The Power of Negative Emotions

There are eight basic emotions according to psychologist and professor Robert Plutchik: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger and anticipation. Everyone wants to be happy, or joyful. The majority of the rest of these emotions, with the exception of trust, surprise and anticipation, are considered ‘negative’ by most people. Matthew Hutson is a psychologist with a Bachelors in cognitive neuroscience and a Masters from MIT. In 2015, he published a book called Beyond Happiness, where he explained how the emotions we often label as ‘negative’ can, in fact, have a positive impact on our lives.

Anger (Envy/Jealousy/Shame)

We feel anger when we feel undervalued, Hutson says. Anger is a way to reassert our importance and prevent exploitation but can be demonstrated in unproductive ways such as arguing or fighting. However, it does often lead to results and therefore can be seen as an important if not positive emotion. If we are being taken advantage of, whether at work, in a relationship or some other situation, the ability to feel anger and stand up for ourselves is, fundamentally, a good thing. Being consistently undervalued leads to depression and other mental and physical health problems. When we feel angry, we are stimulated by this emotion and spurred into action with greater confidence and are more likely to obtain the result we want. Standing up for yourself sends the message to others that you have the capabilities and resources to succeed in a specific role. In the workplace, this can lead to success and a credible reputation.

Similarly, feelings of shame can spur us to improve our behaviour. If we fail at something; socially, in a work environment, or anywhere else, our resolve to succeed in the future grows. Humans are able to learn from their mistakes and improve. Envy is felt when we see or hear of something we ourselves desire. Humans can harness this emotion and use it to drive themselves to a similar level of success. Jealousy occurs when what we already have is threatened by someone or something. In relationships, for example, jealousy can actually improve the existing couple’s interactions if the jealous party chooses to channel their emotions into improving the relationship and proving themselves to be the better choice of partner.

Fear (Anxiety)

Babies are born with two innate fears; falling and loud noises. That’s because we’re programmed to steer clear of danger. We know to stay away from high cliff edges, to be scared at the sound of gunshots or thunder, because we want to survive. Fear is a built-in defence mechanism. Without fear, human life expectancies would be far lower. As we go through life, we acquire our own fears (mine is snakes) and some of which are not related to keeping us alive. Hutson points out that many people are afraid of looking foolish in social situations. It is this fear which encourages us to maintain good manners and ethics. Not life threatening exactly but blunders can kill our social lives. Fear and anxiety keeps us safe in all manner of ways and reduces our risk-taking.

Sadness (Regret/Disappointment/Grief)

Bear with me here; sadness can be a good thing. The sadness or grief experienced after the loss of a loved one can seem never-ending, crippling, all-consuming. And these emotions often lead to changes in our lives; many of them positive. After losing someone close, people often put more effort into being social (and friends make us happy, remember?). Senseless loss (tragic road accidents or illnesses in young people, for example) can lead to extraordinary charitable work being undertaken by the bereaved families in the hope that something good can come from their loss.

We’ve all asked ourselves “if only”. Everyone has regrets; times in their lives when they made the wrong choice, did the wrong thing. These mistakes, whether big or small, are part of our past and we can learn from them. Regret puts us in a better position to make the most out of our future. It can also spur us into action and encourage us to make amends. Similarly, if we are disappointed at something in our lives, we may be inspired to make changes to avoid similar disappointments in the future.

Disgust (Boredom/Frustration)

Along the same lines as regret, if we are disgusted, bored or frustrated by something, we often feel compelled to do something about it. At school, if we didn’t understand maths, we may spend longer on our homework until we mastered the technique. Frustration, coupled with human being’s quest for knowledge, leads to a better, deeper and more thorough understanding as we become more determined to find the right answer. If we are bored, we seek something more interesting. If we are disgusted by something, we take steps to remedy whatever repels us. Boredom leads to creativity and disgust leads the solutions to problems.

Feelings of anger, fear, sadness and disgust do not necessarily sound good at first but, when you consider what they may inspire within you, perhaps they do have their uses. What emotions will inspire you to perform a good deed today? Share your acts of kindness on our app and tell the world how you’re harnessing the positive power of negative emotions.

Go. Do. Experience. More Good Deeds.