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Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being (scientificamerican.com)
251 points by villancikos on Nov 6, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

Depression was a major part of Winston Churchill's life, and he used the phrase ‘Black Dog’ as a euphemism when talking to family and friends. Sometimes when I feel the negative emotions come to me (every few weeks / months), I think about that and I think about just walking alongside the black dog. It helps to remember that.

Same for me, I try not to fear my black dog, my good 'ol friend. Instead I try and take it as a sign that I might have some growing to do, or some grieving to finish, or that some change is needed and that I should start thinking of possibilities for that. I become introspective.

My life, and most other peoples' lives, have seasons, and those seasons can add meaning in very strange ways that are difficult to replicate without enduring a dark storm every now and then. (Sorry for the metaphors, I'm not a great writer.)

> I might have some growing to do, or some grieving to finish, or that some change is needed and that I should start thinking of possibilities for that. I become introspective.

This really resonated with me, going through it right now and I've always had difficulty expressing it adequately to the people around me when they ask.

Often, depression is actually an avoidance of the underlying emotions -- very often anger. Unexpressed anger goes inward and is directed toward the self, which becomes experienced as depression.

Where did you read this? I am sure I am not the only one here who would love to read more to get a better idea.

Is this an accepted psychiatric phenomenon, or just some Freudian bullshit?

Insofar as a therapist with a psychology degree has said OP's words to me, it's accepted by some professionals.

> implying there's a difference

How I see negative emotion is, it's similar to what physical pain teaches us.

You touch a burning stove. It hurts. You learn this action -> undesirable outcome and avoid doing it. (Sometimes it can take a few times though!)

Just that with negative emotions, sometimes it's less obvious the cause or it's an interplay between a few. And sometimes, there's a time delay between an action and the negative emotion. That's why self-awareness and introspection helps a lot in learning from your experiences.

I think the "you can choose to be happy all the time" movement maligns negative emotions too much - it can be an important warning "hey something is wrong" system in life. Also, I believe the use of the word 'happiness' often leads to misunderstandings.

You cannot be happy, the emotion, all the time. Hour to hour, day to day, we all go through different emotions.

You can however be more consistently happy, as a perspective on life and approach to life.

That I believe is what people really mean when they talk about 'being more happy'.

But a lot of people misunderstand that, thinking if you aren't feeling weeeee most of the day, you aren't really 'happy'.

The issue with depression is I think this emotional signaling can be entirely miscalibrated, and sometimes, you do you have to figure out a way to override those signals.

This can happen if you grew up in an abusive environment and learned that even people who are supposed to love you unconditionally can be dangerous.

This can happen anytime, and could since the times human life became more complicated than hunting and gathering and living in caves.

Negavive emotions (and physical pain) may be a warning, but I strongly wish I'd have more control over them. It reminds me of a typical scene from a naval or sci-fi movie, when something happens and there's an alarm siren blaring. The captain comes to bridge and asks some crewman to shut off the alarm sound. Because such a warning is useful until it's heard and understood, and then it's only seriously distracting. Much like negative emotions and physical pain.

Or, it's rat park...

Yes. If you want to be more happy, be willing to feel more sadness ;)

As someone who is starting a new relationship where we are literally 10,000km away, this is my new normal. I feel intense jealous, anger, sadness when we are away, and we are close I am filled with pure bliss. Pure emotion.

keep that communication channel wide open. be vulnerable. be realistic. spend time finding ways to get closer, if you want it to last. but those facetimes and letters and long distance virtual hugs are a really valuable tool for learning about your partner, and yourself, and each other in the absence of abundant time to spend together. good luck, it's hard. but if you feel the real shit, get super dirty and roll around in it as hard as you can. be vulnerable, supportive. write for yourself. and for your partner. and be vulnerable twice as hard as you think is safe... just don't be unpleasant. happy days.

(In my opinion) Negative emotions are indeed useful. Feeling sad or griping about something is not all that bad as long as it helps you define what it is in your life you don't like.

The hard part is forcing yourself, after some time in the dumps, to say "OK, no what am I going to DO about this?"

Yes, this is key.

For some people, it's not really surprising that they're depressed. Low opportunity, low-income, poor surroundings, poor education, stressful paycheck to paycheck existence. Of course they're miserable.

Of course, adversely comparing yourself to peers is also a strategy for misery.

