Grouch On, Grouches: Bad Moods Have Their Benefits

If you're the type who groans when someone praises the power of positive thinking or glares when someone tells you to smile, we've got good news: Your rotten mood is a good thing. In some ways, it even makes you a better person than that coworker with the "don't worry, be happy" bumper sticker. Now that's something to sneer about.

Frown and the World Smiles With You

In 2013, University of New South Wales psychology professor Joseph P. Forgas and his team published a review of the evidence for the benefits of negative thinking. In his introduction, they make some important points on the current state of grouchiness in society: "Although dysphoria" — angst and dissatisfaction, basically — "has always been with us and has stimulated many of the greatest achievements of the human spirit, our current cultural epoch is characterized by a unilateral emphasis on the benefits of happiness. Yet, negative mood remains an essential component of our affective repertoire, and experiences of temporary dysphoria have always been considered normal in previous historical periods." If happiness is so great, he goes on, why has sadness played such a big part in so many works of art, music, and literature through the centuries?

The paper hit the positives of negativity shotgun-style: Bad moods keep you from relying as much on preexisting knowledge, which helps you avoid making hasty generalizations, stereotyping people, and making biased judgments. It also gives you a more accurate memory of past events: One study found that happy people were more likely to incorporate false or misleading details into their recollection of an incident than the malcontents were. Also, maybe unsurprisingly, curmudgeons are more skeptical, which is handy when it comes to judging the truth of myths and rumors and in sniffing out deception.

Rotten moods also give you more perseverance. A 2012 study by Forgas and his team found that when happy and sad people were asked to perform a demanding mental task for as long as they wanted, the sad people spent more time on the task, attempted more questions, and had more right answers — a result the researchers attribute to the idea that a bad mood tends to make people put more stock in their future achievements.

Grumps of a Feather Flock Together

All these individual benefits are fine and all, but they don't mean much if you can't make any friends because you're too busy complaining. Not so fast: Another review of the literature, this time a 2015 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, shows that bad feelings can bring people together. In the studies the paper analyzed, teams of people brought together to work on a project bonded and performed just as well when they all shared a negative mood as when they all felt positive — with a caveat. That negative mood only enhanced their work if it came from outside of a group ("The boss just won't let us catch a break!" or "You'd think they'd fix the thermostat by now.") When it came from inside of a group ("Why do you get all the fun work?"), it tended to make the group fall apart. So feel free to bask in those bad feelings. Just don't take them out on everyone else.

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Written by Ashley Hamer August 22, 2017

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