Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my private practice. A large number of new clients have been coming in expressing the fear that something was wrong with them because they weren’t experiencing positive emotions all of the time. They wanted to eradicate negative emotions and, ironically, this desire was creating an alarming amount of stress.
The myth that negative emotions are bad isn’t new. What is new, however, is how aggressively people are pursuing positive emotions and how much fear and intolerance there is around what we label as negative emotions. This type of aversion toward negative emotions is a slippery slope.
While they might be unpleasant, negative emotions are a necessary part of emotional health. Having a full range of emotions helps us adapt and thrive—even better than positive emotions alone. The concept of having a full and rich range of emotions is referred to as emodiversity, and science suggests that it can have many benefits.
3 Ways that Emodiversity Helps Us Thrive
1. Having more emotions might help prevent mood disorders
In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, participants who had more emodiversity were less likely to be depressed. Having a fuller range of emotions to draw from can help reduce the likelihood of mood disorders by preventing us from having either too much of one emotion or having one emotion for too long. The more emotions we have, the less likely it is that one will dominate our experience. This is the case whether we are looking at how many emotions we have over the course of a day or how we respond to a challenging situation.
For example, rather than feeling just worried about whether a new romantic partner is really interested in you, you might also feel annoyed about having to wait a week for him to reply to a text. This experience of feeling annoyed in addition to anxious might prevent you from getting lost in a cycle of rumination that fuels depression. It might also provide you with the information and courage you need to move on.
2. Having more emotions is adaptive
All of our emotions are meant to serve important roles. Our emotional ecosystem has a complex system of checks and balances. When we over-rely on just one emotion, we forget that it might not be the best emotion for the current situation we are facing. It takes a team of emotions to effectively manage our modern stressors.
For example, trying to feel just peaceful in response to health-related symptoms isn’t adaptive because it could prevent you from addressing potentially serious health problems. This is an instance in which some worry would not only appropriate, but helpful if it compels you to go see a healthcare provider. Fear is designed to protect you from danger and, in this case, it would be a helpful alarm telling you that something needs your attention.
3. Having diverse and balanced emotions can help us reason more wisely
According to a study that was published this January in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, emodiversity is associated with wise reasoning. The study showed that wise reasoning doesn’t require suppressing or controlling emotions. Instead, wisdom can be found in experiencing a more balanced range of emotions. Since wisdom entails humility, the ability to see multiple perspectives, and an openness to compromise, the presence of a rich and balanced abundance of emotions can actually help us deal with challenging situations.
Fortunately, there are some simple things we can do to increase the richness and diversity of our emotional range.
5 Things You Can Do to Embrace Emodiversity
1. Notice your feelings throughout the day
You might be surprised by how many different feelings you actually experience on any given day. Rather than just sadness, perhaps you also experienced pride, enthusiasm, anxiety, amusement, irritation, and calm. Writing down a list of your emotions could help you keep track. Journaling is also an excellent way to access your emotions and explore their range.
2. Accept ambivalent feelings
There might be a part of you that is worried about a situation and a part of you that is calm and knows that everything is going to be fine. One part of you might be angry at someone while another part feels compassion and doesn’t see the need to forgive. It’s ok to have many different feelings. The key is to understand them before acting on them.
3. Have a mindful approach
Mindfulness expands your tolerance for experiencing whatever emotions arise—including some of the less pleasant ones. When an emotion arises, see if you can be with it rather than in Don’t resist it; just observe it with nonjudgmental curiosity. Accept that, for the time being, you’re meant to have this emotion. It’s only temporary, so allow it to come and go like a visitor. Allow pleasant emotions to come and go without clinging to them as well. Most importantly, remember that just because you feel something, it doesn’t mean that you have to do something.
4. Focus on information
Emotions are often full of valuable information about our needs. All we have to do is ask and listen. Ask the emotion what it would like you to know. See if you can soften your approach to it. Stay open to discovering any unexpected messages that the emotion offers.
5. Stop vilifying negative emotions
By changing your perception of negative emotions, you give yourself the space to feel, accept, and release them so that you can move on to the next emotion. To take it a step further, you can even reframe emotions by not labeling them in terms of good, bad, positive, or negative. Instead, you can call them comfortable, uncomfortable, pleasant, or unpleasant.
When we shut out negative emotions, we also dull our ability to experience the range, depth, and spontaneity of positive ones.
Once you’ve worked on expanding your emotional range, see if your access to positive emotions has also changed. As you increase the richness of your emotional life, you may find that positive emotions arise more easily. For instance, rather than trying to force gratitude, responding to all of your emotions with compassion might cause feelings of appreciation to bubble up naturally.
Ultimately, we don’t discover how to feel good by avoiding negative emotions. This is the irony of pursuing positivity too aggressively. When we expect to feel only positive emotions all of the time, we’re actually more likely to feel frustrated and disappointed.
One of the unfortunate and unintended byproducts of happiness as a movement is that our standards have become impossibly high. When we’re busy trying to look happy or shame ourselves for not being happy enough, good feelings will always sit out of reach. We expect too much from ourselves and run the risk of weaponizing positivity rather than cultivating it.
We’ve set the happiness bar so impossibly high that everyone falls short and lives in fear of being discovered. The irony is that we have sacrificed basic mental health in search of ideal mental health.
When we spend our time managing our image rather than learning how to manage negative emotions well, we miss out on developing good coping skills, self-compassion, confidence, and resilience. We miss out on growing and healing.
To reclaim our emotional health, we need to think in terms of wellness, not chasing happiness. Wellness embraces emodiversity. It doesn’t rank emotions and deem some more worthwhile than others. Wellness doesn’t turn happiness into a competition. It doesn’t conflate happiness with success or status. Wellness accepts you as you are and still wants the best for you.
Wellness says things like, I know that this might be an unpleasant feeling, but does it have an important message for you? This feeling is temporary and I know that you have the resources to overcome adversity. This is really hard, but may you be kind to yourself right now.
Wellness can soothe you on your bad days and celebrate with you on your good days.
Without even trying, wellness can create an environment in which positive emotions are much more likely to arise. Perhaps celebrating the diversity of our emotions is the real positivity that we’ve been searching for all along.
Your turn: I’d love to hear from you. Do you think we’ve set the happiness bar too high and could use a little emodiversity?