For those of us to be lucky enough to be in reasonable shape, the knack to avoiding self-pity and depression is to accept yourself, and work through or around your own limitations and count your blessings.

"I tell you, we were put here to have fun and fart around, and don't let anyone tell you different." (with apologies to) Kurt Vonnegut.

If the things you listed "Low opportunity, low-income, ..." actually caused depression, then most of the people in Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia would be depressed, but this is obviously not the case. The causes of depression are complicated and aren't directly related to being poor in an absolute sense.

Exactly! A lot of people in developed and developing countries are depressed because they thought that wealth and materialistic possessions would bring them happiness, when all it got was more things to worry about.

Social standards are the principal causes of depression: too overweight, too skinny, too tall, too short, being single, not owning a house, not having a job, not owning a car, not having enough friends, not hanging out enough, not being noticed/praised enough, not smart enough... and the list goes on and on.

I don't think watmough was using the term depression in a clinical sense. What we are discussing would be more accurately called learned helplessness if we want to be technical.

For me, at least, the hardest part is actually executing on what you think you should do.

I see a parallel with healthy companies and management.

Healthy companies don't avoid thinking about problems, don't subsist solely on interpersonal praise, and don't succeed based on "if we do our best, then we're doing a good job."

I imagine too many young startups and companies fall into this trap of always wanting to feel like they are doing a good job, both in self scrutiny and scrutiny of employees.

That's not to say I think managers should constantly harp on employees to spur them along, or that founders should constantly berate themselves. But it's harder than it seems to dole out negative feedback, for some people at least. We like to talk about being results oriented and merit based, but it's easier just to say everyone is doing great and trying, which can kill a company before it starts. And maybe only in the post mortem do we take time to analyze if we were doing the right things and doing them enough.

I watched a documentary about heroin addiction in a wealthy northeast U.S. town.

I recall being struck at how the parents of the addicts presented in the documentary (who were all young) talked about how all of their kids were always so happy as children.

Then, when interviewing the addicts, there was a clear recurring theme that they wanted to do drugs because they could not handle the pain of being off drugs.

I did not feel these things to be unrelated.

"So happy as little children" seems to be a recurring line in nearly ever episode of Intervention I've ever seen

I usually assume that the parents are pretty poor historians

Or that people aren't very good at figuring out when little kids aren't happy

I have trouble believing that happy childhood are correlated with later life problems

As someone who has helped people get off heroin, booze,toxic relationships, etc.. That jumps out as a red flag that the parents were sending signals that the kids were ONLY allowed to feel "happy", so of course they would be primed for addiction, not having learned the beauty of their entire range of emotions.

Or that an unhappy childhood leading to later addiction might seem unremarkable and go unmentioned? (In general, not necessarily this documentary.)

I was in therapy years ago.

I told by the Therapist, "I didn't have a bad childhood."

I was basically tired of talking, and just wanted a drug to calm my brain down.

She told me patients whom had bad childhoods, actually had bad/subpar childhoods, in many cases."

That's about all I got out of the sessions. She just got her MFCC, and was very honest, and seemed to care. She was pregnant, and in some sessions we would be both crying together. She was actually the only Therapist I liked. I think because she was young, and took her job seriously.

I look back, and I don't think I had a bad childhood. I had typical Irish American/Mexican parents. I was the oldest, and was expected to do things differently, but my chilhood wasn't terrible.

Anyhow, I did look it up, and supposedly children from tough backrounds tend to think they had great childhoods, with all the usual exceptions that accompany Psychology.

I will honestly never know in my case. I refused to blame my parents. My father was a piece of work though.

When I got older, I basically didn't want to turn into him, and I haven't yet.

A) Most children are happy.

B) 'The pain of being off drugs' - for opioids is a deeply physical thing as well. Once they are 'hardcore' it's no longer a matter of 'getting high' it's 'getting back to normal' - i.e. they need heroin to operate normally. The body adjusts to having opioids, and when it doesn't get them it 'feels' miserable. That's the trap, apparently.

The tone of the parents "in comparison with" others. I am not arguing that they were good or poor parents, but I think it is arrogant to assume they were completely ignorant.

They were talking about well after the physical addiction aspects would have subsided. Their issue was that they could not stay off of the drugs, beyond just the issues immediately following quitting.

I don't doubt for a second that the parents are disingenuous or self deluded.

