A Little Happier: The Positive Value of Negative Emotions

I write about happiness and human nature, and 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 us into action. I have Eight Splendid Truths of Happiness, and 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 first happiness project was to stop bad feelings such as guilt, resentment, and boredom. Guilt for losing my patience with my children. 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 more virtuous life, as well.

Also, one key to happiness is self-knowledge, and yet it’s very, very hard to know ourselves — especially painful aspects that we’re 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. 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 a person needs serious help. To be happier, we have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth—and for me, at least, thinking about what makes me feel bad is a very important element of creating a happier life.




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