The Surprising Benefits of Negative Emotions

I grew up with an excessive idolization of happiness.

It was partly because of my upbringing. My parents, who had undoubtedly seen many hardships in their lives, were deeply grateful for everything they had, and baffled when we children were sometimes unappreciative of our lot. “Be happy” became our family mantra, further strengthened by a societal compulsion to don the smiley face.

As I got older, I struggled with my negative emotions. I had a hard time accepting them as part of my inner world, or moving past them without getting spun into a downward spiral. And I struggled even more to sit with my children’s negativity, fighting hard to banish it in all its forms from our lives. Needless to say, it was a losing battle.

It took me a long time to understand that all emotions evolved for a purpose. And while the more positive ones open us up to life and build our inner resources, as shown by Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden-and-build theory”, it’s the negative ones that often help us connect to our deepest values and remind us to step into our most authentic life.

Here are 4 less-understood emotions that may hold important lessens for your journey to self-discovery.


Anger is usually thought of as an immoral emotion, the result of underdeveloped urges that we have little control over. However, anger can also point us to what we value, and can prompt us to stand up to injustices not only to ourselves but in our social circles, workplaces, and communities. Research has shown that we’re even motivated to wish revenge on transgressors of fictional Hollywood films. I, for one, can vouch for that!


Disgust evolved as a response to something revolting in taste in order to keep us safe from harmful foods, but later expanded to also condemn social transgressions. As such, disgust, like anger, can have pro-social tendencies, in that it ostracizes individuals who engage in culturally inappropriate behaviors.


Envy feels deeply negative, and it definitely hurts. But envy can point us to what we value because we envy those who have something important that we don’t. What’s more, research shows that it also primes us to pay closer attention to people’s behaviors so that we can replicate what they’ve done to achieve what we haven’t—yet.


Guilt is the emotion we feel when we believe we’ve caused harm or distress to someone whose relationship we value. Since it appraises our action, it also leads us to make up for our misdeeds. Research shows that inducing guilt in one’s partner is often an effective strategy in reasserting one’s rightful place in a relationship. Seeing how common it is, perhaps you’ve done it too. (Just don’t overuse it!) Given the benefits of emotions that we may be trying to silence, we need to accept them wholeheartedly, so that we embrace the full experience of life.