Feeling bad about feeling bad can make you feel worse.

Posted on under Today's research

Embracing your darker moods can actually make you feel better, in the long run, psychologists find. Pressure to feel upbeat can make you feel downbeat while embracing your darker moods can actually make you feel better in the long run, according to surprising new research.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” said the study’s senior author. At this point, researchers can only speculate on why accepting your joyless emotions can defuse them, “like dark clouds passing swiftly in front of the sun and out of sight” (their cliché not mine).

“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention,” she said. “And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”

The study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tested the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health in more than 1,300 adults in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Denver, Co., metropolitan area.

The results suggest that people who commonly resist acknowledging their darkest emotions, or judge them harshly, can end up feeling more psychologically stressed. By contrast, those who generally allow such bleak feelings as sadness, disappointment, and resentment to run their course reported fewer mood disorder symptoms than those who critique them or push them away, even after six months.

“It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall well-being,” said the researchers. “People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”

Three separate studies were conducted on various groups both in the lab and online and factored in age, gender, socioeconomic status and other demographic variables. “It’s easier to have an accepting attitude if you lead a pampered life, which is why we ruled out socio-economic status and major life stressors that could bias the results,” the researchers said.

In the first study, more than 1,000 participants filled out surveys rating how strongly they agreed with such statements as “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.” Those who, as a rule, did not feel bad about feeling bad showed higher levels of well-being than their less accepting peers.

Then, in a laboratory setting, more than 150 participants were tasked with delivering a three-minute videotaped speech to a panel of judges as part of a mock job application, touting their communication skills and other relevant qualifications. They were given two minutes to prepare.

After completing the task, participants rated their emotions about the ordeal. As expected, the group that typically avoids negative feelings reported more distress than their more accepting peers.

In the final study, more than 200 people journaled about their most taxing experiences over a two-week period. When surveyed about their psychological health six months later, the diarists who typically avoided negative emotions reported more mood disorder symptoms than their nonjudgmental peers.

Next, researchers plan to look into such factors as culture and upbringing to better understand why some people are more accepting of emotional ups and downs than others.

So what? Mood disorders are the fastest growing of all psychiatric problems in the Western World (including Japan and China). We still have no reliable long-term cure for major depression or anxiety, both of which seem to increase with the dysfunction and depersonalization of our society and the increase in our populations.

This trend gave rise to the “positive psychology” movement at the beginning of this century. Its leading lights were Martin Seligman, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, and Christopher Peterson. Many businesses took up the ideas of the founders—particularly those of Seligman. Unfortunately “you can be positive” quickly became “you ought to be positive” which led to some employees suppressing their emotions in order to look “happier” or more “positive.” There is increasing evidence that positive psychology-based interventions in the workplace actually lead to more unhappiness and lower productivity.

This is not to say that the PS people got everything wrong—they didn’t, many of their ideas were spot on—but from an early stage other prominent psychologists began to point out flaws in their reasoning and methodology. In a sense, this study confirms much of that counter-PS research.

What now? I think that what this shows is that no consultant, or HR manager or L & D manager should attempt to incorporate fad-psychology or fad-neuroscience into corporate training without having a proper grounding in the science. And a short course on the subject is not what I, or any other reputable psychologist, neuroscientist or neurogeneticist, would call a grounding.

Well, I’ve got that off my chest!

In terms of health, having any job is not necessarily better than not having a job. In the US, the UK, the EU, and Australia politicians are currently crowing about how low the unemployment rate is. This, they say, should make people happy and vote for them. But, in the immortal words of the song in Porgy and Bess: “It ain’t necessarily so!”

A new paper published in the International Journal of Epidemiology finds that people employed in low paying or highly stressful jobs may not actually enjoy better health than those who remain unemployed.

There is some recent evidence showing that job quality is important for health and wellbeing, although some older studies suggest people in poor quality jobs are still better off in terms of life satisfaction and wellbeing than those who remain unemployed. However, before this study, there was little or no evidence on whether becoming re-employed in poor quality work is better for health and wellbeing than remaining unemployed. Yet this is precisely what is happening to a large number of people.

The researchers behind this study examined associations of job transition with health and chronic stress related biomarkers among a typical cohort of unemployed British adults.

The researchers were particularly interested in comparing the health of those who remained unemployed with those who transitioned to poor quality work and examine whether there was positive (or negative) health outcome from getting a good or poor quality job.

The 15,591 study participants were selected from the UK Household Longitudinal Study. They were unemployed during 2009- 2010 were followed up in 2010-2011 and in 2011-2012 for allostatic load biomarkers (i.e. physical signs of wear and tear on the body due to stress across the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems) and their level of self-reported health.

An overall standard of job quality was created by comparing five job quality variables—low pay, job insecurity, control, satisfaction, and anxiety.

Looking at the negative biomarkers, there was a clear pattern of the highest levels for adults who transitioned into poor quality work. Adults who transitioned into good quality jobs had the lowest levels of problems in the critical areas examined.

Compared to adults who remained unemployed, formerly unemployed adults who transitioned into poor quality jobs had more health problems. Good quality work was associated with an improvement in mental health scores compared to remaining unemployed, but there were no differences in mental health scores between those who transitioned into poor quality work and those who remained unemployed.

Overall the researchers found evidence that, compared to adults who remained unemployed, formerly unemployed adults who transitioned into poor quality jobs had elevated risks for a range of health problems.

“Job quality cannot be disregarded from the employment success of the unemployed,” said the paper’s lead author. “Just as good work is good for health, we must also remember poor quality work can be detrimental to health.”

So what? Lots of previous research has shown that unemployment, underemployment and being in a low-paid stressful job causes people to become depressed and hopeless. This, in turn, can lead to problems with, and to the ultimate failure of, their immune systems (see study here).

We at FM are seeing this depression everywhere at the moment due to the uncertainty caused by the increasing replacement of human workers by machines and the reduction in overall pay levels. I spoke to a leading recruiter not long ago who told me that in his experience anyone looking for a job having been made redundant must expect a 25-50% reduction in their remuneration.

What now? We need a serious debate as to the role of human beings in the workplace. Should employers be allowed to freely replace men and women with digitization and AI? Bill Gates doesn’t seem to think so, maybe he’s right (see previous TR). Maybe we’re wandering into Hell without a guide to get us out again. The debate needs to be held at every workplace, in every parliament, and in every church or association.

I’ve got that off my chest, too!