Understanding, monitoring and managing your emotions contributes significantly to happiness and success in life. It’s more important than you might think, and there’s science to prove it.
Consider all the ways emotions matter and can help you move forward as you transition back to something closer to your pre-pandemic life and renew, refresh and (perhaps) reinvent your approaches.
Our happiness can be negatively impacted if we judge our own emotions—whether they are “correct” or whether we should be feeling them. Sometimes we evaluate ourselves harshly: In a sad situation, we may believe we should be more wrecked, or in a joyous setting, we may believe we should be experiencing greater jubilation. Or we may think we’re more stressed than we should be. In fact research with 2,324 people across eight countries and published by the American Psychological Association found when we negatively evaluate our emotions, we are more likely to feel depressed or unhappy. Undergoing a range of emotions is natural and our experiences are unique. We can benefit by not being too hard on ourselves about certain ideals or how we think we “should” be feeling.
It’s also natural to believe we should be happy all the time and this too, is a myth. Additional research published by the American Psychological Association finds stress and anxiety aren’t always bad. Sometimes they alert us to danger or to something we need to change. Of course, if they become overwhelming or damaging, we should seek help. But it’s normal to feel ups and downs in life. When you worry about being worried or feel depressed about feeling depressed, it only exacerbates negative feelings. The concept of happiness inflation (or scientifically, “hedonistic adaptation”) describes the belief that our happiness should be constantly increasing, but this isn’t realistic. Life ebbs and flows as do our reactions to it. Accepting this natural course contributes toward overall happiness by removing the pressure to be always-positive or constantly-content.
The ability to be yourself and express yourself fully also is critical to happiness, and many believe the pandemic has shown a light on emotional health. As my colleague Marianne says, “Now, we’re allowed to start talking about how we feel.” In fact, a study at National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found children in families which were more expressive experienced less challenges with cognitive abilities and development. In addition, studies at the University of Exeter found when people can’t be themselves, they tend to experience lower self-esteem, dissatisfaction with their jobs and less commitment to their work. The negative outcomes resulted from people being unable to share openly which is so important for building relationships and trust. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should share with abandon. TMI (too much information) is a reality, and context and circumstances should help you discern how much to share. But in general, openness contributes to trust and positive relationships.
People additionally value authenticity and the opportunity to see a range of emotions. Fascinating studies by Washington State University analyzed 500 pitch videos on Kickstarter and found when presenters demonstrated a greater range of emotions—happiness, anger, fear and sadness—they were more likely to meet their goals, raise more money and expand their number of contributors. People don’t trust what they don’t understand, and it is a natural human tendency to steer clear of ambiguity. We tend to prefer others who are more open and forthcoming. This is one more reason to express a range of emotions and be real about what you’re feeling.
While it’s positive to validate and express your emotions, it’s also wise to manage them. It’s possible to misinterpret, go overboard or exaggerate your emotional responses. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been tremendously successful in treating mental health issues by helping people shift their thinking. Cognitive distortions (mistaken thoughts, beliefs and attitudes) can drive feelings and behaviors. It’s useful to reflect on where your ideas may be causing unnecessary or especially intense emotions. Challenge your own feelings and know that you can talk yourself down from a cliff.
It’s important to manage your emotions because they have a powerful spillover effect. Research at University of California proved this, as did research at the University of Wisconsin which found emotions affect first impressions. When this occurs, reactions last longer. If people feel generally negative, that emotion can have an effect on their perceptions a person they meet. Tuning into your emotions, understanding and managing them has implications not just for your present situation, but also for how you interpret the people around you and your relationships with them. Additional research has shown your emotions will color how you discern facts. If you feel negatively, a news story can incite feelings of stress. Whereas if you feel positively, you’ll interpret the same news in a glass half-full kind of way. Know that your own lens colors how you decipher facts and relate to the people around you.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your responses and reactions, and take constructive action. It has been studied in an impressive 40-year longitudinal study by the University of Jyväskylä. The research found when people have a greater ability to self-regulate, they achieve greater educational goals and attain more success in work and personal relationships. People who self-regulate also demonstrate healthier behaviors, have better social relationships and are able to be more flexible through life’s challenges. Focusing on processing emotions and choosing to act in constructive ways are keys to successful emotional regulation.
Seek Help and Help Others
The good news about strong emotions is you have the ingredients for great empathy toward others. Knowing your own emotions can help you recognize and validate them with people around you. There may even be a gene for that. A study of 89,000 across the globe by the University of Cambridge, found a variant on chromosome three in women was associated with greater empathy and ability to “read” others. Regardless of gender or genetics, another study by the University of Royal Holloway found people can more strongly transmit values and influence others when they are more empathetic rather than selfish or power-seeking. The ability to model your values within your community is powerful because of the opportunity to be a positive influence.
Finally, if you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, seek help. But avoid venting via social media. Instead, seek connections and support from people face-to-face. Research from Michigan State University found when people sought support from online groups, their mental health didn’t improve. And excessive use of social media actually reduced people’s connections with their in-person community which, in turn, reduced their safety net. Seek support from close friends with whom you can connect in person.
Overall, emotions are complicated, but they are ours to understand and manage. Rather than being at the mercy of our feelings, we can be aware and remind ourselves of our power to influence how we see things and react. We can create the conditions for our happiness and fulfillment by being both constructive and proactive.