Home All Positive Psychology Includes Negative Emotions

Positive Psychology Includes Negative Emotions

written by Dave Shearon 17 November 2009

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

Detecting Icebergs



Recently, I was teaching “Detecting Icebergs”, one of the resilience skills described in The Resilience Factor.  The participants had practiced the skills themselves, and we were talking about how to teach them.  I mentioned the importance of using personal examples whenever possible and gave a quick example of a personal iceberg I had uncovered.

It was just the outline of the story with very little elaboration.  But, when I mentioned that my anger surprised and puzzled me until I uncovered the deeper value that was being triggered by the situation, one of the participants looked at me and said, “You still feel it; I can hear it in your voice.”

Another iceberg

Another iceberg

He was right, and I told him so.  Then I went on to explain that the point was not to rid myself of the emotion, but to understand where it came from and to be able to regulate my actions.  I could (and do!) still feel the anger. But it was just a feeling, not a driving force that I could not control.  From a mindfulness perspective, I could observe the emotion, even experience it, without judging it or being controlled by it.

Negative Emotions have a Place in Life

Frozen flowers

Frozen flowers

Often times positive psychology can be misconstrued (sometimes apparently without any effort to get it right!) as a movement to eliminate negative emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, and shame.  Such an attempt would be ridiculous and counterproductive. Negative emotions are information about our environment and lives.  They are intricately entangled in our awareness and empowering for our intelligence.  Attempting to not feel emotions is like setting the goal to be less intelligent.  Why would anyone do that?

Of course, Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory informs us that we should be concerned by the ratio of positive to negative emotions, striving for a 3:1 or better (up to 11:1 or so) ratio.  This is not, however, the same as eliminating negative emotions.  If our view of the world, whether from pessimism or an iceberg belief such as “People can’t be trusted,” results in an unduly high level of negative emotions, then we might want to take steps to address the pessimism or the iceberg.  There’s no value to be gained from over-experiencing negative emotions in situations that could otherwise elicit neutral or even positive emotions.

Ways to Build Positivity

Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with taking steps to increase the frequency of positive emotions in our lives.  There are a number of ways to increase positive emotions, and there is little potential downside for any of them:

  • writing and reflecting on “Three Good Things” at night
  • working at establishing quick but emotionally capable connections with others
  • savoring
  • learning to contest and re-direct negative self-talk
  • practicing gratitude
  • exercising our strengths
  • exercising
  • doing loving-kindness meditation

Take Up Your Reins

Take up the reins

Take up the reins

However, the point is not just to “be happy” in the sense of having a high ratio of positive-to-negative emotions, although frankly that seems like a reasonable goal.  Beyond that, however, the steps listed above and others like them also increase the well-being of those around us and increase our capacities for creativity, collegiality, pro-social behavior, and achievement.  When combined with efforts to be part of something meaningful, part of something bigger or greater than ourselves, what’s not to like?

However, that’s still not the same as urging the elimination of negative emotions.  Anger, sadness, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, have their place.  But rarely should they be the driver’s seat for our lives.  So, take up the reins!



Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Icebergs in Greenland courtesy of nick_russill
Another iceberg courtesy of Rosino
“J’adore les fleurs blanches…” courtesy of Zixii
woman at the reins courtesy of mikebaird

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Haider 17 November 2009 - 6:52 pm

Wonderful article and beautifully written. Thanks, Dave.

Dan Bowling 17 November 2009 - 6:54 pm

Well done, Dave. Fortunately or unfortunately, negative emotions are a normal – and yes healthy – part of life, as long as we keep them in balance and perspective. Thanks for this nuanced article.

Dan B

Ben J 17 November 2009 - 8:40 pm

Hi Dave,

In some ways negative emotions are like power tools – they are useful when needed and can hurt really badly when not operated correctly and not treated with respect.



