One of the studies, from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, looked at data from over 2,300 university students in eight countries—the United States, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland and Singapore—to understand how people related to their emotions cross-culturally. They asked the participants questions about the kinds of emotions they wanted to feel and the kinds of emotions they actually felt.
For instance, some people said they wanted to feel fewer negative emotions, while some people said they wanted to feel fewer self-transcendent emotions like empathy and affection. Others wanted to feel more pleasant emotions, and still others wanted to feel more unpleasant ones, like anger. It may sound counterintuitive to want to feel more unpleasant emotions, but if you’re trying to conjure up the energy to leave an abusive situation, you might wish for more anger and less empathy toward your abuser.
The team looked for associations between the emotions people felt vs. wanted to feel and their well-being and depressive symptoms. As they suspected, people whose emotions more closely matched the ones they wanted to feel reported more well-being and fewer symptoms of depression.
“Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain,” said lead researcher Maya Tamir in a statement. “Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have. All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.”
They also found some cross-cultural differences, namely, that people in more highly developed countries were happier when their desire for “happy” emotions matched their actual emotions. It wasn’t such a strong link in less developed nations. “People want to feel very good all the time in Western cultures, especially in the United States,” Tamir said. “Even if they feel good most of the time, they may still think that they should feel even better, which might make them less happy overall.”
In other words, our desire to feel happy all the time may be working against us.
The other study, from UC Berkeley, looked at people’s relationships to their negative emotions, and whether they tended to push them away or accept them. Over the course of three experiments, they found that people who accepted their unpleasant emotions, rather than feeling bad about them, experienced greater well-being, less distress, and fewer symptoms of depression. For example, people who said they agreed strongly with statements like “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling” also tend to be less happy, perhaps because they’re pushing away their unpleasant feelings rather than processing them.
Though the relationships laid out in the two studies weren’t necessarily causal, they are certainly strong correlations, which make intuitive sense. And they’re not new. Aristotle, as the authors of the first study point out, said that feeling the right emotions in whatever situation one might be in was a key to happiness—it’s not a matter of experiencing only pleasant things all the time. The other idea that both studies tap into is mindfulness, which comes from Buddhist thought: At its heart is the practice of letting one’s thoughts and emotions come and go, rather than judging them or pushing them away. In this way, negative emotions tend to lose their power and dissipate naturally.
“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention,” said UC Berkeley researcher Iris Mauss in a statement. “And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”
Maybe the key to happiness is knowing that we won’t be happy all the time, and being OK with that.