Feeling Less Negative

In our quest to explore a new topic for improving our lives every month this year, we’ve already touched on happiness twice.

First, we looked at the science of happiness. Building upon that foundation, we then looked at the intersection of money and happiness.

These dives into the world of happiness were based on analyses of statistics and studies. But not all of happiness can be summed up with numbers.

So this month we’re going to move into the more esoteric world of happiness and philosophy.


One school of philosophy that I pull from quite often is Stoicism.

I learned about Stoicism in school as a Classical Humanities major (and people say a liberal arts degree is useless!) and it just clicked.

Despite the modern usage of the word “stoic,” the philosophy of Stoicism is not about being an unfeeling hardass. Instead, it is about living your best possible life regardless of your circumstances.

The reputation of the emotionless Stoic wasn’t pulled out of thin air, however, and today I want to discuss its possible origin.

Minimizing Negative Emotions

The Stoics worked very hard at minimizing negative emotions.

Stoicism generally is focused on adjusting your mindset to live a content and moral life. It is focused on being present and thoughtful rather than following your gut.

To that end, the Stoics saw no usefulness in negative emotions.

No Upside to Negativity

Dwelling on negative emotions is all downside.

Nobody enjoys feeling frustrated or angry. We’d rather feel happy and calm. We don’t aspire to negativity.

Generally, doing things we don’t like comes with a positive trade-off. People work jobs they hate because they want the income. We do things that we don’t enjoy in order to make other people happy. We sacrifice of ourselves for our family and friends.

This all makes sense.

With negative emotions, though, there is often no benefit. In fact, it can make things worse.

Not Solving the Problem

Your frustration with traffic is not going to get you to work any faster. It’s just going to raise your blood pressure.

Yelling at a waiter is not going to cook your food any faster. Depending on the waiter, it may result in some culinary sabotage instead.

Getting angry at my wife is not going to solve a disagreement. It’s more likely to lead me to say something that makes everything worse.

Getting the best results in any situation requires you to know how to handle negative emotions.

Things We Can’t Control

You can’t stop feeling negative emotions. At least as far as I can tell.

I can’t force myself never to feel anger or frustration or sadness.

And that’s fine. Emotions are not bad. But they are often bad at coaching our actions.

One of the cornerstones of Stoicism is understanding and discerning the difference between things you can control and things you can’t.

The emotions that you feel are outside of your control. The way you act after feeling those emotions is within your control.

Don’t beat yourself up for feeling negative emotions. But work to let go of them quickly.

Two Steps to a Better Life

There are really only two steps to making good decisions in spite of negative emotions.

The first is to recognize when you are feeling one. Learn to identify in yourself when you are angry. Recognize when your heart starts racing. Notice when you start feeling a need to lash out.

When we feel these negative emotions we are more likely to act impulsively. Work to catch yourself and pause before acting. “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue,” as the Stoic Zeno said.

Next, keep the end goal in mind.

Our instinct is to lash out and push our negativity onto others. Often this is in the form of blame, but sometimes we just feel the urge to express our frustration or other emotions.

Think about the result you want.

Will expressing your anger help reach that result? Sometimes it will, but be honest with yourself.

Will blaming someone else help? Probably not.

Instead, take a deep breath and think about what next action will actually push you towards the goal you want to reach.

Using Negative Emotions

There are also times when a negative emotion can be helpful in establishing that something is wrong and needs to be corrected.

If you, like me, were horrified to learn that the US government was separating children from their families and putting them in cages, then your emotions are in working order. This is a terrible situation that needs to be corrected.

But if you sat at home and did nothing but sink into your emotions, then they didn’t help at all. You just spent more time being sad with no benefit.

Instead, we should use our emotions to spur us into action. And a lot of people did on this issue. There were millions of dollar donated to immigration non-profits. There were thousands that volunteered to help in any way that they could. There was a groundswell of opposition that caused the government to start addressing the problem.

Feel the negative emotion, make a plan, then ditch the emotion and stick with the action.

It Gets Better

This gets easier over time.

At first it is very difficult to think clearly through negative emotions. When I was angry, all I wanted to do was express that anger. I could not think through a positive action to take.

I used to have to walk away from situations and come back later or close my eyes and breathe deeply for 30 seconds. (In my personal experience I have found that the key is to get your heart rate back down a bit. It is hard to think rationally when your body is in fight or flight mode.)

Now it is usually instinctual and instantaneous. Sometimes I still close my eyes and take one deep breath.

Feel the frustration. Pause. Think of a next step.

It’s not necessarily easy to master, but once you do life becomes a lot easier to manage.

Join the Conversation!

What do you think? Are you in control of your negative emotions? Do you find value in them? Let us know in the comments!

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