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4 Negative Emotions That Can Actually Be Good for You

By Steve Calechman
July 29, 2021

You take all the requisite steps for happiness. You’re mindful. You’re empathetic. You practice gratitude. It works; but, every so often, the negatives start creeping in. You get angry or jealous, and that stresses you out for various reasons. The feelings may be more intense than you’d like. They last longer than you think they should. Or maybe you’re upset they come into your head at all.

“That’s just ridiculous,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The Myths of Happiness. “Happiness is about the presence of positive emotions. It doesn’t mean the absence of negative ones.”

Negative feelings aren’t all bad. They inspire indignation. They make you reflect. In short, they make you pay attention. “They’re signals that there’s something you need to take care of,” Lyubomirsky says. They’re just best in moderation. When they dominate, you end up ruminating, fuming, and reacting. Here are four common negative emotions, the roles they play, and how to use them productively.


You believe that you should never get worked up, but here’s a question: Why shouldn’t you? If a contractor tries to stiff you or someone hurts your dog, you’d have cause. Anger motivates and fires up the body, says Michelle Shiota, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University. It’s also a message to others to take you seriously. You want to avoid contempt—that says someone’s beneath you—but anger can get attention. “If you’re never angry, you never stand up for yourself,” Shiota says.

The first thing to do to make it effective is to acknowledge it. The act is called labeling, and putting feelings into words takes the heat out. It also short-circuits a futile attempt to ignore your mood. “It’s like denying it’s raining,” Shiota says. After that, ask, “What am I angry about?” You’re trying to determine what part is fair, what part is a lack of coffee—you get to determine the percentages. Your response might be to walk away or to attempt a resolution; but scrutinizing first makes you stand outside the emotion, further diminishing the intensity, she says.


Sadness is often seen as passive, feeling sorry for yourself and asking for help/not solving your own problems. But you’re responding to a significant loss. Think about how much of your world is built on the assumption that someone or something exists. Now remove that presence. Rather than a clean hole, you have many diffuse ones. “Your mind has to reconstruct,” Shiota says.

Again, label it, then sit with the sadness, accepting that reconstruction is rarely quick. “You don’t get to decide the timeline,” Shiota says. But try not to let your sadness determine your actions. While you may not feel like being around people, make an effort to get up and go out, hit the gym, or make plans with friends because you know it will help. As Shiota reminds us, “We have the capability to feel one way and do something else.”

The other step is to not overfocus on the actual loss and unfairness of it—that keeps you in it, says Steven Stosny, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Empowered Love. Be it a relationship or job, the underlying struggle is often a sense of failure. Think more about what you gained and how your life was made better; if mistakes were made, consider how to avoid them the next time. “We do best when we’re improving. We do worst when we rail against the way the world is,” he says.


Here’s the upside: Anxiety makes you get to appointments on time and keeps you scanning for danger. But access to information, even legitimate threats, is incessant. With no time to shut off, the brain says, “Let’s make this person anxious,” says Simon A. Rego, Psy.D., chief of psychology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine and co-author of The 10-Step Depression Relief Workbook.

Intertwined with anxiety is worry, and it doesn’t take much to set that off for some people because, “You can never rule out the possible,” Rego says. And the cycle creates a habit: When a problem doesn’t develop, your worrying is emboldened. When something happens, you didn’t worry enough, so you worry more. The reality, Rego says, is that a person can take every reasonable precaution and bad things will still occur.

The goal is to shift from the possible to the probable. First, analyze your history by asking how many times you’ve had a worry, how many times the worry has actualized, and the likelihood it happens again. “There’s your data,” Rego says.

After that, widen your perspective. You may linger on the worst-case scenario, but consider the best outcome, land in between, and imagine both the cost and benefit of accepting that middle position. You’re expanding your filter and your exposure. The irony is that when you experience anxiety, you build resilience, and ultimately experience less anxiety, he says.


In the beginning of a relationship, focus is in full supply. It wanes over time; and, when you stop paying attention, someone else might step in. You feel threatened that you might lose something important. Jealousy is your signal to close that distance, with something as simple as a loving text or a FaceTime call; or, even better, some actual face time, Stosny says.

But there’s something else underneath: feeling unlovable, i.e., that you’re not enough for your partner. The remedy to feeling jealous is an act of kindness or compassion, which makes you feel more lovable and strengthens a relationship. “We need to attach to survive,” Stosny says. It’s not about doing one thing. It’s about noticing that your partner is stressed, anxious, even sad, acknowledging it, and asking what you could do to help; then helping, which could involve doing something thoughtful or just being patient and listening. You might not feel inclined to take the first step and reach out but remind yourself of the payoff. “You need to water the orchard when you don’t feel like it if you want fruit,” says Stosny.

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