A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that people who accept their difficult emotions are better off in the long run than those who try to force their way into a better mood.
Many psychologists and meditation teachers endorse a practice called radical acceptance. The basic idea is that when something bad happens—say, a dear friend moves away—you have two options. You can either deny or fight that reality, or you can accept it, deal with the loss, and move on. Or, to put it a different way: Pain is inevitable, but suffering, like the kind caused by denial, is optional.
Radical acceptance works because it teaches practitioners to accept reality and hard situations. Could the same framework help with hard emotions like anger, sadness, and grief?
To find out, psychologists conducted three separate studies. The first was an online survey, in which 1003 people described how they related to their emotions. Participants were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I tell myself I shouldn't be feeling the way that I'm feeling."
The second study took place in the lab and was framed as a mock job interview. The researchers told 156 people that they would be giving a speech extolling their job skills and qualifications. They were told the taped speech would be shown to a panel of judges as part of a mock job application. Then they were given two minutes to prepare.
The last study invited 222 people to spend two months journaling about tough moments in their lives. Six months later, the researchers surveyed these people to see how they were feeling.
All three experiments yielded the same basic result: People who let themselves feel their feelings were, on average, less stressed, anxious, and depressed than those who tried to avoid or control them.
"We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health," senior author Iris Mauss of UC Berkeley said in a statement.
"Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention," Mauss said. "And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."