When something has upset me, I like to listen to sad music, watch sad movies, and read sad books. I have no desire to “cheer myself up,” with happy tunes or inspiring plots—instead I like to completely engulf myself in the gloom. Plain and simple. This may sound counterproductive or just outright strange… but for some bizarre reason, I always come out of the fog feeling better than before. It’s my own kind of backwards therapy.
As it turns out, there may be a method to my madness, according to recent research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by the American Psychological Association. This study “The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?” finds that people may be happier when they feel the emotions they desire—even if those emotions are unpleasant ones, like anger or even contempt.
“Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain. Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have,” explained lead researcher Maya Tamir, PhD, a psychology professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.”
To reach these findings, the researchers surveyed 2,324 university students from eight different countries—the United States, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland, and Singapore—about the emotions they desired and those they felt in real life. The subjects also rated their life satisfaction and depressive symptoms. Upon evaluating the responses, the researchers found that subjects who experienced more of the emotions they desired reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms—regardless of whether those desired emotions were pleasant or unpleasant.
Furthermore, many of the study participants expressed a desire to experience more pleasant emotions and fewer unpleasant emotions than they did on a daily basis. That, however, didn’t always hold true: interestingly enough, 10 percent of subjects wanted to feel more unpleasant emotions; and 11 percent of subjects wanted to feel fewer transcendent emotions, like love and empathy.
Tamir put these reports into perspective: take, for example, someone who isn’t enraged after reading about child abuse, but thinks he should be. He wants to feel that anger and would even be fulfilled by that anger, simply because it lines up with how he believes he should feel. Similarly, a woman who wants to leave an abusive partner, but can’t bring herself to do so, may be happier if she just loved him less.
This specific study focused on assessing one category of unpleasant emotions called negative self-enhancing emotions. These include hatred, hostility, anger, and contempt. According to Tamir, future research is needed to test other unpleasant emotions—like fear, guilt, and shame—and to further explore whether feeling desired emotions truly affects happiness or if it’s instead just associated with it.
Many of us have unrealistic expectations about our emotions: we refuse to be sad, we bottle up our anger, and we force a happy smile. While we think we’re doing ourselves a favor by doing so, we’re actually placing an incredible amount of pressure on ourselves—a pressure that has the adverse effect of our original intentions, as explained by Tamir: “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.”
American Psychological Association. (2017). The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right? [Press Release]. Retrieved on January 4, 2018 from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/08/secret-happiness.aspx