I just believe that most parents, looking back at their children when they were young, would say 'they were such happy children'.

I do not believe that 'a happy childhood' in any way correlates with individuals likelihood of using/getting hooked on drugs - or their difficulty in 'getting off drugs'.

Opioid addicts in particular commonly indicate that once they are 'fully hooked' - that the drug stops become a thing of aspiration, rather, they need to take it to 'just feel normal' - and that without it, it's painful. This is the body's reaction to the drug. Being addicted to heroin sets a 'new baseline' for your bodies production of serotonin, dopamine etc. etc. which is unpleasant, and to feel normal, one needs ever more heroin uptake.

In a much smaller way - a similar thing happens with nicotine: the 'mini high' from smoking goes away after a while, at which point, without a nicotine hit - you feel uncomfortable. Getting the 'hit' reverts you merely to a relatively normal state.

"I don't doubt for a second that the parents are disingenuous or self deluded."

Meant to say: "I don't think parents are disingenuous or deluded."

Those parents are probably in turmoil. Their kids addicted to drugs because of the emotional pain of reality would feel like total failure as a parent.

The other thing is heroin withdrawal causes intense physical pain. Heroin is a potent painkiller. It numbs both physical and emotional pain. Withdrawal goes in the opposite direction. I've heard the pain described as "deep within the joints and bones".

If the parents remembered their children as unhappy then it would seem their fault as the parent is generally assumed responsible for a child's happiness in their early years.

"Low frustration tolerance" is considered a factor in several mental problems by some: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low_frustration_tolerance

> I watched a documentary about heroin addiction in a wealthy northeast U.S. town.

Any recollection of the title?

My google-fu is failing me.

I think PC culture is maybe a problem here.

I worked in an F50 and for political reasons ... emotions are just not allowed.

I personally don't mind a little bit here and there. Someone gets angry, argues, whatever. It's life. As long as it's not personal.

I worked at startups and we used to debate, hardcore, all the time. No harm done. At the F50, it was too politically costly - everyone is trying to 'one up' one another, so it's about making as 'few social mistakes as possible' - and getting the occasional 'win' and making sure you kiss your boss's butt.

That's it.

I just read "life of a slave" by frederick douglass. It's been helpful to calibrate my emotional responses. I try to treat emotion like sound or light - a signal from the outside world, with appropriate responses.

When I get upset at things now, I compare whatever's bothering me to "being a slave, being whipped for teaching fellow slaves how to read the bible" - and i realize how unimportant the thing was.

This ability - to compare our experiences to those of others - is why i think christianity has something to it. I ignore all the talk about God, and just think of the story of Jesus - a guy who went around telling everyone, "hey lets be nice", and got tortured for it. Being able to forgive someone who'd do that to you is a tall order - but if you have that ability and truly follow that pattern, you'll be much happier and contented.

I don't see the guy as divine - i see him as a helpful calibration point. Forgiveness is a path out of anger. There's a lot to be angry about in our modern world, but that doesn't make it helpful for us.

I used to think that this was a good way to cope with unhappiness that I experienced. I would tell myself, "At least I'm not starving to death" or, "At least I don't feel like killing myself this morning." I would feel better at first, but it didn't change the fact that I would still get the same negative feelings again. It became frustrating that this tactic lost its effectiveness over time.

While on one hand it trivializes what it actually means to go through starvation, or having suicidal thoughts, or what it's like to actually be a slave, I think it also trivializes your own feelings as well.

Like the article points out, this mentality suppresses your feelings. "Oh, I'm not allowed to feel this way. Look at all the wealth and happiness I am surrounded with and non-extreme situations I don't have to face!"

Admitting my feelings and writing them down in my journal in the heat of the moment, no matter how pathetic they made me seem, gave me a chance to reflect on what I had written. It gave me a snapshot to come back to later and say "Is this really what I am like? Have I exaggerated or downplayed my emotions?"

And from there, I was able to come to two types of conclusions:

1) Accept that sometimes for a given situation I would feel blue no matter what. Something I realized after 8 years of heartbreak, things not working out, or rejection in dating is that while I got better at being functional, the pain itself never dulled. And what a relief! I kept expecting that it would somehow hurt less after all these years, but that's just not how it turned out. And I feel so much better now with that in mind.

