We need negative emotions for a good life

Unpacking a double standard

We are all wary of the power of negative emotions, while treating positive emotions as good without qualification. That's a mistake. Positive emotions can be just as dangerous as negative ones. And negative emotions often have the same source as positive emotions, caring about something, writes Krista Thomason.

 

You’ve been warned not to let your anger get the best of you and that it’s okay to feel anger sometimes as long as you manage it well. Negative emotions get compared to cancers, toxins, or monsters – they eat you up from the inside if you keep feeling them. But you’ve probably never heard people say any of these things about joy. No one ever warns you that joy will eat you up from the inside.

Sometimes negative emotions are treated like drugs that you’ll get addicted to if you feel them too much. We treat negative emotions like weapons: you should either avoid them altogether or handle them with caution – otherwise you’ll hurt yourself or someone else, or maybe both.

No one seems too worried about whether you can get hooked on positive emotions, or whether they can be dangerous to yourself and others. There’s apparently no reason to treat positive emotions with such caution. Anger and joy are both emotions; they belong in the same psychological category. So why do we talk about them in radically different ways?

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Negative emotions are the victims of what I call the emotion double standard. You see the emotion double standard at work when people assume negative emotions have powers that positive emotions don’t have. Negative emotions poison you and make you sick, but positive emotions don't. Negative emotions are always on the brink of getting out of control, but positive emotions always behave. Negative emotions can overtake us, but positive emotions don’t threaten to possess us this way. You’re always supposed to manage your negative emotions, yet no one tells you to do deep breathing exercises or count to ten when you feel joy.

The obvious reason for this differential treatment is that negative emotions are dangerous in a way that positive emotions aren’t. Anger causes harm. The worst that joy could do is make you annoyingly chipper. Have we unfairly exaggerated the bad reputation of negative emotions?

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If anger was as bad as people say, you’d think every angry person would be permanently bitter and friendless, but that just isn’t true.

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Philosophers have been writing about negative emotions since they started writing. From Confucius in 6th-century BC China to Śāntideva in 8th-century AD India to Baruch Spinoza in 16th-century Netherlands to Mary Wollstonecraft in 18th-century England, philosophers from all over the world and in every tradition have had something to say about our bad feelings.

Negative emotions are ubiquitous: everyone feels them. Think about how often you’ve been angry in your lifetime. You’ve likely been angry at people you love – maybe some of the people you love most. While you may have ended some of your relationships in anger, you’ve probably mended most of them. You’re still standing and so are your loved ones. If anger was as bad as people say, you’d think every angry person would be permanently bitter and friendless, but that just isn’t true.

When we think of the harm negative emotions do, we usually point to extreme examples. If you think of envy, you might think of Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago is envious of Cassio because Othello gives Cassio a promotion over Iago. He then spends the rest of the play ruining everyone’s lives out of envy.

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Iago is a brilliant literary villain, but what if he was just a regular person? He would probably just go out with his friends at happy hour to grumble about Cassio for a while. He might stare daggers behind Cassio’s back for a few days or make up an unflattering nickname for him, but he’d eventually get over his envy. That wouldn’t be a very interesting play, but regular people don’t make great Shakespeare villains.

When we feel negative emotions, we usually feel them for a while and then stop – exactly how we feel positive emotions. Even when our positive emotions are strong, we don’t feel them forever and we don’t lose control of ourselves. Why can’t negative emotions work the same way? When we focus on the extreme rather than the mundane version of negative emotions, we’re applying the emotion double standard.

Once we stop thinking about the most extreme examples and we realize that negative emotions have been with us forever, their bad reputation looks overblown. Of course, we’ve all snapped at people out of anger and made snide comments out of envy, but positive emotions aren’t innocent on this front. People have killed for love, and we have all kinds of adages that warn against love’s power to blind us or cloud our judgment.

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We tend to think that positive emotions can never do harm and never stem from bad motives, but plenty of examples to the contrary.

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Joy isn’t all sunshine and rainbows: the German term Schadenfreude refers to the malicious joy we feel at someone else’s pain. Iago no doubt feels lots of Schadenfreude as he watches his plot to destroy Cassio unfold. It’s not nice joy, but it’s joy nonetheless. We tend to think that positive emotions can never do harm and never stem from bad motives, but plenty of examples to the contrary. Where does our faith in positive emotions come from? The emotion double standard.

If negative emotions aren’t as bad as they seem, why not treat negative emotions and positive emotions equally? In my book, I argue that emotions are ways of caring about something. Take philosophy as an example: I’ve devoted my life to it. Because I care deeply about it, my emotions will show it. I’ll feel happy and excited when I get to go to a philosophy conference, I’ll be angry when someone disparages it, and I’ll be disappointed when my students don’t enjoy the readings I assign in class. I feel all these emotions because philosophy matters to me. We usually associate caring about something only with positive emotions, but negative emotions are also ways of caring. If your friend betrays you and you’re not angry, people might wonder whether you cared about the friendship at all.

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Your negative emotions, just like your positive ones, show that you care.

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Many of our negative emotions are ways we care about ourselves. I’m angry when someone mistreats or insults me. I’m envious when someone has something I want for my own life. I’m spiteful when someone tries to butt into my business. We feel negative emotions because our lives matter to us. If I care about my life, I won’t be indifferent when it doesn’t go the way I want or hope. There’s nothing wrong with caring about yourself and your life – they should matter to you. Your negative emotions, just like your positive ones, show that you care.

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Negative emotions can be difficult, painful, and ugly, but that doesn’t mean they can possess you or eat you up from the inside. They’re in our lives because our lives matter to us. Life is complicated. Caring about life means your feelings will be complicated, too.

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salma wisoky 8 December 2023

You’ve been warned not to let your anger get the best of you and that it’s okay to feel anger sometimes as long as you manage it well. Drift Boss