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The Secret to Happiness Is… Unhappiness

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Woman thinking

amana productions inc./Thinkstock

You’ll be happier when you feel the emotions you need to feel, even if they aren’t rosy.

Life would be so wonderful if we were always in a bed of roses! Starlight and moonbeams and… Uh, no. According to research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, humans are happier when they feel the emotions they want to feel, even if those feelings are unpleasant.

“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,” wrote the study’s lead researcher, Maya Tamir, Ph.D. Dr. Tamir is 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.”

Tamir’s research was a cross-cultural study, using 2,324 university students in eight countries, including the United States. Participants were surveyed about the emotions they desired to feel, versus what they actually felt, and asked to rate life satisfaction and any symptoms of depression. Unpleasant emotions studied were hatred, hostility, anger and contempt, while pleasant ones included love, empathy, passion, contentment and excitement.

The study found that 11 percent of participants wanted to feel less transcendent emotions, such as love and empathy, and 10 percent wanted to feel more unpleasant emotions, such as anger. Why? Sometimes we forget that negative emotions can be useful. For example, a partner who wants to exit a bad relationship but is having a hard time doing so might be happier if he or she feels less love. Someone reading about child abuse may desire to feel angrier about it to spur them to action to fight the problem.

For future research, scientists can examine other negative emotions, such as fear, guilt, sadness or shame, Tamir wrote. Dr. Tamir also had words of advice for people in Western cultures, especially in the U.S., noting that people may have unrealistic expectations for feeling very good all the time. “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.”


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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