3 Surprising Insights About Negative Emotions

Josh Davis, in his book Two Awesome Hours discusses how paying attention to our emotions can help us be more productive and effective. He points out that many of the tasks we perform have an emotional component or elicit emotions—mild or strong, positive or negative. Since emotions greatly affect how we perform, understanding them a little better can make a big difference in terms of our overall effectiveness. With practice, we can get better at modulating our emotions so that they don’t derail us. We can also learn to call up and tap into emotional states in order to optimize our thinking and our performance.

Davis points out that the reason emotions can make such a big difference in performance is because they have adaptive value. They can color and shape our energy level and our coping skills. Surprisingly, even emotions we might label as negative can be great tools for helping focus and energize us. Here are some examples.

  • Anger. Research has shown that anger is unusual among negative emotions, in that it actually enhances approach-oriented behavior – it tends to move us towards a person or idea or situation, and into action. Have you ever been told by someone that you can’t accomplish a particular task or skill? Chances are that anger has kicked in and you become more determined than ever to prove them wrong! Davis suggests that next time you are afraid to take a risk even though you know it’s the right thing to do, try getting a little angry. It might be just the thing you need in order to confront the challenge.
  • Anxiety. Like anger, anxiety is often perceived as a negative (and unhelpful) emotion. While chronic anxiety is not healthy, research shows that anxiety and readiness are nearly the same from a physiological standpoint. Anxiety actually is a way of putting us on high alert and ready to respond. Recall a time when a little anxiety helped you perform better on a challenging task. Next time you find yourself feeling nervous, Davis suggests that you reframe and recognize that you are simply “alert and ready to react”.
  • Sadness. Studies have shown that when we are feeling sad, we tend to think a bit more slowly and deliberately, and in that way we tend to be less biased in decision making. We also exhibit greater fairness and act less selfishly. It seems that whenever we need to slow down, think critically and be thoughtful, sadness may be an important resource. As an example, Davis suggests that a person who is on the receiving end of a sales pitch might do well to call to mind how much they miss a favorite family pet.

The take home message here is not to feel bad. Rather, it’s encouragement to recognize how our emotions drive us AND how we can utilize them to help us achieve greater productivity and effectiveness. If even negative emotions can be beneficial, it goes without saying that feeling good can be especially helpful in impacting our performance. According to Davis, positive emotions have been shown to be most beneficial for discovering new insights, being creative, being less critical when making decisions, and when making snap decisions. He suggests that we can influence our own emotional state.   Simply calling to mind something that is emotionally positive can bring about positive emotion. Try it for yourself, next time you need a little boost of positive mental energy.

Reference: Two Awesome Hours: Science-based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done, Josh Davis, Ph.D. 2015