Don&rsquo;t Worry, Be Gloomy: Negative Feelings Have Benefits Too
It’s been 53 years since the smiley face—that bright yellow circle with the schematic grin and black-dot eyes—first appeared.
Hundreds of millions of “Have a Nice Day” buttons, T-shirts, and coffee mugs later, it’s as iconic as the red, white, and blue. (And why not? After all, the “pursuit of happiness” is front and center in America’s Declaration of Independence.)
In the digital age, the smiley face morphed into the emoticons and emojis that pop up everywhere. And with each advance—or, some might say, regression—in our consumer culture, in which marketers hustle to fulfill desires we didn’t even know we had, the blissed-out state of Mr. Smiley becomes ever more the Holy Grail, the organizing principle of our existence.
Wait a minute. Isn’t happiness why we’re here? Isn’t happiness good for us?
Given a choice, we’d probably prefer to be slaphappy all the time, and there are advantages to that pleasurable state. More “positive” emotion is linked to a lower risk of various psychological illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder.
Positive emotions also drive us to success, help us make better decisions, reduce the risk of disease and allow us to live longer. In some cases, they even help broaden how we think and act by directing our attention to new information and opportunities. They help build vital social, physical and cognitive resources that lead to positive outcomes and affiliations.
Considering all of this, you might presume happiness ranks right up there with food and sunshine in its contribution to human well-being. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing—to not only be too happy but also experience the wrong types of happiness, and to go about trying to find happiness in the wrong ways and at the wrong time.
I’m not saying it’s better to go around in a funk all the time. But I hope to get you to keep the pursuit of happiness in perspective, and to see your “negative” emotions in a new and more accepting light. In fact, I strongly submit that describing them as “negative” only perpetuates the myth that these useful feelings are, you know, negative.
RELATED: How You Answer This Question May Say A Lot About Your Happiness
The downside of happiness
When we’re overly cheerful, we tend to neglect important threats and dangers. It’s not too big a stretch to suggest that being excessively happy could kill you. You might engage in riskier behaviors like drinking too much (“A fifth round on me!”), binge eating (“Mmm, more cake!”), skipping birth control (“What could possibly go wrong?”), and using drugs (“Let’s party!”). An excess of freewheeling giddiness and a relative absence of more sober emotions can even be a marker for mania, a dangerous symptom of psychological illness.
People with high happiness levels sometimes exhibit behavior that is actually more rigid. That’s because mood affects the way our brains process information. When life is good, and when the environment is safe and familiar, we tend not to think long and hard about anything too challenging—which helps explain why highly positive people can be less creative than those with a more moderate level of positive emotion.
When we’re in an “everything is awesome!” mood, we’re far more likely to jump to conclusions and resort to stereotypes. The happy more often place disproportionate emphasis on early information and disregard or minimize later details. This typically takes the form of the halo effect, in which, for example, we automatically assume that the cute guy we’ve just met at the party is kind, just because he wears cool clothes and tells funny jokes. Or we decide that the bespectacled, middle-aged man with a briefcase is more intelligent or reliable, say, than the 22-year-old blonde wearing hot pink Juicy Couture shorts.
Our so-called negative emotions encourage slower, more systematic cognitive processing. We rely less on quick conclusions and pay more attention to subtle details that matter.
(OK, the guy is hot, and he seems into you, but why is he hiding his wedding-ring hand behind his back?) Isn’t it interesting that the most famous fictional detectives are notably grumpy? And that the most carefree kid in high school is rarely valedictorian?
“Negative” moods summon a more attentive, accommodating thinking style that leads you to really examine facts in a fresh and creative way. It’s when we’re in a bit of a funk that we focus and dig down. People in negative moods tend to be less gullible and more skeptical, while happy folks may accept easy answers and trust false smiles. Who wants to question surface truth when everything is going so well? So the happy person goes ahead and signs on the dotted line.
The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself. Real happiness comes through activities you engage in for their own sake rather than for some extrinsic reason, even when the reason is something as seemingly benevolent as the desire to be happy.
RELATED: 9 Simple Steps to Happiness
Striving for happiness establishes an expectation and confirms the saying that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. That’s why holidays and family events are often disappointing, if not downright depressing. Our expectations are so high that it’s almost inevitable we’ll be let down.
In one study, participants were given a fake newspaper article that praised the advantages of happiness, while a control group read an article that made no mention of happiness. Both groups then watched randomly assigned film clips that were either happy or sad. The participants who had been induced to value happiness by reading the article came away from viewing the “happy film” feeling less happy than those in the control group who had watched the same film. Placing too high a value on happiness increased their expectations for how things “should be,” and thus set them up for disappointment.
