Think about the last time you were overcome by strong feelings of anger, sadness, or anxiety. These emotions aren't just mentally distressing, they often are accompanied by unsettling physical sensations. You might experience your heart racing, your palms getting clammy, your stomach tangled in knots, or even a tightness in your chest. The regular occurrence of such intense negative emotions can compromise both your physical health and psychological well-being over time. However, this isn't true for everyone. Why is it then, that certain people appear resilient to the corrosive effects of negative emotions on their overall health and quality of life?

To address this question, we have conducted research to better understand how some people can navigate these unpleasant emotional states with minimal repercussions to their physical and psychological well-being. Our investigations led us to theorize that the way a person thinks and feels about negative emotions might actually influence how those emotions impact overall well-being. We call this "negative affect valuation" (NAV): a measure of how much individuals value their negative emotional experiences.

Valuing Negative Experiences?

Yes! Consider how some people love watching horror films or going to haunted houses. Instead of experiencing fear as something that is disturbing, they may enjoy the excitement or exhilaration those experiences provide. People also differ in how useful, meaningful, or appropriate they believe negative emotions are. For example, people higher on NAV may be more likely to find it acceptable it is to express sadness and grief in certain contexts, such as at a funeral. These evaluations can shape one's perspective of negative emotions as overwhelmingly aversive experiences to be avoided at all costs, or simply minor inconveniences that will pass.

We predicted that people who place greater value on their negative emotions (that is, have higher NAV) would also exhibit a weaker connection between these emotional experiences and declines in their physical and psychological well-being. These ideas were first tested in 2016 with 365 German participants who completed interviews and assessments of their emotions and well-being in daily life. Consistent with our predictions, we found that people who perceived greater value in their negative emotions also experienced a diminished link between their negative emotional experiences in daily life and indicators of poor physical and psychological health.

More recently, we found this again in a sample of 162 U.S. adults who completed similar daily life assessments and questionnaires: the more people valued their experiences of negative emotions, the more it seemed to make them immune to the damaging effects that those emotions typically have on psychological and mental health. We believe these findings hold promise. Maybe cultivating a "mind over matter" attitude in the face of the typical discomfort associated with negative emotions might enable people to adopt a more nuanced perspective rather than seeing bad moods as something that are always bad. This viewpoint may help people avoid an oversimplification that negative emotions are purely detrimental, but rather acknowledge their potential utility or appropriateness, in certain situations.

Consider this: negative emotions have persisted through evolution for a reason. This is because they provide benefits that aid our survival as a species. Crying when one is sad can signal to members of one's group that a person is in distress and needs help. Anger might serve as a cautionary beacon, alerting others to potential aggression. Although the work we conducted was correlational, and therefore limits our ability to conclude that valuing negative emotions definitively causes people to be protected from its usual assaults on their health and well-being, we still think these results are uplifting. Given that negative emotions are pervasive and sometimes unavoidable, it may be more useful to accept negative emotions and even hone one's ability to see value in these experiences. You never know, it might end up being good for your health.

For Further Reading

Luong, G., Miller, J. W., Kirkland, D., Morse, J. L., Wrzus, C., Diehl, M., Chow, S.-M., & Riediger, M. (2023). Valuing negative affect weakens affect-health linkages: Similarities and differences across affect valuation measures. Motivation and Emotion, 47, 347-363.

Luong, G., Wrzus, C., Wagner, G. G., & Riediger, M. (2016). When bad moods may not be so bad: Valuing negative affect is associated with weakened affect-health links. Emotion, 16(3), 387-401.

Gloria Luong is the Director of the Health, Emotion, and Aging Research Team (HEART) and an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State University. Her research focuses on how emotion regulation and stress processes change across adulthood, and their implications for health and well-being. She is also interested in disentangling individual and cultural variation in stressor-health linkages. 

James Miller is a Ph.D. student in the Applied Developmental Science Ph.D. program at Colorado State University where he also works as a graduate research assistant in the Health Emotion and Aging Research Team (HEART). His research focuses on how various forms of stress may affect people across adulthood with an emphasis on translating his research into prevention-focused programming.