Given a choice, many of us would choose happiness or joy over anger or jealousy. If you doubt this, take a look at the sheer number of books, videos and self-help programs offering to help you find greater happiness. Even the Dalai Lama has penned a book on the Art of Happiness.
But while chasing after positive emotions can give you a quick boost of endorphins—those hormones that keep a smile on your face and a skip in your step—avoiding or suppressing the so-called negative emotions can stunt your personal development and cut you off from the very things in life that bring you happiness.
Even sorting emotions into those two camps—positive and negative—is a misstep. Emotions have no inherent goodness or badness to them. Like language and the ability to pass on information to our offspring, emotions are tools acquired by humans through countless generations spent struggling for survival. In fact, without our anger, embarrassment and anxiety, it’s likely we would not have survived for very long. So in order to live fully in the world and endure every challenge that comes at us, we need to engage the full range of emotional states available to us.
Anger. More than just making you hot under the collar, anger pushes you toward taking action. This may be something as personal as demanding a raise from your boss or making your partner listen to your grievances. But anger can also fuel social progress, as with the civil rights and gender equality movements. Anger can certainly tip over into rage, but if you always stifle your anger, social justice may never occur and relationship problems may never come to light.
Shame. If you feel shame when you are ashamed or embarrassed when you are embarrassed, you are not alone. These emotions are never far from the surface. But whereas anger helps us gain respect in the community, shame and embarrassment allow us to live side-by-side. Without signs of these emotions, such as the spontaneous, and uncontrollable, blush, we might never trust someone who has broken one of our society’s norms.
Fear. Fear is the ultimate survival tool, most commonly expressed in our fight-or-flight response. Fear is a way for the body to amp up its resources, tuning us into the dangers—real or potential—lurking in the world around us. Without fear we take risks without thinking our situation through beforehand, as seen with intoxicated people or teenagers.
Anxiety. Sometimes fear tips over into anxiety, the emotion that occurs when we can’t deal with an actual or potential threat. While anxiety can be overwhelming, it can also stimulate our ability to gather information, both at school and work. But anxiety can also serve as a compass for our lives, pointing out the ways in which we are not living a fully authentic life and guiding us in a new direction.
The next time you are overwhelmed by anger or shame, fear or anxiety, remember that these emotions are there to serve a purpose. Rather that distancing yourself from them, try to understand their functions and use them as portals to presence.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
For more on the topic, check out The Upside of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener.