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The Bright Side of Darker Emotions

2 minute read

It’s natural to want to be happy all the time. But it’s telling that most of what many consider to be our seven basic emotions–joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt and disgust–reflect the dark side of the human experience. These emotions are still with us because they’ve helped us survive through several million years of evolution, and they are an integral part of what makes us human.

It’s troubling, then, that so many of us try to avoid them. We use default behaviors that we hope can deflect or disguise them. We settle deeply into them, refusing to let them go. Or we attempt to ignore them entirely through cynicism, irony or gallows humor, refusing to admit anything in life is worth taking seriously. As Nietzsche once said, loosely translated, “A joke is an epitaph for an emotion.” Or as Taylor Swift, that more contemporary philosopher, said, “Shake it off.”

Whatever we may think we’re accomplishing, these strategies don’t serve our health or our happiness. When we don’t go directly to the source of what’s causing an emotion, we miss the ability to really deal with what’s causing our distress, and we lose our ability to be fully engaged with the world around us. Instead of trying to push negative emotions aside, we should accept them as a useful–though sometimes uncomfortable–part of our lives.

Adapted from the forthcoming book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life

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