There’s a lot of pressure in this world to be happy. If you’re in a bad mood, the way out is just a click away: quick hacks, like 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy and 45 Ways to Be Happier Instantly, abound on the internet, making it seem as though there’s no excuse to be unhappy. Entire industries are built on the premise that good moods are the ideal because, yes, there are obvious benefits to being a happy person.
But happiness isn’t the only path towards living well.
Psychologists, like Lisa Feldman-Barrett, a University Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions Are Made, say that happiness matters less than having a meaningful life — and a happy life doesn’t mean that it’s a meaningful one. In fact, science has shown that benefits can be drawn from leaning into a bad mood. So, the next time you’re feeling grumps, cut yourself some slack and take advantage from the positive effects of negativity.
Negativity Can Boost Creativity
In the early 1990s, psychologists found that mood disorders are eight to 10 times more prevalent in writers and artists than in the general population. In fact, there have been so many studies linking creative individuals to mood disorders that researchers consider that relationship to be empirical fact. Emotional sensitivity, introversion, and impulsivity are considered core characteristics of creative people. And those traits often go hand in hand with a negative mood.
“It has been found that negative mood can result in enhanced solution frequency on creative tasks, particularly during tasks that require concentration, precise execution, divergent thinking, and analogical problem solving,” a team of Harvard University scientists wrote in a 2003 edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
In the associated study, participants with varying levels of depression were put through the experience of social rejection, social approval, or the neutral experience of no social interaction at all. Then, they created artistic collages, which professional artists later evaluated. The scientists found that, overall, the people who experienced social rejection demonstrated the greatest artistic creativity — especially if those people already had signs of depression.
While these findings obviously don’t endorse depression, which is a very real and serious condition, it does suggest that darker moments have their silver linings, like the increased ability to create art.
“In some cases, intense negative emotions can create powerful, self-reflective thought and perseverance, leading to increased creativity,” the study authors write. “When individuals were more biologically vulnerable and exposed to a strong rejecting situation, they performed better on the artistic creativity task.”
Bad Moods Can Improve Memory and Judgement
In a massive review of negative mood studies titled “Don’t Worry, Be Sad!”, University of New South Wales social psychologist Joseph Forgas, a preeminent negative mood scholar, highlights an critical nuance to understand when studying human behavior: While short-lived emotions are prompted by specific moments, moods, he says, are “enduring affective states” dependent on both physiological and psychological circumstances — and as such, are much more valuable to study.
He contends that humans “are a moody species, and our ever-changing moods serve as helpful input informing our cognitive and motivational strategies,” and points out that numerous experiments demonstrate that negative moods can improve memory performance and reduce judgment errors. Negative moods, Forgas argues, creates a “more attentive, accommodating thinking style.” In other words, when you’re in a bad mood and find yourself in a challenging situation, your mood will lead you to think more critically and rely less on preexisting knowledge and stereotypes.
When it comes to memory, Forgas’ own work has found that negative moods typically improve attention and encoding. In 2005, his team showed that people in a bad mood are less likely to incorporate false, misleading details when they’re asked to remember a day spent at a store. Happy participants, meanwhile, were less likely to accurately remember the same experience.
Why negative moods have this effect on memory may be linked to the reason negative moods also give people a fairer sense of judgement: As Forgas showed in 2011, people in a bad mood are less likely to demonstrate inferential bias. Their more positive counterparts were more likely to stereotype, be more gullible, and be less skeptical than those in bad moods.
Bad Moods Help You Communicate Better
In a 2013 study Forgas and his colleagues showed that people in a negative mood are better communicators than those in a good mood. After watching a scene from a film, people in a negative mood tended to provide more relevant and higher quality information than their positive peers.
“Participants who were induced into negative mood provided fewer irrelevant and untrue or speculative information, used fewer words per communicative act, and provided more relevant information than did those in a positive mood,” the researchers write, “revealing a stronger tendency to comply with the conversational maxims of relevance, quality, manner, and quantity.”
Grumpiness Can Bond People Together
There’s nothing like sharing a common enemy to fast-track a friendship, and the grumpiness that leads to that kind of negativity has been shown to bring people together. In 2015, scientists publishing in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed this in a meta-analysis of 39 studies that measured social integration and task performance in groups.
In these experiments, a team was more likely to fall apart when the source of negativity was inside the group — a team member, for example, that refused to cooperate. In these times, shared positive feelings, like happiness and excitement, helped bind the group together.
However, when the negative force came from outside the group — like a shared enemy — then the group was able to actually come together quicker. Negative feelings, the authors wrote, “can promote social integration and, indirectly, enhance group task performance.” This was particularly true if the people in the group didn’t know each other that well — proving that, sometimes, the best way to make friends is to be a hater.