Being happy contributes a great deal to being successful. Only recently, however, have researchers quantified the degree to which positivity and optimism account for our ability to succeed. The multitude of advantages that happiness brings add up to around 80% of what enables us to flourish personally and professionally. Which means that how well we manage negative emotions determines the other 20% of what it takes to succeed.
One of the core principles derived from the positive psychology research is that to be happy we must generate at least 3 positive experiences for every negative encounter. If we’re not able to regulate our negative reactions to stressful events, however, we’ll spew forth a string of unhappy comments, criticisms, and complaints. And for each one of those negative behaviors, we’ll need to generate a minimum of 3 positive actions to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug.
While much has been written on how to enhance happiness, there has been little evidence presented on optimal methods for coping with negative solutions. But studies of what it takes to succeed in a marriage, a business negotiation, or a military training program have all found one common denominator: people who were most successful were best able to tolerate psychological distress.
The most recent research has revealed that all of our emotions are useful. Although bad feelings are painful, being able to navigate through them effectively allows us to shift back and forth between the positive and negative moments of life. Anger, for example, very rarely escalates into an overwhelming rage that triggers violence. Most of the time it surfaces when we feel that our personal rights have been violated. Anger motivates us to defend ourselves as well as people we care about. Properly harnessed, it helps us establish clear boundaries around behaviors we find unacceptable.
Embarrassment is another example of a negative emotion that can be useful. There are occasions in which someone is intentionally trying to humiliate us. But far more frequently we feel embarrassed when we’ve made a mistake and need to take action to correct a situation in which we’ve offended someone. Guilt works the same way, only it’s a signal that we’ve violated our own internal moral code rather than insulted someone else. Feeling guilty can provide powerful motivation for us to learn how to improve our behavior.
Life is difficult. It’s filled with failure, criticism, loss, self-doubt, and irritating people. Negative reactions are inevitable. But the pain we experience in these situations only turns into suffering when we refuse to acknowledge and take action to overcome our bad feelings. Trying to avoid emotional, physical and social pain allows it to fester under the surface, which eventually escalates feelings of discomfort into full-fledged suffering. Trying to control negative emotions when faced with the inevitable setbacks in life only locks us into our unhappy state.
If, on the other hand, we look at our all of our emotions as temporary reactions to our current circumstances, we’re better able to focus on how to achieve the best possible outcome in any situation. We can ask ourselves, “What do I need to change to resolve the problem that’s disturbing me. What’s a small step I could take?” Or, “What do I need to learn from this poor outcome that will enable me to get a better result the next time I face a similar challenge?” And sometimes we just need to ask, “What do I need to do to survive this moment of pain? Reach out to someone I trust for support? Take a long walk to a peaceful place to find solace?”
Another important benefit of bad moods is that they cause us to re-evaluate our goals. When we have pushed ourselves to achieve a goal that’s not coming to fruition, we feel waves of sadness, uncertainty, and frustration. All of these feelings signal that it’s time to apply the brakes, to stop what we’re doing in order to stand back and reflect. Has our dream become an impossible cause? Is it time to cut our losses rather than throwing good money after bad? If failure seems certain, is it time to exchange new goals for old ones?
People who live life in an optimal manner skillfully manage everything they encounter in life. They’ve learned to dream, to passionately pursue positive outcomes, to celebrate success, and to accept failure. They are emotionally agile, able to use their emotions – positive and negative – to match their actions to the challenge they’re facing.