The Emotional Balancing Act: Taking The Good With The Bad

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I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with people on the topic of whether or not emotions can affect our health. Inevitably, anecdotal stories get used to make one argument or another – “My uncle was the angriest, meanest man on the planet and he lived to the age of 94” or “My auntie was told she had six months to live, but she’s the happiest, most positive person I know and is still alive and kicking five years later.”

 

As a journalist I love hearing stories like this. Stories form the glue that binds us together and when we hear them we can’t help but compare and contrast them to our own lives and search for meaning. On the other hand, ever since I began searching for solutions to a chronic disease doctors told me they had no cure for, I’ve also become somewhat of a science nerd. I’ve found so many answers to my health questions in science, so for this week’s blog I thought I’d dive in and see what science has to say on the matter of emotions and health.

 

When researchers have tackled this question, they tend to view it from one end of the emotional spectrum or the other. Either they ask whether or not positive emotions are good for us, or whether or not negative emotions are bad for us. Indeed when their messages get translated into book titles and headlines, they often drill down to one single argument – “Positivity: The Upwards Spiral that Will Change Your Life” or “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.”

 

There is however an emerging line of enquiry pondering what the interplay between emotions and health may be. That is to say, taking the good with the bad may in fact be the key to health outcomes. For instance, research has shown that if you’re deep in feelings of grief after the loss of a loved one, allowing positive memories to be experienced alongside your sadness could lead to a healthier bereavement process.

 

Some of the most compelling findings on mixed emotions come from a surprising place. Hal Hershfield is an expert in behavioral economics from the University of California Los Angeles. When he’s not studying topics such as ‘How to Make Discretionary Money Last’, he’s studying the role of emotions in health. In one study, Hershfield observed 47 adults undergoing psychotherapy for difficult life events such as going through a divorce and found that simply increasing levels of happiness didn’t improve people’s wellbeing. Rather, it was the people who experienced a mixture of positive and negative emotions who saw subsequent improvements in their wellbeing.

 

Here are two examples of personal reflections from people in the study who expressed a mixed emotional experience. You’ll note that they highlight both their sadness and their happiness:

 

(1)

I am committed to trying to make every day better than the day before. So far, it’s been tough going at times, with frequent setbacks involving much sadness and feelings of helplessness at times. But the fact that I’m working on improving in and of itself makes me feel better about my future and makes me happy and hopeful despite my slow progress and often listless feeling.

 

(2)

This has been a difficult couple of weeks. My wife and I celebrated the good news of a healthy pregnancy report at nine weeks (the time when we lost our pregnancy last January). But I also feel the sadness of still looking for a job and for my wife and my pending loss of my wife’s grandmother. It feels as if “what more can I take.” But, in reality I also feel reasonably confident and happy. Not that I don’t feel down, but I also feel happy with my marriage.

 

Hershfield hasn’t only looked at improvements of mental wellbeing. He’s also looked at the link between mixed emotions and physical health. Over a ten year period he looked at the emotional wellbeing of 186 people and found that not only were frequent experiences of both positive and negative emotions strongly associated with relatively good physical health, but also that if people experienced an increase of mixed emotions over many years, it counter balanced typical age-related health declines.

 

This research is still very much in it’s infancy and the physiological mechanisms that may explain how a mix of positive and negative emotions can have health benefits is still unknown, but nevertheless, there is still a clear take away from what we do know. Rather than only searching for the next thing we think will make us happier or trying to escape pain and suffering, this research indicates the answer may instead lie in balance.

 

In their excellent book The Upside of Your Dark Side, psychologists Tod Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener call this concept wholeness. They believe that the key lies in mental agility – the ability to access our full range of emotions in order to respond appropriately in any situation.

 

Next time I find myself deep in conversation about emotions and health, I’ll tune my ear to the details of the story I’m being told and inquire whether or not the grumpy uncle who lived forever may have also had a softer side, and whether or not the upbeat aunt also had an inner wisdom when it came to processing the full spectrum of emotional experience. It may well be that the secret to their good health was in their innate ability to take in the good with the bad.