In another study, participants were asked to listen to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a piece of music so discordant and jarring that it caused a riot at its 1913 debut. Some participants were told to “try to make yourself feel as happy as possible” while they listened to the music. Afterward, they evaluated themselves as being less happy compared with a control group that was not chasing Mr. Smiley.
The aggressive pursuit of happiness is also isolating. In yet another study, the higher the participants ranked happiness on their lists of objectives or goals, the more they described themselves as lonely on daily self-evaluations.
Happiness also comes in a variety of cultural variations that open up the possibility of being happy in the wrong way. In North America, happiness tends to be defined in terms of personal accomplishment (including pleasure), whereas in East Asia, happiness is associated with social harmony. Chinese Americans prefer contentment, while Americans with European backgrounds prefer excitement. Japanese culture is built around loyalty, with its connection to guilt, whereas American culture embodies more socially disengaged emotions, such as pride or anger. To be happy within a given culture depends more than a little on how in sync your feelings are with that culture’s definition of happiness.
In short, chasing after happiness can be just as self-defeating as brooding and bottling up your emotions. It’s yet another coping mechanism for discomfort with “negative” emotions and our unwillingness to endure anything even remotely associated with the dark side.
RELATED: Your Guide to Positive Thinking
Good news about bad moods
While it’s certainly not healthy to constantly stew in negative emotions, there are some positive things that sadness, anger, guilt, or fear can do.
Help you form arguments. You’re more likely to use concrete and tangible information, be more attuned to the situation at hand and be less prone to making judgment errors, all of which lends an aura of expertise and authority that can make you a more persuasive writer and speaker.
Improve your memory. One study found that shoppers remembered much more information about the interior of a store on cold, gloomy days when they weren’t feeling so exuberant than they did on sunny, warm days when life felt like a breeze. Research also shows that when we’re in a not-so-good mood, we’re less likely to inadvertently corrupt our memories by incorporating misleading information.
Encourage perseverance. When you already feel great, why push yourself? On academic tests, an individual in a more somber mood will try to answer more questions—and get more of them right—than he or she will when feeling cheerful.
Up your generosity. Those in negative moods pay more attention to fairness and are more apt to reject unfair offers.
Boost your ability to reason. In a study of people with strong political opinions, those who were angry chose to read more articles that opposed their positions instead of practicing confirmation bias, the common tendency to seek out info that supports what we already believe to be true. After exploring these contrary views, they were more willing to change their minds. It seems that anger produces a “nail the opposition” mentality that encourages us to explore what the other guy has to say in order to tear it apart—ironically leaving the door open to being persuaded.
From Emotional Agility by Susan David, published on September 6, 2016, by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright 2016 by Susan David.
Continue Reading »
When Women Are on the Team, More Balanced Decisions May Be the Result, Study Finds
FRIDAY, Aug. 19, 2016 (HealthDay News) — When women are part of a decision-making team, compromise is likely. If it's all up to men, on the other hand, the "extreme" option will often win.
That's according to a new study that tested people's buying decisions, when alone or paired up with another person.
In general, the researchers found, when a man was teamed with another man, they typically went for the extreme choice -- the "biggest, heaviest" grill, instead of a lighter version, for example.
That was not true, however, when a man decided on his own, or when at least one woman was part of the team. In those cases, the middle-of-the-road choice often won out.
What's more, the study found, men often looked down on other men who wanted a more cautious choice—such as a less risky stock market investment.
They didn't judge women for such moderation, however.
It all suggests that when men work with each other, there's pressure to go all-or-nothing, said study co-author Hristina Nikolova, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College.
Men can feel the need to prove their masculinity when they're among other men, Nikolova said. And since the compromise option is typically associated with "feminine norms," she said, men together may be prone to rejecting it and opting for the extreme.
That dynamic is not at work, however, when a man is deciding alone. "So a man choosing a restaurant alone might go for a place that's medium on price and that offers a reasonably good meal," Nikolova said.
"That's a choice that won't create a lot of waves or break the bank. But if two men are in charge of choosing a restaurant together, they're more likely to opt for either an opulent, expensive place or a true hole-in-the-wall," she said.
The findings, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, are based on a series of experiments with 1,200 college students and another 673 online participants. They were asked to make decisions about buying various things, such as toothpaste, tires, printers, grills, and whether to buy risky or safe stocks. They were asked to purchase these things alone or with a partner.