Amanda 18 November 2009 - 5:42 am

Thanks Dave – very timely. Your article, and other chats on other forums about negative / positive have been very helpful. Today a friend had some troubles to discuss and was relieved to know it was ok to have the anger. When we discussed what that anger might lead to (choice: which action would she be most proud of), she suggested “I suppose I need to practise mindfulness, because I really want to make that person pay”. How wonderful. Later today, she called to say how helpful it was to channel the negativity into something productive.


Kathryn Britton 18 November 2009 - 11:27 am

Ben J,
That’s another great image – negative emotions as power tools.

Another interesting aspect is the different ways that negative emotions are expressed. Back in my corporate life, it was a big disadvantage for me that intense anger comes out in tears. I always envied the people who had more powerful-seeming ways of expressing anger — like putting fists through walls. But then again, did I really?


Jennifer 18 November 2009 - 10:04 pm

I enjoyed reading this article as it is something I have been thinking about. While it seems great to have a balance of postive and negative emtions, its seems almost easier said than done. Certian feelings, for me, such as regret, carry such heavy negative emtions that they can momentarily effect on daily life. Sometimes it seems all to easy to get overwelmed with the regret of negative choices and I appreicate your ways to build postivity piece.

Jesse Walker 19 November 2009 - 1:26 am

Hello Mr. Shearon!

I’m currently in a positive psychology class, and I found it interesting that a lot of our exercises in the class included some of your tips for being more positive: savoring, a “three good things” diary, exercising our strengths, etc. I agree that negative emotions are necessary. I find every experience to be a learning one, good or bad, and the bad tend to teach us the most. Do you have any advice for fighting through the negative emotion in a particularly rough time? For example, what do you find most effective when dealing with your iceberg? I’m facing an iceberg in my life, and I’m not quite past it yet, but I was wondering if the tips above were just as helpful when you especially need a positive boost as they are in a not-so-stressful situtation.

Thanks for the article!


Jeff 19 November 2009 - 7:33 am


When you have an emotion like regret, is it telling you anything useful?

If you find it useful, keep it in your pocket like a little mouse and only take him out when you need his advice.

If it is useless, fight to get rid of the reason you have him. Maybe you did something you regret or didn’t take a chance that you believe would have led to greater success. Find out why the mouse of regret is squeaking. He’ll shut up if he has no reason to be there.

I just felt like standing at the lectern this morning.


Jeff 19 November 2009 - 7:41 am

As a side note, I think my icebergs revolve around the security of my family. I have overblown angry emotions every time I perceive a threat to them. Even if the threat comes from one of them. I target the offender and blast them to smithereens (verbally of course, not literally).

The biggest iceberg is that I am responsible for their safety and security. If they are unsafe, I have failed my duty. “I MUST restore perfect safety for them immediately”.

You can see the clock ticking as I scramble to set things right. It makes me asinine to be around. I know why the behavior exists because I follow such dogmatic rules of behavior. Last night, for example, I accidentally fed my new puppy a second dose of antibiotics for his post-chop scar. I was furious. I stormed around screaming and then sulked. I went to bed upset…even though I knew he’d probably be ok because the drugs were not going to overdose him.

The rough patch is replacing the rule with something saner. I think a lot of what troubles us has to do with our core values, what we think is right and wrong, etc.

The article brought back into the spotlight a very useful tool: detecting icebergs. Thanks Dave!

Dave Shearon 19 November 2009 - 8:43 am

Hi, Jennifer! Thanks for dropping by and reading the article. If one emotion is overrepresented in your experience, it could indicate a deep belief or value (iceberg) operating below your awareness. If regret — whether about a particular event or generalized — is driving your life, what about making a plan to move forward? In addition to The Resilience Factor mentioned in the article, Dr. Seligman’s Authentic Happiness has a chapter on satisfaction with the past. Of course, some folks find it helpful to have a coach to help establish and implement a plan, and a number of the folks listed in the “Our Coaches” section here could fill that role. Good luck moving forward.