2) I can decide to act on the problem. I can act and succeed, or act and fail. And after enough failures, sometimes it's OK to give up for the time being and work on other types of dissatisfaction.

I think the article did a great job of succinctly describing a process I have gone through myself for several years. I highly recommend it.

Completely agree with you and would add that I've found mourning after something that gets me down is ESSENTIAL for moving through those things. If I avoid grieving the loss I'm perceiving, that's also suppressing my emotions.

I used to not associate mourning with everyday events; it was something reserved for people/pets dying. Now, if I can't shake a bad feeling, I try mentally eulogizing whatever I lost.

Jesus did not go around saying, "Hey let's be nice," nor did he get crucified for saying that. Jesus called out the Jewish leaders of the day for being hypocrites, people who laid a heavy burden on their followers but did not live up to the standards they set, who made up and imposed strict rules while completely missing the point. They crucified him because they felt threatened by him, that their power structure would collapse, and then they wouldn't be powerful anymore. Nothing's changed in that aspect of humanity--the powerful always want to preserve their power.

He did not call people to be nice, he called people to be good and faithful. There is often a big difference between being nice and being good. By contemporary standards, if Jesus had gone around being "nice," he never would have confronted anyone or accused them of sinning.

Jesus certainly did get angry sometimes, but his anger was justified, and he did not lose self-control.

You can't separate Christianity or Christ from God. Think about this: if Jesus was not who he claimed to be--the son of the living God--then he was surely crazy, because he got himself killed for nothing. He could have avoided all that suffering and death by just being nice and non-confrontational, and going to a place where people didn't want to kill him.

I'm a Christian and I love this post, but this part:

> There is often a big difference between being nice and being good.

... made me all giddy as a philosophy major :)

:) Studying some philosophy myself right now. Fun stuff if taught well.

As described in the Bible, Jesus went around challenging and insulting the religious leaders of the day. He literally went around the temple with a whip overturning people's stalls because he objected to their presence. He did say to be nice sometimes as well, but that was not really what made people angry.

I think there's a limit to those negative emotions in as much as long we suppress them then we can't recover from their cause. Like for me, my gender dysphoria has been a life long issue which has been associated with my depression and anxiety issues. Specifically, the more I suppressed my dysphoria the more depressed I've gotten (even more anxious). Conversely, the more I tried to suppress the depression and/or anxiety the more my dysphoria made me feel worse. Basically, a feel back loop of suck. So the key to dealing with negative emotions is figuring out what's wrong and either learning to cope with the cause of them or resolve the cause altogether (sometimes both as with me since I'm not ready to come out).

I've often heard the exhortation to practice meditation, focus on your breathing and simply accept any thoughts/feelings without any judgement. For a long time, I simply thought that such teachings were some new-age feel-good psuedo-therapy. Yesterday, I happened to stumble across the book "The Inner of Tennis", and spent my entire evening devouring half the book. It made me realise how profound and powerful those teachings truly are. Give it a read if you find yourself dismissing such advice.


I look at negative experiences (not emotions) the same way I look at lifting weights. It is a stimulus that can cause you to grow stronger. Much like you have to lift weights with proper technique to avoid injury, you have to learn to respond to negative events with the proper cognitive strategy to avoid suffering.

I don't think negative emotions are necessary, however. The benefit comes from learning to process negative events constructively, which people (sometimes) learn to do in order to avoid the pain.

Grief and sorrow are essential since you're expressing the loss of something that caused a great change in your life. Knowing that this change existed and has provoked such strange lows and highs can be deeper and more fulfilling than painless happiness. IMO anyway.

Inspired by this thread, I looked up Freud's 12 Human Defense Mechanism when negative emotions stew in our mind to look at how I delude myself on daily basis: https://kevinfitzmaurice.com/self-esteem/self-esteem-issues/...

1. Over-compensation/Projection: To overcome my greatest fear that I'm just a programmer making a comfortable living but ultimately making meaningless web apps for BigCo or for startups but afraid of sitting with this feeling for too long; I try to "cultivate" cultural hobbies like playing in a blues band, joined a rec-league, travel, attend book/film clubs to convince myself that I'm different than the other people but find people who are most like me in the book clubs and art galleries openings are just as empty, pretentious and obnoxious. Similarly I project onto others my insecurity, and judge them accordingly to the snobbery by the impact factor (IF) of their "CV" and of their "cultural output".

