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.”
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 LifeOften 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
- learning to contest and re-direct negative self-talk
- practicing gratitude
- exercising our strengths
- doing loving-kindness meditation
Take Up Your ReinsHowever, 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, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.