Feeling bad sucks. In our social media-driven and image-obsessed world, we like to pretend that we’re happy and positive all the time.
Negative emotions have become a sign of weakness and inadequacy, forcing us to internalize how we’re really feeling and creating even bigger problems.
Because we are all human beings, however, we can’t help but experience these negative feelings from time to time, causing the massive happy walls we build to come crashing down.
And while these negative feelings might make us want to crawl under a rock and declare our hatred for the universe, they’re actually more beneficial than you think.
A variety of psychologists and social scientists have poured tons of research into the benefits of negative emotions, specifically sadness, pessimism, guilt, anxiety, mindlessness, anger and jealousy.
One of these might be your main vice, but perhaps it’s time to start embracing the feeling as a force for good instead of evil.
Sadness makes you pay attention to detail
It’s important to note that here, sadness does not mean clinical depression. In an article for UC Berkeley, social psychologist Joesph F. Forgas discussed how periods of sadness make us pay more attention to external details, which provide a wide range of benefits in information processing.
In an email to The Huffington Post, Forgas writes:
In a sense, good moods signal that the situation is safe, familiar and that existing responses are appropriate. Negative mood in turn signals that the situation is new, challenging and the greater attention to new information is required to produce an effective response.
Being attentive to detail means you’re more in-tune with yourself and your surroundings.
With these detail-oriented benefits of sadness, you’ll have an improved memory, you’ll be able to make more accurate judgments of others and you’ll be more attentive to needing to make changes in your life.
Even more so, these benefits help you communicate your feelings better, construct more persuasive arguments and utilize your hyper awareness of your emotions for creative endeavors.
Pessimism prepares you for anything
In a study, psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor compared optimists to pessimists in a variety of “risky” tasks.
While most people might think optimists would outperform pessimists because of their confidence and the high expectations they set for themselves, pessimists actually performed similarly.
Pessimists were able to do well “because of their pessimism,” says Norem in her book, “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.”
Norem says pessimists’ “negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.” Imagining the worst case scenario prepared the pessimists for anything, which motivated them to try even harder and focus more energy on getting ready for any and all kinds of tasks.
We need pessimism so we aren’t shocked if things get worse. Because sometimes, they do.
Guilt improves your moral compass
Guilt, that nagging feeling that comes when we do something wrong, is our moral compass, controlling our levels of social sensitivity and inherent need to be a good person.
In his book “The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your ‘Good’ Self — Drives Success And Fulfillment,” psychologist Todd Kashdan tells the Huffington Post that “adults prone to feeling guilty were less likely to drunk drive, steal, use illegal drugs, or assault another person.”
Experiencing guilt is our brain’s way of punishing us when we do something wrong. It might feel terrible in the moment, but if you’ve ever felt guilty for doing something bad, it means your morals are in check.
Anxiety turns you into a problem-solver
Humans’ natural “fight or flight” response, which tells us to either fight against the object of danger or run from it, is related to anxiety.
The fight or flight response is automatic; it allows your body to metabolize a lot of energy quickly — from implementing changes in your nervous system, to making your heart beat more rapidly, to feeding your muscles more oxygenated blood — in order to act quickly in dangerous or uncomfortable situations.
In these kinds of situations, says Kashdan, anxiety will rule over positive thinking. Anxiety helps you quickly discover solutions to dangerous problems, such as escaping a fire in a building or avoiding a dangerous road.
When you’re anxious, you’ll do anything you can to get yourself and others out of a pressing situation.
Mindlessness heightens your creativity
Mindlessness — in other words, “zoning out” or “having a brain fart” — might seem bothersome when we’re trying to complete important tasks. However, there are a number of benefits to zoning out, which is good news, considering we do it about 50 percent of the time.
Kashdan tells New York Magazine that zoning out is “the incubation period of creativity.” When we zone out, our minds are pulled toward unresolved issues and future goals.
Ideas we never thought to combine start making sense together in our heads. In this way, the benefits of zoning out are often private and personal, which is why they may normally go unnoticed by other people.
It makes sense, really. We’re all familiar with the “aha!” moment, when a burst of insight about a problem suddenly enters our brains when it’s least expected.
This burst can happen during the most mundane of tasks: in the shower, while doing a homework assignment, in the midst of a scroll through a social media news feed.
It’s when you pay the loosest, most unfocused attention to an issue that you’re able to resolve it.
Anger motivates you to patch up conflict
There are indeed strong correlations between anger and aggression-driven conflict and violence. However, Howard Kassinove, PhD, co-author with R. Chip Tafrate, PhD, of “Anger Management: The Complete Treatment Guidebook for Practice,” says that “In fact, anger seems to be followed by aggression only about 10 percent of the time, and lots of aggression occurs without any anger.”
Anger encourages you to come up with “active, approach-oriented steps towards the goal of addressing the wrongdoings that instigated [your] anger,” so it’s beneficial in helping solve problems.
In a 2002 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology and a 1997 study in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, participants reported that positive outcomes arose from anger. Anger helped fix problems in relationships and fostered a greater understanding between the target of conflict and the person who had the conflict.
Regarding the studies, Kassinove notes, “While assertive expression is always preferable to angry expression, anger may serve an important alerting function that leads to deeper understanding of the other person and the problem.”
The American Psychological Association says that anger must “fill a constructive framework” in order to be successful, and it’s important to deal with anger before it causes problems.
Unexpressed anger or anger that isn’t used constructively can morph into “undesirable expressions of the emotion,” while internalized anger can cause “depression, health problems and communication difficulties.”
Jealousy forces you to work harder
Research has discovered that when you put people together in the same room, they’re already working on sizing each other up, figuring out who’s the smartest, who’s the best-looking and who’s the toughest, says Richard Smith, Ph.D., editor of the anthology Envy: Theory and Research.
Psychologists have pinned down two kinds of envy: malicious, which is driven by a need to make things equal and might involve tearing someone down to achieve that; and benign, which has an admiration and inspirational aspect, where you think that if someone else can do it, so can you.
The latter, obviously, is the more beneficial kind.
A 2011 study at Tilburg University in the Netherlands discovered that benign envy led students to perform better in school. Someone else accomplishing a goal you’d like to accomplish makes the goal more tangible to you.
When someone you know achieves something, you almost imagine yourself achieving the same thing, which motivates you to work harder to get it.
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