2. Denial/Ritual for Undoing/Regression: I escape via various social media distractions and comfort food. I go to startup social gatherings, when the caffeine or alcoholic or fun-social distraction buzz kick-in, I convince myself that this is the way things are suppose to go. But the buzz wears off, I realize that my problems are still there and chasing that original high with that good sushi meal, new brew of coffee or dance-party venue feel like eating a diminishing return chocolate cake.

3. Displacement/Identification: I visit a lot of right-wing subreddits like /r/the_donald that rage against the left-wing subreddits to the point that I realize that as much as I hate on the facebook feeds of my enemies on the left, they have also now become my indisposable personal crucible because the outrage inspired has become almost a comforting ally to lean onto to channel my otherwise impotent rage; I visit HN and glow over the triumphs by techies like unveiling of new Tesla model or new VR headsets and startup podcasts and blog posts about the #hustle. I sometimes even Google search pictures of PR pictures of Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes (before she became reviled by this forum) while listening to positive YouTube music video's to bask in the positive glow.

4. Acceptance/Humble Identification/Sublimation: I accept that I won't ever be like Elon Musk or Elizabeth Holmes or a mere YC Founder for that matter. I've been trying to find more realistic models to model my behavior like my boss who is very organized, shows up to work on time and is very empathy for people, but someone who is otherwise (gasp) an average person judged by my earlier metric of Personal Impact Factor. I try to find more socially acceptable, stable and support roles like playing Healer heroes in Dota2 or LoL instead of battling it out with my team about who to play to the Carry; my fear of just giving in and becoming just an mediocre everyman like Willie Loman, I just let go and trying to keep score every day cleared up to make room to find simple joys like washing dishes, taking out the trash on time and closing JIRA tickets. Walking by the local hip and edgy co-working space, I cannot help but feel a tinge of poetic sadomasochism that in order to attain peace, I chased the opposite of what I was afraid of becoming only to end up becoming the very thing of this existential guilt by way of being wore down by the daily pressure of unable to run away from this guilt; and realizing that this guilt of unbecoming of the becoming is also the real unbecoming, but the real becoming is also the unbecoming.

Would you really like to be Elizabeth Holmes?

They usually stop being useful when they destroy you from the inside and make you do things you'd never do in a normal mood range. But what he says has a nice ring to it, in line with all the modern self-help nonsense.

The dose makes the poison.

“The complexity of life” is really ambiguous. The actual headline, “Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being”, is much more descriptive.

We've reverted the title from “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be a fruitful path to well-being”.

I find “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be a fruitful path to well-being” to be much more revealing. The 'term' negative is too subjective.


The author's not a professor or marketing. She's a "Psychotherapist, Ayurvedic Health Coach, Writer, CEO-Bettie Page Fitness, Songwriter, Activist, Editor." Still not very hard science though.

Where did you get that? I went looking for a link because your list of titles didn't match what was in the article:

She's an integrative psychotherapist! A one-stop wellness shop. And a licensed professional counsellor:

> https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/name/Tori_Rodrigu...

Yes, I am wrong here. The professor of marketing has been mentioned in the text as a collaborator in some "study".

Is that "Ayurvedic Health Coach" stuff qualifies as the substitute for majoring from MIT or Yale in Psychology or Biology?

I doubt the term "negative emotion" holds up to scientific standards.

> "In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health."

Translation: "New Research": Having watched Inside Out.

I searched the thread to see if anyone had mentioned inside out. I found that quite a powerful movie, with an important message. A lot of time and money has been spent trying to prevent people from feeling any kind of negative emotions. Most recently in the form of medicating these emotions away.

There are a few issues with medication, as I see it. Should we try change a person? Are you the same person if you medicate how your brain responds to certain events? There are risks involved of course, people react differently and increased anxiety levels are often associated with some anti depressants. There is also the problem of dependence and the search for the "perfect pill" to make them feel perfectly at peace.

And finally there is the question of whether or not these negative feelings are actually a key part of who we are, and trying to lock them away, and contain them just prolongs the suffering we endure. I think sometimes you just got to embrace what you feel and go with it.

Let me stress though, I completely accept that for some people medication is absolutely vital to ensure they stay well, and for many others it can be completely life changing in a totally positive way. I just think it shouldn't be the first thing your doctor recommends when you present with depressed or anxious thoughts.

Great news, I should live forever then.

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