Negative emotions such as anger, sadness, despair, fear, shame, anxiety and disgust have inspired many art works, great literature, music, plays, inventions and even philosophical ideas and theories about life. Negative emotions are normal and basic human emotions that have adaptive and survival functions. Some functions are more researched and known than others, but generally their presence signals us to flee from danger, fight for survival and to avoid emotional, physical and psychological threat and/or discomfort. Our society is in constant pursuit of happiness. The experiencing of negative emotions is therefore often perceived as threatening, bad, scary, an undesirable state that needs to end and is often also masked from others. Positive and negative emotions are like waves. They come and change in frequency, duration and intensity all the time and we all have them. When the frequency, duration and intensity is high and severe to the point that it hinders, impairs and/or stops normal emotional, cognitive, social, behavioural, psychological and physical functioning then it becomes a pathology that needs to be treated.
We often focus on the impact of emotions on our lives but we rarely ponder about what the negative emotions are telling us or if the specific emotion also has positive aspects that can help and teach us something about ourselves, others or the world. Recent research offers interesting and new perspectives on mild negative emotions. Research finding demonstrate that the presence of mild and temporary negative emotions have benefits that supersede the way in which happy people think, function and communicate. The following paragraphs will name a few of those benefits.
Sadness functions as a warning signal that ignites focus, attention and effort to protect, cope, prevent and change the negative affective state. Negative emotions boost the value assigned to the expected benefits of goal achievement. When the desirable emotional state is highly valued and perceived as needed, there will be more incentive and motivation to act and achieve a change of emotional state. Mild negative emotions generate more behaviour to create a change than positive emotions, which also enhances the effort to work harder, increases the desire to enjoy the potential fruits of success and the level of determination.
Interpretation of social contexts, others and their behaviour is coloured by the selective retrieval of memories associated with the same affect and the way in which the information is being processed. The alertness and vigilance associated with mild negative emotions turns the focus of attention and concentration of the individual externally towards scanning and processing the new and situational information from the environment. This improves memory of details. The enhanced focus on details and the analysis of new data results in a more concrete and factual thinking style, which makes individuals with negative emotions better in building more persuasive verbal arguments, persuading others and creating more effective change in other’s attitudes. Mild negative emotions appear to increase persuasive abilities more than positive emotions. It implies improved communication abilities and it also helps to better manage personal relationships.
In addition, happy people are more inclined than people in a sad mood, for example, to rely on the Halo Effect in forming their first impression of others. Halo Effect is the assumption that the possession of some features also implies the possession of other characteristics (e.g. Fat-lazy; beautiful-nice). Because of the inclination to search and analyze new information or motives in interpreting social situations and others’ behaviours, individuals with mild negative mood are less disposed than individuals in positive moods to use the Halo Effect, relay on stereotypes and they also make less judgment mistakes when meeting new people.
Social information is analyzed more cautiously and deeply due to the increased vigilance, pessimism, consideration of social demands and norms, as well as, the need to avoid criticism and rejection. It results in a heightened sensitivity to the social environment, the intentionality and the cause of others’ behaviours, which better prepare the individual to respond to social challenges. Interacting with others also involves receiving allot of misleading or untruthful information. One often needs to decide what is trustworthy information that should accepted as true and which information should be rejected. There is thus a risk of accepting false information and rejecting valid information as false. Individuals with negative emotions have better abilities to distinguish between deception and truthfulness than happier respondents. When there is dissimilarity between verbal and nonverbal communication in an interaction, it is more complicated and difficult to judge the genuineness or falseness of the message communicated. Individuals with negative affects also make less judgment mistake in those instances. Additionally, they are less driven by selfish desire to maximize gain at the expense of others and will demonstrate more social fairness. In such situations sadness thus promotes more social sensitivity and adaptive behaviour than positive affect.
In summary, our negative perspective and attitude towards negative emotions should be reconsidered and adjusted as it has been demonstrated that mild, temporary and negative emotions trigger motivational, cognitive, behavioural and interpersonal strategies that are beneficial to us and our functioning abilities in difficult social situations. When they are mild and temporary, negative emotions are just inseparable elements of what make us human.
Forgas, J.P., Fiedler, K.,& Sedikides, C. (2013). Social thinking and interpersonal behaviour. New York: psychology press.
Forgas J.P. (2011). She just does not look like a philosopher… affective influences on the halo effect in impression formation. European Journal of Social psychology, 41,812-817.
Forgas, J.P.,& East R.(2008). How real is that smile? Mood effects on accepting or rejecting t veracity of emotional facial expressions. Journal of Nonverbal behaviour, 32, 157-170.
Forgas, J. P. (2007). When sad is better than happy: negative affect can improve the quality of effectiveness of persuasive messages and social influences strategies. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47,425-429.
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