Dave Shearon 19 November 2009 - 8:50 am

Welcome, Jesse! For icebergs, once you express them consciously, you can consider whether they really express your core values in a reasonable and actionable way. It may be they need tweaking in some fashion. Or, if two deep beliefs are colliding in a particular situation, you can see if either or both need tweaking, then structure a way to honor both. When you’re facing a particularly rough time, I suggest making sure you are holding strong to your sustainment practices: exercise, adequate sleep, any form of meditation you may pursue regularly, savoring, and attending to relationships. Further, if you can find some area where you can make progress or increase your well-being, it will help with the patience and perseverance to work through a rough patch in another area of your life. Hope your class goes well!

Dave Shearon 19 November 2009 - 8:54 am

Hi, Jeff — glad you found the article helpful! You seem to have gotten an understanding of your iceberg. Since it is related to family, are there any members of your family who might could help you tweak it and then develop productive ways of pursuing the tweaked version? Just a thought. Obviously, you are already making progress!

Andrea 19 November 2009 - 7:49 pm

I found this article to be very encouraging. As bad as negative emotions make you feel at least there is a purpose for them, there are not just there to make you miserable. What do you do about those emotions that have been there all your life like not feeling good enough because someone close to you was not there? Or feelings of abandonment or not trusting people in your life? How do you retrain yourself to be more positive when the most important people in your life and done nothing but show you the negative?

Dave Shearon 19 November 2009 - 10:57 pm

Hi, Andrea! First, take stock of where you are in your life right now. Are you extremely sad and facing dark day after dark day? Is it possible you are depressed? If so, I’d suggest finding a therapist, possibly one who knows positive psychology, and working with them. I guess this is kind of like the warnings you always see about checking with a doctor before beginning an exercise program. It can’t hurt to get an experienced professional’s independent assessment of what might be a good way forward for you. Further, the actions suggested below are likely helpful, even if you also decide to work with someone else.

However, if you are basically functioning ok, but feel that your experiences in life and your current thinking and feeling about those experiences might be keeping you from living the life you want, then press on. As I suggested to Jennifer above, there are coaches, including those listed on this web site, who could help you set and achieve some goals that would be meaningful to you, including relationship goals.

If you want to start to make some progress on your own, here are a few suggestions:

– Check your sustainment practices, especially regular exercise and adequate sleep. If they need some adjusting, take at least small steps in that direction.

– Identify your signature strengths of character by taking the VIA Inventory of Strengths at http://www.authentichappiness.org. Pick the 5 or so near the top of the list that most seem like you, the ones that feel natural and energizing and that you tend to go to under pressure. These are your signature strengths. Then, see how you can put them to use in new ways, especially to build relationships.

– Take an appreciative approach to your life. In what ways are you relating to others in ways that feel right to you? In what ways, however small, are others being there for you? How can you be more the way you want to be with others, and how can you let them know your appreciation for how they relate to you? Two books by a MAPP classmate might be of some help here, Vital Friends and How Full Is Your Bucket?, both by Tom Rath.

– In line with the preceding suggestion, you might try keeping a Three Good Things journal and note especially when you write about relationships. Just write down three good things that happened each day and what they mean to you. Reflect on them, in writing. Not long. Just about 10 minutes for the whole process. After a week, decide if and how you might want to make this ritual an ongoing part of your life. Some folks do it every day, some a few times a week, and some a week a month or for a period and then stop for a while. Whatever works for you.

– Another good book in this area is Authentic Happines by Martin Seligman. Dr. Seligman has an entire chapter on happiness with the past. Good stuff.

I suspect any of these steps, and probably many others, will move you toward your goals, or at least to where you can see both the goals and your next steps more clearly.

