Happiness and negative emotions

Happiness and negative emotions

To what extent are negative emotions consistent with happiness? When and where are negative emotions appropriate? Do happy people ever get upset?

These and other questions were posed after an innocent tweet/post from last week when I published an age old saying…every 60 seconds you spend angry, upset or mad is a full minute of happiness you’ll never get back!

Now, it should be noted that many people “liked” this post on our Facebook page but also, and the reason I’m posting this article, is that some thought it inappropriate or superficial and particularly, that it diminished or downplayed the significance of “negative emotions”.

This sentiment was probably best summed up by Helen who commented…

What about the philosophy that one needs to express one’s feelings? I know that there is an appropriate way of doing this, but these five minute platitudes are just banal grabs and does not validate the person who might be going through all kinds of genuine painful emotions.

Now, let me begin by noting that I both like the original quote AND that I agree with Helen (and a few others who made similar comments). Let me explain further…

Firstly, let me define happiness: to me, happiness is a range of positive emotions from the obvious high arousal emotions such as joy and excitement through to the less obvious, low arousal (but just as important) positive emotions such as calm and contentment. These, and many others such as pride and satisfaction, are all part of happiness – but still only part of happiness!

Because happiness to me is not just positive emotions, it’s also living a life in which we’re engaged with and connected to others AND a life in which there’s meaning and purpose.

Now, if we think more about these other components of happiness we soon realise that pleasure and positive emotions can’t and shouldn’t necessarily be expected all the time. In living a meaningful and connected life it’s perfectly normal to experience sadness and grief, frustration and anger, anxiety and stress (which, by the way, is why I don’t like to refer to them as “negative emotions”).

So this is where I agree with Helen and others…we need to accept and acknowledge that we will, and that it’s OK to feel the whole gammut of human emotions BUT, and this is where I return to the original quote, the real question should always be…is this helpful?

By this I mean that although anger (for example) might be perfectly understandable at times it’s not always helpful. It might be helpful if it motivates us to protect ourselves, or our loved ones from danger, but it’s not helpful if it just causes us intense distress and disfunction.

In short, my point is that normal or understandable emotions aren’t always helpful…especially if they go on for too long or impact too significantly on our lives in some way.

So, to conclude, happiness includes positive emotions but so, so much more (such as, again, meaning and purpose and connectedness etc) and happiness isn’t just positive emotions because we can learn and grow from negative experiences and this, what’s often referred to as resilience or post-traumatic growth, is a vital part of living a great life. So rather than referring to “negative” or “positive” emotions maybe we should just refer to “helpful” emotions…!

As always, I hope this makes sense and I hope you’ll continue to share your thoughts about this posting as you’ve done with previous articles.