New research suggests that feeling the "right" emotions may be more important than feeling good. 

Amanda MacMillan
August 14, 2017

Nobody likes painful or unpleasant experiences—but they may be necessary in order for us to feel truly happy, according to new research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. That’s because happiness is about more than just feeling good all the time, say the study authors; it’s also about feeling emotions that are meaningful and valuable, as well.

Those emotions can include anger or even hatred, as long as they feel like the “right ones” to experience at a particular time, says lead researcher Maya Tamir, PhD, a psychology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant,” she adds.

To study the impact of different emotions on overall happiness, Tamir and her colleagues conducted interviews with 2,324 university students in eight countries, including the United States. The participants were surveyed about the feelings they experienced in their daily lives as well as the feelings they desired to have. They also answered questions about depressive symptoms and life satisfaction.

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Unsurprisingly, most participants desired to have more pleasant emotions—and fewer unpleasant ones—than they were currently experiencing in their lives. But that wasn’t always the case: In fact, 11% of participants wanted to actually feel fewer “transcendent” emotions (like love and empathy), and 10% wanted to feel more unpleasant emotions (like hostility or hatred).

But regardless of the types of emotions people desired to feel—and regardless of country or culture—those participants whose desired emotions best matched their actual emotions reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. That was true even if they desired and experienced more unpleasant feelings.

For people who equate life satisfaction with feeling happy all the time, this may seem strange. But there are times when these types of emotional shifts can come in handy, says Tamir.

Someone who feels numb to news about violence and war might wish to feel angrier, for example. People who want to leave abusive relationships may wish they loved their partners less, in spite of their faults. And on a lighter note, let’s be honest: Sometimes we all just need the emotional release that comes from a good This Is Us–inspired sob-fest.

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The study only looked at “negative self-enhancing emotions,” which include hatred, hostility, anger, and contempt. Future research is needed to see if other types of unpleasant emotions—like guilt, fear, sadness, or shame—are also an important part of a well-rounded and satisfying life experience, says Tamir, but she suspects that they can.

For now, Tamir hopes her study helps people reevaluate unrealistic expectations they may have about their own feelings. In Western culture—especially in the U.S.—there is a lot of pressure to feel good all the time, she says. But when that doesn’t happen, it creates a disparity between desires and reality, which can lead to less happiness overall.

“What my research shows is that happier people are those who experience the emotions they want to experience,” she says. “This means that if I'm a person who finds anger desirable—for instance, because anger helps me fight injustice—I am likely to be happier if I feel some anger than if I don't.”

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The key, she says, is to feel the emotions that you want to feel, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Different people will desire different emotions, she adds, depending on their cultural background, their personality, and their particular situation.

Tamir says her research can also be a good reminder to embrace whatever emotions you're experiencing in the moment. “If you welcome the feelings you have and find meaning in them, you are likely to be happier,” she says.