All the best,

Sara McCormick 22 November 2009 - 6:55 pm


I really enjoyed your article! I try to keep a lot of the ways you listed to build positivity in mind as I go through my day in order to keep the negative thoughts and feelings in check. However, sometimes I get the nagging feeling by practicing things such as redirecting negative self talk that I am instead of pushing the feeling aside and not recognizing it and perhaps understanding the core reason of why it is there. Do you think individuals should take the time to recognize the negative emotions or thoughts for what they are before they take steps to replace them with positive ones (for example with reframing)?

Once again, thanks for a great article!

Dave Shearon 22 November 2009 - 10:50 pm

Hi, Sara! You hit on a great point. Yes, absolutely, we can overuse the skills of “redirecting negative self talk.” That skill, which Reivich and Shatte in The Resilience Factor call “Real Time Resilience” is useful when we need to get past negative thoughts so we can perform in the moment. However, when demands for immediate performance are not pressing us, it is better to deal more completely with negative emotions. How we deal depends on the situation.

If our negative emotions stem from thoughts about real events in our lives, and if those thoughts are calibrated to the event and to reality, then we simply accept and experience the emotions. So, for example, on the death of a loved one, we may have thougths of loss and feel sadness. Or other thoughts and feel other emotions. The key is that the thoughts reflect reality. So, say a young wife loses her husband in an accident. Thoughts of loss and feelings of sadness are appropriate, and trying to “redirect” them would be a mistake. She could and probably should accept and experience the emotions without too much attempt to manage them. However, thoughts of never being happy again, of never having a family, of permanent sadness and despair and depression — such thoughts are a different matter. They are both out of touch with the reality that many persons who have faced similar losses have experienced and they are dangerous. “I will never know love again,” can lead to catstrophic thinking and a downward spiral.

Even in less dramatic circumstances, we should pay attention to negative emotions. If I feel sadness or anger or embarassment and do not know why, or if I feel one of the negative emotions often and for extended periods in my life, then it may make sense to consider the event that triggers such emotions, my “in the moment” thoughts, and then do a bit of “detecting icebergs” to find my deeper belief that is driving those emotions. (Again, see The Resilience Factor.) Once I can articulate the deeper belief, I can consider whether I still believe it, or whether I should modify or discard it. So, for example, a belief that “Everyone should always love me” is going to create lots of negative emotions as my experience in life presents me with tons of evidence that everyone does NOT always love me. In fact, only some people love me, and then only some of the time, and sometimes conditionally! Now what? Answer, I need to re-work that belief; it’s not going to work very well for me!

Finally, let’s look at one other situation. It’s kind of a variation of the preceding, but it might be important. From Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, if I have a belief that being smart, “talented”, or “good at relationships” is an innate quality that I can do nothing to change, then even good events are going to generate negative emotions. I will think, “Yes, I had enough of ‘it’ this time, but I might come up short next time!” Anxiety will be my constant companion.

Again, this is an example of a repeated emotion where detecting the deep belief is important. However, without knowledge of Dweck’s work, I might have trouble recognizing that a belief along the lines of “Smart is something I am and someday I may not be smart enough” is one that does not serve as a good representation of reality and that there are ways I could modify it to make it serve betters. For example, “I am smart because of how much knowledge I have, the strategies I use, and the effort I put in. I can always learn more, develop better strategies, and continue to work hard or harder. Thus I will always be smart enough to accomplish things that are important to me and for which I feel motivation.”

Hope this helps!

Victoria Gilmore 24 November 2009 - 12:00 am


I very much enjoyed your article. From what you have noted about our negative emotions being reactions to our environment I am wondering, how much of our negative emotions can be accurately attributed to having a rational response to our environment? When should negative emotions be attributed to a negative outlook on life? Likewise, from what I took from your description from Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory, could you tell me, if a person has a ratio of emotions where the negative feelings are much higher than the positive, is this an indicator of a pessimistic outlook on life?

I particularly liked where you mentioned that by analyzing the root ofor negative emotions, it helps us understand the true cause. Can the process of analyzing our emotions help us to shield ourselves from a pessimistic outlook on life?