In the grill scenario, half of the male-male pairs picked the "extreme" option (the biggest, heaviest product), compared to only 15 percent of men who chose that option when they were alone.
Few women picked the extreme, whether they decided alone or with another woman. Most often (almost three-quarters of the time), they selected the middle-of-the-road option. There was a similar pattern when men and women chose together.
Therese Huston is a faculty development consultant at Seattle University. She said the new findings are interesting because they highlight the dynamics of how men and women make decisions with a partner, and not only on their own.
And the implications could go beyond fairly simple, low-stakes decisions such as buying a grill, according to Huston, who was not involved with the study.
For example, she said, what happens when a male patient and male doctor are making a decision about treating prostate cancer? It's a disease with a number of treatment choices, including the conservative "watchful waiting" approach or more aggressive management.
"Could this same dynamic play out between male patients and male doctors?" Huston said. "It's an interesting question."
The study findings would also seem to contradict the stereotype that women typically make "emotional" or "intuitive" decisions, while men are the rational ones, according to Huston.
It's a stereotype that other studies have doubted, she noted. In fact, Huston said, there is evidence that when men are stressed, they tend to "go for the home run"—rather than opting for the middle-of-the-road choice.
The study has limitations, however. Participants were making decisions with strangers, not people they knew, Huston pointed out. Plus, real-life decisions typically have a more complicated context compared with a controlled experiment.
Still, Huston said men might want to be aware that their decision-making can be subconsciously influenced by the presence of another man. "It may change what looks attractive to you," she said.
Nikolova agreed. "Being aware of these tendencies to be extreme might help them figure out what they really want -- and not make a choice just for the sake of proving their masculinity," she said.
Like Huston, she said the findings have implications beyond grill-buying: The same dynamics could very well play out in the workplace, or in politics.
The American Psychological Association has more on the psychology of decision-making.
People Become Less Selfish After Age 45, Study Says
Altruistic tendencies—like being truly happy for others and feeling good about giving money away—are stronger in the second half of life, according to a new study that used questionnaires, brain scans, and real-life scenarios to determine people’s motivations behind certain behaviors.
After age 45, researchers found, people tend to give away more money and score higher on personality tests for altruism. The reward centers in their brains also light up more than those in younger people when they witness money going to charity.
The study, by University of Oregon researchers, aimed to combine insight from psychology, economics, and neuroscience. This multidisciplinary approach, they say, led to converging signs of pure altruism in the brain—and helped rule out less genuine reasons people might do charitable things.
RELATED: Old-Fashioned Niceties That Deserve a Comeback
For example, people give away money for plenty of non-altruistic reasons, the authors wrote, such as showing off to others or basking in the “warm glow” one might feel after doing something good. So the researchers’ goal was to find a sweet spot where altruism is done simply for the joy of seeing others benefit, without expecting personal reward or recognition.
To do that, they gave 80 adults $100 each, and asked them to make real-life decisions about giving the money to various charitable organizations or keeping it for themselves. They also performed functional MRI scans on the participants as they watched money being transferred either to their own accounts or to randomly selected charities. Finally, they performed personality tests on each participant.
The researchers found that for some of the participants, their brains’ reward centers were activated more by watching money being transferred to their own accounts than to charities. This suggested a “self-interested” response, said lead author Ulrich Mayr, Ph.D.
RELATED: 5 Scientifically-Backed Benefits of Volunteering
But others’ reward centers were more active while watching transfers to charities. In general, these people also tended to donate more money when given a choice, and scored higher in “pro-social” traits on their personality tests.
The triangulation of these three findings suggests an underlying “general benevolence,” the authors wrote, rather than altruism for personal gains. And, they found, this trifecta was strongest in people 45 and older.
Besides age, the researchers considered other factors, as well: those who identified as religious were slightly more likely to possess general benevolence, while gender and political leaning did not seem to play a role. Neither did annual income—which indicated that older people weren’t more generous simply because they had more money to spend.
RELATED: The Kindness of Strangers
What older people do have, the authors point out, is a greater trove of life experiences. And these experiences, Mayr said in a press release, “may plant the seeds of pure altruism in people, allowing them to grow into the desire to contribute to the public good.”
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, replicated the results of a smaller University of Oregon study published in 2007. While these new findings are more robust, the authors wrote, larger studies still are needed to support the group's conclusions—and to have real-life implications for psychologists or policymakers.
"[This research] gives us a deeper look at the people who give to charity and altruistically contribute to society," co-author Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., said in the press release. "If as a society we want to strengthen communities and have a world where people look out for each other, we can go back and ask what kinds of policies and social conditions can help people get there."
This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.