Unhappiness Might Make You Happy, Study Says

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If you, like some of us (ahem, this editor), seem especially prone to negative thoughts and have had to spend the bulk of your adult years listening to people tell you to just think positively, prepare to feel vindicated by the results of a study as reported by Travel + Leisure. The research, published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that happiness is dependent on if a person feels the emotions they desire, whether those emotions be negative or positive: “11 percent of the participants wanted to feel fewer transcendent emotions, such as love and empathy, than they experienced in daily life, and 10 percent wanted to feel more unpleasant emotions, such as anger or hatred. Across cultures in the study, participants who experienced more of the emotions that they desired reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms, regardless of whether those desired emotions were pleasant or unpleasant.”

Why would anyone want to feel more negative emotions? The researchers involved point out that this doesn’t mean that people are sitting around wishing for bad things to happen so they can experience negative emotions. As an example of a situation in which a person desires more of a negative emotion, they refer to a hypothetical in which someone reading about child abuse wishes they were angrier about child abuse. They are desiring a negative emotion but for a positive reason. It’s kind of like how Kim Jong Un and Nicolás Maduro probably wish they felt worse about the fact that many of the people over whom they hold a dictatorship are starving. If they desired to feel badly about the plight of their people, and then they did feel badly, they would be less depressed. Still following?

If we lost you on that example, worry not, as the general takeaway of the study is that positive thinking is not the simple antidote to unhappiness it’s often touted to be. “The study may shed some light on the unrealistic expectations that many people have about their own feelings,” said lead researcher Maya Tamir, PhD, a psychology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “People want to feel very good all the time in Western cultures, especially in the United States. Even if they feel good most of the time, they may still think that they should feel even better, which might make them less happy overall.”