A generation or so ago or so a popular song entitled, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," made the top of the charts. Consistent with its title, the song had a very upbeat tempo designed to inspire its listeners that life is too precious to dwell on worrying. There is empirical research that has demonstrated that to a degree, at least, there are benefits to looking at life through rose-colored glasses.
A few years ago I participated regularly in a philosophical discussion group along with other members of the community at large, not a group of academicians, who like me were eager for more stimulating conversation than your usual, elevator-variety small talk. One week, the chosen topic of discussion focused on the emotion, anger, and whether this emotion can have value or be regarded as beneficial. The discussion perhaps ironically became heated as some participants shared painful personal experiences they had had as the recipients of this emotion's destructive effects in order to make their case albeit passionately that anger is necessarily a harmful thing. Some in the group opined that anger does not deserve the same status as other emotions because it necessarily is a derivative of a more fundamental emotion which is fear. In other words, if you are angry in reality you are afraid and, therefore, when we express the emotion or talk about anger what we should really be expressing or talking about is fear.
The other day, engaged in conversation with an acquaintance, the topic of shame was brought up in passing. My acquaintance who seems to be of pleasant demeanor generally, gracious and inclined to find the positive in people when possible, interjected that she could not see any use for this emotion except for its harmful effects on people.
What these three anecdotes have in common are that they each deal with a different emotion generally regarded as "negative" or perhaps more accurately defined as unpleasant or noxious. As a clinician, I deal with these kinds of emotions on a nearly daily basis helping people suffering from a range of "negative" emotions in their lives. For this reason at least, I am forced to think about them, such as what functions these emotions might have for human beings, do they have a purpose, and if so how? Can negative emotions have different purposes, more than one purpose at a time, should I as a therapist help my patient to be alleviated of their suffering or would it be wiser to help them face and find their way through it on their own and thus see the benefit their suffering might serve. Can the experience and expression of negative emotions be of value to human relations, to society? Or should we relegate all or some of these unpleasant emotions to the same category a famous health scientist assigned to mosquitoes when discussing the scourge of the recent Zika virus epidemic when he opined that this is one species of the animal kingdom he just couldn't imagine as serving any good purpose to humanity.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D