Dave Shearon 24 November 2009 - 8:44 am

Hi, Victoria! Yes, our negatative emotions can be telling us important things about our environment and the directions of our lives. But, we also know we have a “negativity bias” — we are generally more likely to notice, remember, and recall negative things. So, we have to question whether negative emotions are always telling us useful stuff. The old adage of an optimist as someone who sees the glass as half full has some merit. Sometimes, it is all in how we look at things.

Also, from Barbara Fredrickson’s and Marcial Losada’s work, we know that a ratio of positive to negative emotions of 1:1 or less is extremely counterproductive for an individual, couple, or team. When positives to negatives run around 2:1, the individual, couple, or team languishes. Only at 3:1 or higher does the broadening of thought and building of resources associated with positive emotions create flourishing. Focusing on challenging pessimistic thinking can be one way of improving the positivity ratio. So can mindfulness meditation, exercise, doing the Three Good Things exercise, etc.

Marcial Losada 24 November 2009 - 9:30 am

I like your article, Dave. I like it because it brings power and truth to PP. When I discovered the minimum ratio that leads to flourishing that Barbara then tested against data on flourishing individuals, and later confirmed with Chris Waugh, we found something that requires pausing in order to grasp its deep meaning. Your article helps in finding this meaning. Let me add my thoughts.

First, let’s start with the numbers and their properties. The ratio, for the public, is 3:1. For scientists is 2.901315789. You cannot ask people to try for 2.901315789 for every negative. 3 to 1 is good enough. Some people say that my number is unreal. It depends on what kind of reality we are talking about. When I work with teams and code their P/N ratio I use a counting device in my ipod so that I can do this under the table, trying to interfere the least with the team interacion process. At the end I look at my numerator (positivity) and denominator (negativity). Those numbers are always integers, of course. But their ratio, most of the time is not! It’s rather rare to find an integer. So which are more real: the fractions or the integers? Funny enough, the “real” numbers in math comprise both the integers and the fractions. And because we are deling with a nonlinear process (all complex human interaction is nonlinear) we need as many decimals as those numerators and denominators can generate. Remember what happened to Lorenz when he tried to put less decimal than he got at the beginning? That is call sensitivity to initial conditions and we have to respect it if we want to find our way in the laberyth of human interaction.

Second, I didn’t discover a 3 to zero ratio. Or a 2.901315789 to zero ratio, to be precise. There was a 1 in that denominator. A big 1 which, among others things makes division posible. That 1 is not something we want to get rid of. This is the 1 you’re talking about in your excellent article, Dave. Life requires nonlinear control. Our hearts do, our brain does. Nonlinear control can only be achieved with an adequate proportion of positive to negative feedback. You take away the negative feedback and the system goes to a limit cycle losing its complexity; energy is not renovated, it becomes stale. You take away the positive feedback and the system goes to a fixed-point attractor; energy is exhausted. The power of PP lies in undertanding and helping people to use this proportion. Preaching the positive in detriment of the negative is not good even for robots. If you want them to achieve complex tasks they will need both positive and negative feedback. Probably, a 3 to 1 ratio if we want them to flourish.

Jenn Veit 24 November 2009 - 11:36 pm

Hi Dave and thanks for addressing such a commonly misnderstood aspect of Positive Psychology. It reminds me of when Chiropractors we all thought of as quacks. This branch of Psychology is still building rapport with the masses. At any rate, I am in a positive psych class currently and have been a proponent of utilizing negative emotions for progress for many years.

What do you think is a good way to open up a conversation with a family member about this subject? More specifically, I am close to my sister emotionally but not in proximity. We have not been around each other often for years so much of the growth that I have gained is not always something that affects her growth positive way. I would love to discuss with her the notion that “negative” is not synonymous with “bad” as I feel that the slight change in perspective is not just semantics, but essential to a healthy outlook.

