Ever been told to smile when you’re feeling down? While there’s science to support the idea that forced positivity can temporarily boost your mood, convincing yourself that you’re always happy may do you more harm than good, according to an insightful piece on Quartz by Lila MacLellan. Research suggests suppressing your less-than-pleasant feelings can harm your psychological well-being, and that accepting them is a better option.
Acceptance isn’t about making peace with your negative emotions: the “magic of acceptance is in its blunting effect on emotional reactions to stressful events,” Brett Ford, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, told MacLellan. Ford added that over time, acceptance of negative emotions can lead to “positive psychological health, including higher levels of life satisfaction.”
How and why this happens isn’t exactly clear. But Ford’s recently published research (in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology) offers some insights. The research is from a few years ago, when Ford was a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. She and a few other Berkeley researchers designed a three-part experiment in hopes of learning more about the link between acceptance and psychological well-being. The participants were from various socioeconomic backgrounds and races, and included people who had dealt with major and minor negative experiences (think the difference between losing a job and losing track of your keys).
Ford and her fellow researchers found that people who were more accepting of negative emotions (MacLellan calls them “habitual acceptors”) like anger or anxiety had reduced feelings of ill-being, something backed up by previous research, and were more likely to have better well-being. MacLellan notes that “accepting dark emotions like anxiety or rage won’t bring you down or amplify the emotional experience. Nor will it make you ‘happy’—at least not directly.” Instead, acceptance is linked to overall “better mental health when it’s used in response to negative emotions, not positive ones,” MacLellan writes.
Ford hopes her research can improve future mental health treatments, which “currently rely on some approaches that fail people,” she told MacLellan. “When something happens and you try to reframe it like, ‘Oh it’s not such a big deal.’ or ‘I’m going to learn and grow from that,’ it doesn’t necessarily work,” Ford said.
Bad experiences are inevitable. But if we only let in the positive emotions, we’re less equipped to deal with the rollercoaster ride that is just part and parcel of being alive. “People die in our lives, we lose them, if we have only been accustomed to being allowed to have more positive thoughts, then these realities can strike us even more intensely when they happen—and they will happen,” according to Svend Brinkmann, a psychology professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University quoted in the piece.
Part of the challenge of acceptance is that it runs counter to our culture’s expectation to be happy all of the time. We’re living in a “cultural age that’s decidedly pro-positivity,” MacLellan writes, which makes the “pressure to suppress or camouflage negative feelings” all the more pronounced. In the West (especially in the U.S.) “happiness and positivity are seen as virtues,” MacLellan notes. Ford told her that “some companies want their customers and employees to be delighted all the time. That’s unreasonable, and when we’re faced with unreasonable expectations, it’s natural for us to start applying judgement to the negative mental experiences we have.”
This probably isn’t helped by the fact that social media today is awash in well-curated and filtered frames of positivity. While a quick mood boost might feel great, continually suppressing our own negative emotions in favor of feel-good things only sets us up for a “striving state of mind,” according to Ford, which is paradoxical to finding peace and acceptance.
The good news is that acceptance can be learned. You can start by thinking of “your emotions as passing clouds, visible but not a part of you,” MacLellan suggests. Next time you experience a negative emotion or feel pressured to smile when you’re really not feeling it, remember that, as Ford explains, “acceptance involves not trying to change how we are feeling, but staying in touch with your feelings and taking them for what they are.”
Read more on Quartz.