Do you ever feel bad-tempered and grumpy? You will be surprised to learn that you can actually benefit from these negative emotions.
We all aspire to be happy. Everywhere we go we receive advice about how to increase our happiness, be more positive and dream big.
We seem to assume that it is only these positive emotions that we should strive for. But could there be a negative side to all this warm, fuzzy happiness? And what about anger? Should we view this as a negative emotion that should be avoided wherever possible, or does anger have some positive aspects too?
The bad side of happiness
While happiness feels nice, it’s not necessarily an emotion we should strive to feel all the time. Sometimes, happiness can actually have a detrimental effect on our lives in several key ways.
Happiness encourages risk taking
Happiness can lead us to letting our guard down and taking unnecessary risks. When we are happy, our bodies release oxytocin, also know as the love hormone. Studies have show that this hormone can make us less able to identify potential threats. For this reason, happiness can prevent us from thinking things through, make us more gullible and leading us to take risks such as drinking too much, overeating, and getting ourselves into potentially dangerous situations.
Psychologist Howard S. Friedman and colleagues studied a group of schoolchildren in 1993 and found that those rated as “highly cheerful” by parents and teachers had a greater risk of mortality in adulthood than their peers. Friedman postulated that this might have been because they engaged in more risk-taking behaviors.
Happiness can be demotivating
Imagine sitting in a nice sun lounger and hammock and dreaming about your perfect life. It’s very relaxing and it makes you feel warm and happy inside, yes? That’s the problem. Thinking happy thoughts about the future can actually decrease the motivation required to achieve those results.
Gabriele Oettingen from New York University found that graduates who fantasise about success end up earning less. Optimistic thoughts also make people less likely to take action to overcome problematic behaviours such as smoking, drinking and overeating.
Happiness can make us mean
A further study looked into how emotions affected generosity and discovered that happiness can actually make us less benevolent. In a study where one person was given money and asked how they would like it to be divided with another person, those who had been primed to feel happy were likely to keep more of the prize for themselves.
The good side of anger
Negative emotions such as anger are often seen as unacceptable in our society. Many of us have been taught that anger is not a nice emotion so we have learned to suppress it. But could this suppression be affecting our health? And are there positive aspects to this so-called negative emotion?
The benefits of anger
When we feel bad-tempered, the body is flooded with adrenaline, which leads to increased breathing and heart rate in preparation for fighting or fleeing. However, this response can also increase creative thinking, motivation and courage.
Matthijs Baas, from the University of Amsterdam, discovered that bad-tempered people were more creative than sad people. The study sample was split into two groups and one group was primed to feel bad-tempered while the other was primed to feel sad. When both groups were given a test of creativity, the bad-tempered students came up with more original ideas.
This anger induced adrenaline rush can also give you the strength and courage to help people who are in danger and the motivation to act against injustice.
Should you suppress anger
A study of 644 patients with coronary artery disease discovered that while anger had no effect on likely outcomes, suppressing anger increased the likelihood of a heart attack by nearly three times.
So it seems that there is really no such thing as positive or negative emotions because all emotions are appropriate in certain situations. So perhaps, instead of striving for happiness, we should recognize that whatever emotion we are experiencing, there is likely to be some benefit to feeling that way.
- Matthijs Baas is Assistant Professor of Organizational Psychology, University of Amsterdam.
- Howard S. Friedman is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California.
- Gabriele Oettingen is a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg.
Image credit: Grumpy Cat