In a funk? You’ll feel happier faster if you accept your negative emotions

BERKELEY, Calif. — Feeling blue or maybe seeing red? Accepting your negative emotions without judging them may be one of the best ways to improve your overall mental health, according to a new study.

Researchers at UC Berkeley studied moods and how people respond to ones that they think of as “bad.” They concluded that the best way to deal with uncomfortable emotions is simply to let them run their course.

Sad girl on swing
What’s the best way to lift yourself back up when you’re feeling down? Researchers say the key to improving mental health lies in accepting that you’re struggling with negative emotions in the first place.

“We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,” explains study senior author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at the university, in a media release.

The study looked at the relationship between emotional acceptance and mental health in 1,300 participants from the San Francisco and Denver areas.

Researchers carried out three studies in the lab and online, considering age, gender and socioeconomic factors.

“It’s easier to have an accepting attitude if you lead a pampered life, which is why we ruled out socioeconomic status and major life stressors that could bias the results,” Mauss said.

The first study involved 1,003 participants. They completed surveys that polled their opinions on various statements about feelings. Respondents rated how strongly they felt about such statements as, “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.”

Researchers found that those who were less bothered by negative feelings had higher levels of well-being than those who berated themselves.

The authors then took to the lab and tasked 156 participants to deliver a three-minute videotaped speech for a mock job application. Afterwards, participants rated their emotions. The results showed that those who were more accepting of negative emotions had lower stress levels than those who tried to avoid them.

For the last study, researchers asked 222 participants to journal their most stressful experiences over a two-week period. These individuals were surveyed six months later to see how they were doing psychologically. The authors found that people who tried to keep negative emotions at bay or bottled up reported more symptoms of mood disorders than those who just rolled with their own emotional punches.

The takeaway? Not only is it OK to acknowledge you feel down, but doing so will help lift you back up much faster and improve your overall mental health.

“People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully,” says lead author Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

At this point, researchers do not know why emotional acceptance tends to improve moods and mental health over the long term.

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

The authors hope to embark next on a study of how culture and upbringing impact emotional acceptance.

The full study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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About the Author

Terra Marquette

Terra is a Denver-area freelance writer, editor and researcher. In her free time, she creates playlists for every mood.

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