  • Els De Groote

    I love this article! Wow. Interesting.
    I agree that we need to acknowledge and accept both negative and positive emotions in our lives. It is part of life and of our nature. I have been an ME/CFS sufferer myself for the last 2 years and on my search/way to recovery I found that coaches & recovery processes often want you to get rid of "negative emotions". But those are simply part of life. I agree that anxiety needs to be tackled. But fear for example is a very normal common emotion. According to some coaches, All kind of fears for example need to be processed as soon as possible by for example EFT techniques. Do not get me wrong. EFT is a wonderful process – but only if we dare to admit that both negative and positive emotions are useful. EFT ultimately means that you accept both positive & negative emotions/life events. And that once you noted them, you can accept them. As soon as you accept both your negative and positive emotions, they will no longer harm your health. It is the pushing away of the emotions, that is harming to your health. Acceptance is rather the key word… Or taking in the good with the bad.

  • Geneveive

    V. valuable article & great it brings up "balance" re +ve & -ve emotions. My late mother always emphasised "balance" with me. She was a brilliant & witty woman. Like Els De Groote, I use EFT successfully to deal with both sides of our emotional polarities: first the negative emotions, then final tapping sequences on positive emotions; it works supremely well.

  • Andrea Mecray

    I think you are really onto something. In my own studies (mind-body medicine), it appears that the ability to keep things elastic, the mental "agility" you mention, is truly the key. The same is seen using biofeedback, where heart rate variability is more strongly linked to positive health outcomes and longevity than a regular heart rate or steady BP. The key is to be able to respond appropriately and honestly, and then return to baseline. The takeaway is to not get stuck or become rigid, let the energy flow, and be truly present to the (good or bad) moment. But then just as importantly, find one's center, and return there frequently.

  • Mechelle Palermo

    John Demartini's knowledge and teaching of human behaviour is very valuable for anyone wanting to balance the mind and body. Essentially there is a perfect balance of opposites- for example you can't have happy without sad.

  • Avi Paluch

    Hi Shannon,

    Once again a thought provoking blog…

    You mention a couple of book titles about positive thinking and in particular, 'Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America' that apparently was initially published as 'Smile or Die:How positive thinking fooled America and the World' by Barbara Ehrenreich, both in 2010. Well worth reading.

    The author traces the positive thinking phenomenon (PTP) back to the mid-19th century, in America, naturally…and right thru to one of the newest sciences, that of Positive Psychology, that she seems to suggest, was evolved into support and an underpinning of the PTP, of sorts, given various other iterations developed in regard to an array of issues such as religion, business, relationships and so on, thru to the early C21st.

    Whilst positive thinking provides certain positive outcomes, yet its efficacy is not strongly supported, at this time, by evidenced-based scientific studies or research, that you yourself, acknowledge in your latest blog.

    Hence, it isn't a panacea to wellness…at least not yet, as it seems positive psychology still has some way to go, given it's relative infancy….and as you point out, it's important to allow the full spectrum of emotions to provide some balance to various forms of emotional turmoil, that most of us experience thru'out life.

    Cheers, Avi

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Avi,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Glad to know you've come across Bright Sided, which certainly is an interesting read.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Andrea, I would love to see a link to your studies if you're a researcher. Thanks for reading the blog and for sharing your thoughts.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Geneveive, it sounds like your mother was a very wise woman. Glad to hear of your success with EFT.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Hi Els,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and little about your health story. I have found the same thing with psychologists who wanted me to 'clear' my negative emotions rather than accepting them. You might want to check out my posts on the upside of stress too, which looks at how fear can be good –

    http://192.241.214.193/what-a-shark-attack-can-teach-us-about-reducing-stress/

    http://192.241.214.193/why-stress-is-surprisingly-good-for-you/

    Wishing you well with your ME/CFS.

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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