Most people equate happiness with money, a successful career, fame and love. Indeed, we have this notion that for us to experience happiness is dependent on getting what we want, feeling loved, and experiencing contentment and so on – which of course makes us feel good. While on the other end of the spectrum, we are always reminded to try to manage our anger, with the common belief that it is not a good emotion. Surprisingly, it turns out that to experience a whole gamut of emotion is actually beneficial, and that includes anger and hatred.
Interestingly, researchers found out that we may be happier when we experience the emotions we want – even if these emotions 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’ explained lead researcher Dr Maya Tamir 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’, she adds.
The research which involved over 2,000 participants from eight countries (US, Germany, China, Brazil, Singapore, Israel, Poland, and Ghana) is a pioneer in examining the link between experiencing happiness and experiencing desired emotions, even when those emotions are unpleasant. Researchers asked people what emotions they desired and felt. This was then compared to how they rated their overall life satisfaction or happiness. Those with the greatest life satisfaction experienced emotions that matched those they desired, even if these were unpleasant.
So does this mean that feeling bad can actually be beneficial? In a BBC report, Dr Tamir explains that, ‘If you feel emotions you want to feel, even if they’re unpleasant, then you’re better off’. The study also observed that 11% of participants wanted to feel less of positive emotions, such as love and empathy, while 10% of them wanted to feel more negative emotions, such as hatred and anger.
‘Someone who feels no anger when reading about child abuse might think they should be angrier about the plight of abused children, so want to feel more anger than they actually do in that moment. A woman who wants to leave an abusive partner but is not willing to do so may be happier if she loved him less, for example.’ explained Dr Tamir.
Of course further studies are needed to find out whether feeling desired emotions indeed has a robust impact on happiness or is merely associated with it. One of the limitations of the study is that it examined only one category of unpleasant emotions known as negative self-enhancing emotions, which includes hatred, hostility, anger, and contempt. Therefore, future research could explore other unpleasant emotions, such as fear, guilt, sadness, or shame.
The pleasant emotions that were assessed in the study included empathy, love, trust, passion, contentment, and excitement. Earlier research has demonstrated that the emotions that people desire are linked to their values and cultural norms, but that relationship was not directly examined in this research. The study may shed some light on the unrealistic expectations that many people have about their own feelings.
‘People want to feel very good all the time in Western cultures, especially in the US. 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’ Dr Tamir said.
This finding is an interesting comparison to another study which found out that hedonic happiness is unsustainable in the absence of eudaimonic (meaning-driven) well-being. If these findings are true, according to the researchers, we are one step closer to understanding what constitutes human nature and the goods a person ought to pursue to attain happiness, and what should guide government policies to promote social well-being.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.