Of course this isn’t therapy (LOL) but I thought any opinion of yours may help shed some objectivity on the situation. When I have big ideas like this, I tend to sound a little “out there” or a little too “peace on earth”-ish when I intend to sound intelligent : ) Thanks again for your contribution!

Jenn Veit

Krystal 25 November 2009 - 12:24 pm


This was a very helpful article. Most often we associate negative emotions with the affects and negative consequences that they often bring. Instead we should appreciate the emotions and use them constructively. In reading the article, one question came to mind. Is it possible that increasing positive emotions after experiencing negative can hinder us from exploring the whole “iceburg”? In other words, can the increased positive emotions serve as a cover up for our negative emotions?

Thank you!

Marc 26 November 2009 - 1:13 pm

Hey Dave,

Quick question. As you mentioned, negative emotions are information about our lives and our environment. Given this, and the appropriate context/severity, would it perhaps be better to strive to eliminate the specific negative emotion entirely? Alternatively, could there be times when harboring the negative emotions (essentially letting them drive you) could actually be beneficial to a situation?


Mark 27 November 2009 - 1:30 pm

Life is full of ups and downs and responding appropriately and authentically to these experiences is surely a sign we’re emotionally alive and well?

At their best negative emotions tell us when things are not right, they sound alarm bells that warn and protect us. At their worst the alarms never stop ringing and trap us in repeating cycles of fear, anger, sadness or negativity.

Negative emotions have their place, however the issue many of us face is learning how to keep them there.

Dave Shearon 27 November 2009 - 11:35 pm

Hi, Jennn! Family members can, at times, be the toughest folks to talk to. And, of course, every relationship has its peculiar dynamics. But, as a general matter, I try to be honest and open about my enthusiasm. Then I try to share the stories that have proven most meaningful to me. Often, these are stories about what others report as meaningful. I may find it meaningful, too, but when I explore my thoughts and feelings, I often find that it is the stories that carry the most impact, even though I wouldn’t give them as much credence but for the data. So, for folks who aren’t interested in studying the data, I suggest sharing the stories that your study convinces you best represent the findings in the field. Hope this is some help, and hope you continue to enjoy your studies!

Dave Shearon 27 November 2009 - 11:44 pm

Hi, Krystal! It’s possible to experience positive and negative emotions simultaneously. “Bittersweet” is one word that captures part of this experience. I suspect that if a person is open and accepting of negative emotions, any positive emotions that person is also able to experience will not cover up the negative emotions so that he or she would be unable to learn from them. So, I certainly wouldn’t worry about or try to inhibit positive emotions for fear of “missing out” on something I could learn from negative emotions. For me, as long as the aspect of my environment and my thoughts about it that led to the negative emotions stay unchanged, the negative emotions will likely remain also. What I want is to make sure that I’m seeing all the picture and not missing bits that might cause me to change my thoughts and therefore change my negative emotions.

Dave Shearon 27 November 2009 - 11:53 pm

Marc, those are interesting questions. Again, I think the question of whether we should expect a particular negative emotion to go away depends on the nature of the event and our thoughts about it. For a serious loss, our thoughts about the event will likely lead to sadness for some time. An interview with John Wooden in the last few days noted that he has written a letter to his late wife every month over the many years since she has died. I would suspect he has had some thoughts of loss and feeling of sadness during those times. However, it hasn’t kept him from continuing to function at a very high level, including teaching at UCLA until just recently. So, in his case, it has worked to allow that emotion to remain with him and deal with his loss and his thoughts about it in the creative form of writing. People are different and situations are different, so approaches cannot be the same.

Tom 7 December 2009 - 11:19 am

Great article, Dave. Your point about not denying your negative emotions is powerful and in my opinion, often overlooked by people. Negative feelings can be very powerful and very helpful; and a balance of positive and negative in life is much needed. Jung’s idea of the Shadow is a great embodiment of this idea. Do you have any thoughts on this analogy?


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