Feeling Good About Feeling Bad

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on February 15, 2018

“Cheer up, it’s not that bad.”

“Don’t be such a downer.”

“Negative feelings are a sign of weakness.”

“You will never get better with that attitude.”

Has anyone ever said these things to you? Have you ever said them to yourself?

While finding something positive in a challenging situation is beneficial, a series of studies by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and an international research team recently found that criticizing or stifling the negative emotions that accompany those challenges resulted in increased emotional distress and decreased psychological well-being overall.
Feeling pressured to feel upbeat and positive regardless of your situation or state of mind can help you power through a tough day or a medical procedure, but it can make you feel worse in the long run.

Participants in the NIA study reported that the guilt and shame they felt about feeling bad made them feel worse over a longer period than the original negative emotions had made them feel at all.
On the other hand, those who were more accepting of all the emotions they experienced, including negative ones, reported greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression.
The cross-cultural study, entitled “The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?” drew a distinction between “good” emotions—those that are positive and pleasant and that we are conditioned to strive for, and “right” emotions—those that represent an authentic response to our condition or situation.
The researchers found that refusing to indulge negative feelings, even for a limited time, prevents people from fully understanding and addressing them.
“Even people who feel good most of the time may still think that they should feel even better, which might make them less happy overall," their study reported.
They also found that even “good” emotions are subjective: One person may strive for excitement while another seeks a sense of calm.
So if you are angry, worried, sad or discouraged, take a deep breath and embrace those feelings as you experience them. If they are the emotions you are genuinely feeling, then they are the “right” feelings for you in that moment.
But be aware that neither study recommended holding on to negative feelings or indulging them for long periods.

If you find that negative emotions are keeping you from enjoying your life, contact your primary care physician to rule out depression or other medical conditions.

This article was reviewed by Robert Trestman, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Carilion Clinic.