Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
The emphasis of positive psychology on building the best things in life and making people’s lives fulfilling does not imply that we should ignore problems or dismiss the negative emotions that people experience. Positive psychology can make an additional contribution by offering rigorous and creative scientific work on how negative emotions can be good for humans. In this article, I kick an ongoing discussion of the benefits of negative emotions by introducing some insightful experiments conducted by Joe Forgas, an Australian psychologist.
‘All emotions have adaptive benefits.’ Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Considerable research by scholars such as Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, has demonstrated that our emotions (both negative and positive) influence our judgments and memories. However, while most research talks about how we should overcome sadness to make better judgments, why don’t we look into how sadness can be beneficial? Research by Forgas suggests that sadness can be beneficial at individual level and interpersonal levels, at least in four ways.
Sadness draws better attentionIn series of research studies, Forgas asked customers of a gift shop how many out-of-place items they could remember. For better manipulation of participants’ mood, data was collected on seven sunny days and seven miserable cloudy days, while joyful music was played on the sunny days and grey music played on cloudy days. Forgas found that a slight variation in mood would affect shoppers’ attention and recall of objects and yes, sadness beats happiness. On the gloomy days, shoppers were likely to report themselves a little sadder, while they also tended to recall what was on the shop counter more accurately. This extra attention might also act as a psychological deterrent from making mistakes.
Sadness leads to more convincing persuasions
Forgas has conducted other research with happy and sad volunteers making persuasive arguments for or against certain policies. Their arguments were then rated by independent undergraduate students and scientists. Sad participants tended to produce more convincing arguments in more concrete and systematic styles. With other variables controlled, this research suggested that the attention to new information in the outside world when people are sad would promote more concrete and factual thinking and result in generating more persuasive messages.
Sadness reduces stereotypes
The previous studies examine how sadness might benefit us at individual level. But what about at an interpersonal level? How do our moods affect our social responses? Forgas conducted a research study in which participants had to play a video game and shoot the characters that had guns in their hands. Some of the images were made to look Muslim. Participants were more likely to shoot the Muslim targets. However, this bias was reduced among people with negative moods. This suggested that negative moods lessen people’s tendency to rely on simple stereotypes. “When you are sad, you pay more attention to new information in the outside world,” German Psychologist Herbert Bless explains. “We call this being accommodative.”
Sadness facilitates new social interactions
What would you do when you meet a new group of people and feel like you are in an out-group? This could happen in a freshman orientation camp or when one newly joins a company. Most people would feel a bit down or upset. Sadness can be a signal that we are not getting on or being accepted. Forgas’s research indicates that sadness makes us pay more attention to things around us, be more convincing and alert, and care more about information within the group such as what everybody in the group says. If we could make use of this trend, perhaps we could find easier ways to interact with people as we meet them, helping us better assimilate into a group.
Instead of simply quoting sayings like “what does not kill me, makes me stronger” to indicate that sadness can make sufferers better able to cope with life’s challenges and spur them to greater achievements, I prefer to adapt scientific findings to show solidly how sadness could actually be good for us.
Positive psychology is NOT a simply quest for happiness. Yes, none of us would want to be sad, but it is very normal to be upset after losing a job, breaking up a relationship, or experiencing the death of a loved one. Instead of eliminating sadness, what positive psychology offers is the science to prevent these negative feelings from turning into conditions such as serious depression. Through evidence-based results, positive psychology shows what we can do to become more resilient, and like the research examined above, it shows us also how we can wisely appreciate the beneficial facet of negative emotions, to embrace them as integral, useful, positive parts of our selves.
Black, J (2002), Darwin in the world of emotions, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 95 (6): 311–3
Forgas, J.P. (2007). When sad is better than happy: Negative affect can improve the quality and effectiveness of persuasive messages and social influence strategies. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 513-528.
Forgas, J.P. Goldenberg, L. & Unkelbach, C. (2009). Can bad weather improve your memory? A field study of mood effects on memory in a real-life setting. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 254-257.
Unkelbach, C., Forgas, J.P. & Denson, T. (2007). The turban effect: The influence of Muslim headgear and induced affect on subliminal aggressive responses in the shooter’s bias paradigm. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 513–528.