The Benefits of Negative Emotions

In the constant pursuit of happiness, it's easy to miss the opportunities negative emotions provide.

Photo by Petr Sevcovic on Unsplash

Everyone wants to be happy.

When we’re happy, the coffee tastes better. The flowers look prettier. The glass is always half full, and there’s no challenge too great to handle.

When we’re happy, everything is right in the world.

Drawbacks to happiness. If we’re over-exuberant, we may not think clearly. We say yes to everything, because we’re in a good mood. But later, when it comes time to deliver, we’re no longer so happy…or so willing.

“What in the world was I thinking,” we ask ourselves.

What about the so called “negative” emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear and disgust? Is there a way to use these feelings to our advantage?


“‘Negative’ moods summon a more attentive, accommodating thinking style that leads you to really examine facts in a fresh and creative way,” writes Susan David, author of the new book Emotional Agility. “When we’re overly cheerful, we tend to neglect important threats and dangers… It’s when we’re in a bit of a funk that we focus and dig down. People in negative moods tend to be less gullible and more skeptical, while happy folks may accept easy answers and trust false smiles. Who wants to question surface truth when everything is going so well? So the happy person goes ahead and signs on the dotted line.”

Emotional intelligence (also known as EI or EQ), describes a person’s ability to recognize emotions, to understand their powerful effect, and to use that information to guide thinking and behavior. How can developing emotional intelligence help us to make our negative emotions work for us, instead of against us?

Next time you feel the following feelings and emotions, try this:


Anger is like fire. It can be a useful tool, or it can be hideously destructive. The last thing you want to do is ignore your anger; the key is to keep it under control.

How do you do that?

If appropriate, take a slight pause to gather yourself before taking action. At times, just a few seconds can help you to put your thoughts together and work out a proper strategy. (For other situations, you’ll need a bit longer.)

Ask yourself:

  • How can I express my anger at the action, instead of the person?
  • Will it do more good to wait and speak to the person alone?

Of course, certain situations require an immediate response (for example, when you witness some type of abuse, like bullying). In these cases, your anger can prove to be the impetus that forces you to address an unacceptable situation.

So by all means, don’t hesitate to speak up.


Sadness is a very powerful emotion, and it can easily slip into self-pity or cause us to become lethargic.

But sadness can also be used as a motivating force. For example, when we’re sad because we miss someone we deeply care about, or perhaps we’ve hurt them somehow, this “negative” emotion can give us determination–to make things up to the person, or simply to make more time for them.

When you experience sadness, try to focus your thoughts and ask questions like:

  • Why exactly am I sad?
  • What action can I taketo make things better?

We’re not speaking here about clinical depression–which is a sickness and requires professional help. But an occasional bout with sadness can prove to be a catalyst for good, if handled in the right way.


Not one of us enjoys being afraid. But identifying and acknowledging our fears helps us to face them–and can keep others from playing on them.

For example, all of us possess certain unfair prejudices and biases against others. When analyzing these, it could be helpful to ask: What experiences or influences in my life have caused me to feel this way?

We tend to fear what we know little about. Recognizing this can motivate us to learn more–about others, or about a situation. In addition, awareness of our own fears can help us be wary of manipulators, who could use those fears against us.


In all of these cases, you’ll notice the power of introspective thinking.

So, the next time you feel negative emotions, work on exercising control. Use the opportunity to dig deep, learn more about yourself, and develop a strategy to make things better.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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