“Being upset is a warmer, close-up feeling, not a chilly distant feeling like laughing at people” from Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last
Generally speaking, being in a bad mood isn’t just no fun, it also isn’t good for you – people who feel negative emotions like anger, anxiety and sadness a lot of the time tend to have poorer social lives and suffer worse physical health in the long run, suggesting that dark moods take a toll. But a new study published in Emotion shows how this isn’t a uniform truth. Bad moods don’t have an adverse effect on everyone to the same degree. The crucial difference seems to be how much people see that there can be value, meaning and even satisfaction in bad moods – those who appreciate this tend to suffer fewer ill effects from the supposedly darker sides of their psyche.
Gloria Luong and her colleagues interviewed 365 German participants (aged 14 to 88) about their attitudes to negative and positive emotions, and about their mental and physical health (physical health was measured subjectively by self-report and also objectively by a grip strength test). The researchers also monitored the participants’ mood states over a three-week period using smart phones. Six times a day during nine days in a 3-week period, the participants were prompted by the phones to indicate how good or bad they were feeling at that time (the participants gave ratings of how much they were feeling various positive and negative mood states, such as their joy and enthusiasm and their anger and disappointment, among others, and the researchers took averages of these to calculate their overall amount of positive or negative mood).
Just as the researchers predicted, the links between people’s frequency of bad moods and negative outcomes (in terms of mental and physical health) varied depending on the attitudes they held toward negative emotion. Those participants who had negative attitudes toward bad moods tended to pay a price: the more negative moods they experienced, the poorer their mental and physical health, both in the moment and longer term (for example, based on their number of health complaints). However, among the participants who had a more positive attitude toward bad moods, these links were mostly reduced, or in some cases even absent completely.
There are different ways to interpret these results: for example, perhaps not suffering from the ill effects of bad moods helps people not to have such a negative view of bad moods. But Luong and her team favour a different account. They think recognising the value and meaning of negative moods and emotions probably helps prevent those dark mood states from taking such an adverse toll, possibly by “dampening the magnitude and/or duration of the concomitant physiological arousal and psychological distress associated with negative affect [affect is another word for emotion].” Future research will need to test this and other explanations.
It’s worth noting, there were some exceptions to the protective effect of valuing negative moods. For example, even among participants who held negative moods in a positive light, the more negative moods they felt, the lower their life satisfaction tended to be. The researchers speculate this may be because when making such a sweeping judgment about their lives, people use an internal gauge of their mood levels as one way to reach an answer, even if, on reflection, they recognise the value and meaning of those negative moods.
Another caveat is that this research was conducted exclusively in Germany. Past research has already revealed cultural differences that are relevant to this topic – for example, German people are less motivated to avoid negative emotions than Americans, and some cultures are actually fearful of too much happiness – so we need more research to see if the current findings apply in other cultural contexts.
These notes of caution aside, the research raises the empowering possibility that negative feelings needn’t always take such a toll, not if we can learn to see the value and meaning they may have (for example, recognising that anger can sometimes be empowering, that sadness can be poignant and bring us closer to one another, and so on). If this effect can be replicated in future research, it may pave the way for mental health interventions based on this principle of seeing the positive side of bad moods.
Luong, G., Wrzus, C., Wagner, G., & Riediger, M. (2015). When Bad Moods May Not Be So Bad: Valuing Negative Affect Is Associated With Weakened Affect–Health Links. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000132
Other people may experience more misery than you realise
What’s the difference between a happy life and a meaningful one?
How happiness campaigns could end up making us sadder
Why do people like listening to sad music when they’re feeling down?
Why do we sometimes like getting sad together?
The unexpected benefits of anxiety
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!