Anger. Sadness. Self-delusion. These are emotions and characteristics we generally regard as inherently negative, and with good reason: Too much anger can lead to rage. Too much ego can lead to blind self-absorption.
But "bad" emotions and characteristics have positive aspects to them, as well -- aspects that tend to be overlooked.
"When you think about the kind of emotions and characteristics that are pervasive [or] that you see to a high degree in the general public, what you need to think about is the fact that they wouldn't have endured if they didn't serve a purpose," explains Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.
"Anger, fear, shyness," he continues, "they're there for a reason." With that in mind, here are just some of the overlooked upsides to traits and feelings with bad reputations.
According to Wesley Moons, Ph.D., founder and CEO of the litigation consulting firm Moons Analytics, "there are conflicting views on what anger does. On the one hand, it basically serves as a signal that something is wrong. On the other hand, anger is different from other negative emotional states because it seems to increase reliance on mental shortcuts."
But a study he led and published in 2007 showed that anger might actually make individuals act more rationally -- suggesting that anger can be a motivator of analytic thought, not an impediment to it. The basic theory is that anger might help people hone in on the cues that truly matter, rather than getting distracted by smaller, less important details.
"Low levels of anger -- that is, frustration or irritation -- serve as signs that signal we are wanting something we are not getting, or needing to protect ourselves from a threat," echoes Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a Denver-based psychologist and author of the site Power Of Two Marriage. "In an emergency situation, anger may mobilize us to act immediately."
Likewise, fear is a powerful motivator that helps us stay safe when we sense we are in danger. And as long as that fear doesn't become overwhelming or irrational, it can be a very good thing: If you have a healthy fear of that bear, that cliff, that whatever, you'll steer clear of it, the thinking goes.
"Fear serves a purpose, but if you're always fearful, you have a problem," Carducci says. "One of the biggest things we have to learn is that we're not alone, and chances are pretty good that someone else has also experienced that same fear or problem." Connection to others, he argues, can be a powerful tool in keeping fears in check and in perspective.
Shyness may have a negative reputation, but as long as it doesn't overwhelm and prevent individuals from interacting with others even when they desperately want to, it, too, has positive aspects. "If you're a shy person, it's not a personality deficit, it's not a character flaw, it's not a psychological disease -- it's simply a feature of who you are," Carducci says.
Indeed, shy people tend to be very thoughtful about their interactions as well as very self-aware, he explains. It's only when that self-awareness causes individuals to become too "self-focused" that shyness becomes problematic, according to Carducci, who encourages the patients he works with to become "other-focused" instead.
"[Disgust] can be positive or negative, and there are various takes on what the implications are... but in terms of benefits, it has a clear one in maintaining health," Moons says. In a 2004 study out of the UK, for example, men and women looked at images of people and rated their disgust levels in response to the images. They tended to be more grossed out by those with a potential link to disease -- say, a sweaty-looking, sick man -- than those with no such links, suggesting humans tend to steer clear of potential health threats because of disgust.
Other research has looked at how disgust can influence things like people's consumption patterns, Moons says. "People want to purge when they're experiencing disgust... so they are unwilling to buy other things, and only buy new things at very low prices," he explains. "There's this desire to get rid of things and not acquire new things" -- which might, potentially, keep overconsumption and materialism in check.
Sadness, like many other negative emotions, tends to "cue" a person to pay attention to the negative situation he or she is in, says Moons. "It's a signal that something's wrong, so [you should] try to problem-solve, try to get out of this situation."
"[Sadness] propels us to address a loss, think about it enough to package it for burial [and] maybe also wash our negative emotion away with some tears, thereby ready[ing] us to move forward without the prior attachment," Heitler echoes. Sadness only becomes a problem when it's overwhelming and prolonged, lingering too long and preventing us from moving forward, she says.
There's a difference between embarrassment -- which some people describe as "secret joy," Heitler says -- and humiliation, which is a response to being shamed. "We often blush in embarrassment about something positive that has brought attention onto us," she explains. In other words, when we feel embarrassed, it's very likely because something good has happened (though embarrassment can also occur after a mishap or misdeed).
But even when embarrassment doesn't stem from something inherently positive, it can have good aspects to it. As Psychology Today reports, some theorists believe that embarrassment evolved as a means of signaling to others around us that we're sorry about any misbehavior or accidents and will try to do better in the future -- and that people who display embarrassment after a transgression may be more likely to be forgiven, trusted and even liked by their peers.
Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers wrote a 2011 book, The Folly of Fools, based on the idea that self-deception -- believing that we're smarter, more accomplished or more capable than we really are -- can help us influence others and persuade them that we're as good as we think we are, reports The Wall Street Journal in an article titled "The Case for Lying to Yourself." "Benefits tend to come, research shows, when people simply block out negative thoughts, envision themselves enjoying future successes or take an optimistic view of their abilities -- all of which tend to improve performance or persuasive ability," the article states.
Carducci agrees with this premise, noting that "self-delusion can give us a sense of strength, a sense of 'I can do this... I can do this." The key, he says, is to make sure not to get sucked into what he called "a world of one," which can be avoided by staying connected to other people.
"All of these individual emotions serve a purpose," he says, speaking more broadly. "But they're dangerous if we cannot temper them with connections to other people."
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