WELLNESS
11/11/2014 06:46 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2014

The Importance Of Negative Emotions

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Between the books, seminars and blogs, the study of how to make a happy life is practically its own genre. But does all of this happiness-chasing actually work?

The sense that one should always feel good, psychologist Todd Kashdan told The Huffington Post, is toxic. Some research suggests that Americans are actually getting less happy as the years go by. And according to Kashdan, it's our relentless pursuit of happiness that may be steering us in the wrong direction.

But given the culture of positivity around happiness research and writing, it's easy to forget that "bad" feelings are healthy and indeed essential to taking part in the full emotional spectrum of the human experience. "The science is very clear that when we try to conceal the distress we feel, we are less productive and less effective, and we end up feeling emotionally worse," Kashdan said.

And in his new book, The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self -- Not Just Your 'Good' Self -- Drives Success And Fulfillment, co-authored by Robert Biswas-Diener, Kashdan advocates feeling bad.

He believes that this single-minded pursuit of happiness is part and parcel with a strong tendency to seek comfort and avoid discomfort of any kind and that, he argues in his book, is making us psychologically weak.

So what's the remedy? First of all, it's time to embrace the uncomfortable by learning to fully experience and appreciate negative emotions as a natural and even useful aspect of our everyday lives. We should also, according to Kashdan, cultivate "emotional agility" -- the skill of recognizing and harnessing appropriate emotions (positive or negative) to suit whatever situation we're in.

Here are four major takeaways from The Upside of Your Dark Side.

Guilt makes us better people.

"Guilt adds to our moral fiber, motivating us to be more socially sensitive and caring citizens than we would be otherwise... For instance, researchers have found that adults prone to feeling guilty were less likely to drunk drive, steal, use illegal drugs, or assault another person. If character is reflected in what you do when nobody's looking, then this moral emotion called guilt is one of its building blocks."

Self-doubt enhances performance.

"What many people fail to realize is the fact that doubt, in moderation, performs a healthy function. Doubt is a psychological state that prompts us to take stock of our skills and to work to improve in areas where they might be deficient. Karl Wheatley, a researcher at Cleveland State University, argues that doubt can be beneficial -- at least in the case of schoolteachers. He points to the fact that when teachers experience uncertainty about their performance, these feelings spur collaboration with others, foster personal reflection, motivate personal development, and prepare the person to accept change."

Anxiety helps us problem-solve.

"In danger zones, anxiety prevails over positivity. In situations when danger is a possibility but the cues might be obscure, complicated or uncertain, anxiety prevails over positivity. In such cases, anxious people quickly discover solutions, and when there is a team around them (friends, family, co-workers), they share the problem and the solutions. Groups are more successful when they include a mix of personality types with different strengths -- and at least one anxious sentinel."

Mindlessness makes us more creative.

"Creativity has long been associated with unconscious incubation... You are likely familiar with the idea of an aha moment, that burst of insight that suddenly solves a problem or delivers a relevant idea when it's least expected. There is, it would seem, something inventive about loose, unfocused attention. It turns out that research supports the idea of creativity sneaking up on us."

HuffPost

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