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Accepting Negative Emotions Makes People Healthier, but Not Happier

Parents who accept negative emotions rather than fight them may have fewer physical and psychological health problems, according to new research. This is not the first study to suggest that our society’s emphasis on parents suppressing their darker feelings—even when childrearing seems unbearable—may not be great for our long-term mental health. But this study is among the first to attach robust data to these observations.

“Accepting the negative emotions and negative thoughts that are a natural part of parenthood might be a useful approach to help reduce overall levels of negativity and help increase health and well-being in the long-run,” coauthor on the study Brett Ford of the University of Toronto told Fatherly. Conversely, Ford says, blocking out your bad feelings and focusing on your good fortune doesn’t help. (That’s what “fortune” is for!) 

Ford and colleagues conducted three experiments, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. First, they administered a series of questionnaires to 1,003 undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley regarding their emotional regulation and psychological health. While prior studies have shown that negative emotions can cause physical harm in the long-run, Ford found that participants who accepted their darker feelings had lower risk of disease and increased feelings of well-being.

Ford and her team then recruited 156 other participants and exposed them to a universally stressful experience in the lab—public speaking. Participants were identified as either more or less accepting of negative mental states through prior surveys, and upon their arrival told to give a three-minute speech. People who were initially labeled as more accepting of negative emotions reported less stress following the experience.

For the third and final experiment, Ford instructed 222 people to keep diaries recounting the most stressful event of each day over the course of two weeks. Participants’ baseline acceptance habits were assessed with standardized questionnaires, and psychologists evaluated their mental well-being six months later. Individuals who were habitually accepting of stressful events fared better in all areas, regardless of the level of stress.

angry screaming man

Ford suspects that accepting negative emotions and moving on is more powerful than the average “mindfulness” coping strategies, such as reappraisal and non-reactivity, because it doesn’t involve striving for happiness. Mindfulness exercises “likely help people from exacerbating their negative emotions by ruminating about and/or judging the negative emotions and thoughts they’re currently having,” she says. On the other hand, “accepting one’s thoughts and emotions seems to be relatively useful across the board.”

Ford cautions, however, that accepting dark feelings is not the same as passive resignation—a potentially dangerous emotion that can be an early sign of severe depression. “Accepting one’s life circumstances can sometimes work against people if this form of acceptance takes the shape of passive resignation,” she says.