind and allows us to more fully experience what is good in our lives.

  • My goal for this new year is to feel and show more gratitude. When you feel gratitude it helps erase the negative feelings of envy, pride, and depression. When you express gratitude to someone else, it helps you feel better and gives you a more positive attitude.

    When your gratitude leads you to action, you really dispel negative thoughts and feelings and become excited and passionate about life.

  • Bluejay

    As most have already posted…
    Awareness (or mindfulness if you prefer) I believe is always the key..It’s the first step to acceptance of what is here and now, and only through acceptance can anything in some way start to dissolve.
    Many times it feels like magic, you fight terribly against really feeling, acknowledging something that is too scary or hurtful…then you surrender to it, in the sense that you accept that it is so, in that moment, you stop building yourself against it, reminding yourself that nothing is permanent…and it seems to melt away…
    Other times it’s not so at all…but how was that quotation which is oh so true? “The only way out is through..” The suffering or negativity has something for us, it brings us somewhere, it serves us..and we need to hang on to get to the other side. Many times for me making sense, finding a soulful meaning, not rational, not a why, but some kind of broader perspective, another view point from which to see the situation while feeling it, really is what has helped the most.
    I believe that it is a question of balance and attitude here too between what we call negative and what we call positive.

    Gretchen can you please advice me on what book by Samuel Johnson I should read? You quote him often and I find it very inspiring!
    Thank you!
    May we all have a lovely fresh meaningful year!

    • gretchenrubin

      Very thoughtful comment.

      On Samuel Johnson — I’d start with Boswell’s masterpiece, The LIFE OF
      SAMUEL JOHNSON. It’s full of great Johnson observations. Also, selections
      from THE RAMBLER.

      • Bluejay

        Thank you Gretchen

  • Nancy Johnston

    I completely believe in the power of adversity/ negativity in our lives. My divorce lead me to the happiest state I have ever been in.
    Thank you for your project;useful, original and beautiful!

  • keishua

    There is something golden in experiencing negative emotions. They definitely can put things in perspective. Not that I enjoy experiencing them but I am slowly learning that happiness is as fleeting as sadness. I think trying to keep proper perspective through any emotion state and experience it fully is the goal for me.

  • Sarah

    Wonderful post! It reminded me of the stoic book that I am currently reading, but not finished yet 🙂

  • Sandy

    This post caused me to reflect on my current state of emotion. I’ve been without a computer for 5 days … meaning … no facebook, no time for blogs or blogging, no chance to roam the world wide web in the last five days. While I enjoy most of those pastimes and use them to enhance my world, I actually noticed that I’ve been not only more productive without them, but also less negative minded. After reflection, I surmised that I spend too much time on my “enjoyable” computer activities, thereby lessening their novelty. So, what was meant for happiness was becoming a negative. Moderation is apparently my key to computer happiness.

    I agree that we should take note of our negative emotions. They are valuable to our happiness!

  • I believe understanding the negatives in your life lead to happiness. There has to be a yin/yang. It’s how we deal with the negative that’s the key. Some people, I believe, are only happy when they’re negative. It’s been my experience that staying away from those people makes me happier.
    Thanks for the post!

  • armychic73

    In 1997 I was 24 years old, my boyfriend of two years had kicked me out of our apartment to move in a new girlfriend, I had to move back home (always humbling especially at that age). I felt as though I had hit rock bottom. I had a minimum wage job so I couldn’t afford an apartment on my own. I had no money to go back to college for my bachelor’s in order to try and get a better paying job. I felt like I was in a lose-lose Catch-22 and I was heartbroken, depressed, frustrated by my situation and bad judgement, and felt hopeless. All of these emotions combined utlimately made me feel desperate and cornered. I hate to feel as though I have no options and I was feeling that way then. So on a whim (more out of that same desperation) I joined the U.S. Army. I feel as though it was the BEST thing I could have ever done at that point in my life. I got job traning. I had a steady paycheck making more than I was before. I got money for college. I traveled the world. I learned different languages. I met my husband! I feel as though my life was on track for the first time in my life!

    Now I am civilian but with my military training and security clearance I was able to secure a job with the Department of Defense. I completed my Bachelor’s degree in 2008 and am currently a graduate student working on my Master’s degree. I truly believe that the negative emotions I was feeling in 1997 definitelypushed me to make a beneficial change: for my career, for my education, and for my life’s course, without a doubt!

    • gretchenrubin

      What a terrific example of the good that can come from bad emotions. It
      reminds me of JK Rowling’s terrific Commencement address at Harvard, where
      she talked about the days when she had no money, no job, no book contract,
      writing when her baby slept, “Rock bottom became the foundation on which I
      built my life.”

    • S Simmons77

      I enjoy listenting to yo story.. Its awesome…. Im going through all kind of things and im having alot of bad emotions. I felt your pain…

  • sayyesmore

    did your envy/guilt naturally subside after you became mindful of it and used it to identify what you really wanted in your life? if not, i’d love to hear, perhaps in another post, what tangible steps you took to rid yourself of these negative emotions.

  • S Simmons77