Wolf Blitzer had barely unhooked his earpiece when the first election think piece emerged demanding that we all calm down and get over it. Most of us confidently ignored it. But six weeks later, even the most passionate (read: stubborn) among us can see that it might be time to let go of the white-hot rage and move on to something more… constructive. And yet.
The second stage of grief is nothing if not tenacious. So it was with some sense of vindication and relief that I discovered not everyone sees my indefatigable fury as a character flaw. British psychologist Tim Lomas says negative emotions are a sign we care about the world and can motivate us to make positive changes. In his new book, The Positive Power of Negative Emotions, he discusses how being pissed or anxious or just plain miserable can actually be a force for good.
That’s not to say it’s fine to feel like crap all the time, or that you should actively seek things to get angry about. Lomas is quick to point out he is not celebrating negativity — only noting that negative feelings are part of what helps us make informed decisions about our lives.
“The answer is not to be totally pessimistic but to have a judicious mix. It is helpful to have optimism and hope but it can be unhelpful if it leads you to overlook risks,” he says. “Negative emotions can be useful because they give you information about your current situation and help you to find better ways being or help you improve things.”
I asked Lomas to break down five of the most common negative emotions and explain how they could be secretly beneficial.
Sadness, says Lomas, can be a form of self-preservation. “We become sad mainly when the people, places and even objects that we care about are threatened, hurt or lost,” he writes in his book. “That caring, that love, is a precious thing. But we also need to care for ourselves and sadness can help with that. When we are at our most vulnerable, it can make us disengage and retreat, prompting us to seek refuge, away from the fray.”
It is also an indicator that we are functioning as compassionate, caring humans. While sadness is never going to be something to get excited about, that knowledge might help us feel more accepting of it. “If you feel sad at the world or people suffering, that’s a sign that you’re being empathetic and compassionate,” Lomas says. “With all these emotions it’s a case of thinking, why am I feeling like this? If it’s a manifestation of your compassion, then it’s possible to see that, if not as a good thing, then as a valuable thing.”
When it comes to life’s lousier moments, many people understandably prefer a more positive approach. Rather than endure sweaty palms before a job interview and acknowledge our weak areas, it is far more appealing to envision ourselves acing it with astute answers and sparkling small talk. But, Lomas writes, “in the cold light of day we are better served by tuning into and harnessing our anxieties.” By listening to our worries, we can focus on what is making us feel insecure and address it.
“To succeed, we need to have faith in our own talent and believe in at least the possibility of success. But it is far better for this self-confidence to be anxious and concerned, rather than laid-back and complacent. This negative edge drives people towards the extraordinary levels of commitment that are required to attain the most elusive goals,” Lomas writes.
Anxiety is an alert system that lets us know when we may be running into trouble, he says, giving us time to change course or update our systems. “Anxiety is our emotional risk antenna, sweeping our environment for threats,” Lomas writes. “Of course, this radar may ‘malfunction’ from time to time […] But when it’s working well, anxiety performs various functions that are vital for our safety and prosperity.”
The thing with anger, Lomas tells me, is that it’s only useful if it helps you figure out what’s wrong and how to change it. Letting it blind you and drive you to irrational or aggressive behavior is no fun for anyone. “Our anger helps us inquire into the crimes we have suffered, detail the nature of our grievances and gather the evidence that will help secure justice,” Lomas writes.
He explains: “Anger is a moral emotion. It’s telling you there is a legitimate grievance.” Sticking with the anger rather than trying to banish it, he says, can actually lead to a better understanding of the problem. “Anger consumes you, so you need to let that simmer down but not give way to apathy or passivity. Maintain the sense that there is something wrong but use that motivate you to fight for what you believe in.”
He cites examples of positive change that came about directly as a result of people’s well-channeled anger. “As the great progressive movements of recent years — from feminism to civil rights — have shown, a sense of righteous anger can inspire social change and ultimately create a more just society,” Lomas writes.
“Guilt is essentially the voice of the conscience. If anger is a moral emotion about what other people have done wrong, guilt is the moral emotion about what we might have done wrong,” Lomas says.
Of all the negative feelings Lomas tackles, guilt seems like the most self-destructive one. It is directed entirely inward. Guilt “eats us up,” after all. The whole purpose of guilt is to make us feel shitty about ourselves. Tell me again how that’s a good thing?
“The first thing to do with guilt is figure out to what extent it is deserved,” Lomas says. “After consideration you might think, actually no I did behave badly; I wasn’t true to myself. But it’s not a case of wallowing. You can’t change the past, but you can use that information to act differently next time. Guilt is one of the strongest motivations to grow and develop and be a better person.”
In his book he points out: “Many people say ‘No regrets’ but none of us is infallible, so we all surely have some causes for regret. This can be a good thing if we learn to use it wisely.”
According to Lomas, our generation is among the most envious in history. Increased connection to and familiarity with the minutiae of each others’ lives means that millennials can easily turn into green-eyed monsters.
“We are constantly bombarded with images of other people’s supposedly perfect lives,” Lomas writes. “Envy has risen dramatically in prominence as a societal concern as a direct result of this heightened exposure to other people’s ‘life highlights’ over the last decade or so.”
But envy doesn’t have to be hateful, Lomas says. In many situations it takes the form of what he calls “emulative envy” which is akin to admiration. “Just after university I was in a band that fell apart. Meanwhile my peers were doing really well and I felt envious of them but it wasn’t like I wanted to bring them down,” he tells me. “Instead it made me think, Well, I’m going to do everything I can to bring myself up to that level. In that situation, envy is spurring you on. Envy can help you strive upwards; it can drive you towards the goals you really want to achieve.”