Do Only Negative Emotions Count for Depth?

Does going through a grieving process contribute more to your emotional depth than going through a period of intense joy?

Does sadness stretch you more than happiness? Does experiencing intense loneliness change you more than intense companionship? In short, do only negative emotions count for depth?

I’m not sure. I think experiencing emotions on either end of the spectrum contribute to your emotional development, and that if you only have experienced the negative but not the positive you are no more emotionally developed than someone who’s only experienced the positive.

But as someone who fits in the latter category — no intense grieving, depression, or prolonged loneliness for me, yet — maybe this is just wishful thinking. Naturally, it’s he who has experienced and understands the full range of emotions who should in theory be most emotionally dveloped.

Your thoughts?

(hat tip to Dave Jilk for sparking this idea)

12 comments on “Do Only Negative Emotions Count for Depth?
  • The poet Robert Bly says that following your grief “down” can be one of the richest experiences of life, and that the people who do, have access to a whole range of emotions previously unavailable. This means fully accepting things as they are, and not closing yourself off to the grief.

    Most people shut off grief when it’s happening, they don’t want to think about it, they don’t want to acknowledge it. They want to keep it in the background.

    The point is not to shut the grief out of your life, and to use it as a source of enrichment. When I’ve had a business relationship turn sour or a friendship goes bad or someone passes away, I consciously acknowledge my grief about the situation, and I tell people about it. I tell them that I’m grieving.

    People who are truly whole know how to “follow the grief down” and use it to enrich their experience of life. They do not run away from it.

    Carl Jung says that the road to individuation occurs when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness. That means, the range of your happiness and “who you are” will increase the more you have had the chance to experience these “negative” things.

    I AM NOT saying that a person should be negative. I’m saying that when negative things happen, they should be acknowledged fully, followed down as sources of life-affirming energy, and not shut off or ignored (this is the missing part to The Secret, “positive thinking,” and “there are no weeds in my garden” type of thinking)

    You will be able to experience the subtle permutations of this thing called happiness, and your joy can only multiply from there.

  • Great entry.

    Honestly, I’d say that the two sides have different effects.

    Negative emotions offer the opportunity to strengthen you, so you can handle more difficult emotional obstacles in the future. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”

    I’d like to argue that positive experiences offer the opportunity to teach you to enjoy life more. The more positive emotions the better you are able to enjoy good times.


  • While both intense happiness and intense sorrow contribute to emotional depth, I believe the “negative” emotions–grief, pain, loneliness, loss–can give us more depth, faster.

    Consider a couple of specific cases that illustrate the general ways loss builds emotional depth:

    A) Confronting death teaches us that life is finite. We cannot fully appreciate the value of life until we appreciate its scarcity.

    B) Even when we’re somewhat down and out, we have it better than all but a handful of people on this planet, or throughout human history. Suffering is a great leveler, and gives us a point of reference to appreciate just how great our “normal” is. We often forget just how lucky we are that our normal includes being not in pain or not sick.

    C) Without loneliness, we tend to value relationships only on a relative basis (compared to all our other relationships). Only by glimpsing what the null set looks like can we begin to distinguish the general value relationship has from the particular value of our relationships.

  • Ben,

    “Naturally, it’s he who has experienced and understands the full range of emotions who should in theory be most emotionally developed.”

    Not `Naturally’. One has to try, try hard to get there. Emotional development (ED) also would mean an ability to learn what our emotions are trying to tell us, retain and reflect that learning into a recursive future by appreciating the guidance that they offer.

    The secret of retaining all the exciting moments we have experienced is by often recalling it, as often as we can. Thaw every sad emotion by the retained and often recalled joy. Look forward to the next joyous occasion. Not so easy, but practice helps.

    Even those emotions that are labeled negative by many people have a purpose. Often we remain deaf to their signals, end up suffering instead of learning to speak their language (since we haven’t heard them) and fail to cope with agony.

    ED is an outcome from the awareness that position we take will tend to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. The pessimistic notions should be argued against because the thoughts propelling them are often in error and when allowed to persist, can suck the motivation out of our limbs. We will never make a winner out of us not because we can’t, but because we are convinced we can’t. Our point of view alters reality, not in any mysterious or mystical way, but directly.

    Why did I say it’s hard to get there?

    You’ll never catch one calling her a pessimist. As far as she is concerned, she’s a realist. She thinks optimists are fools. When she refuses to accept she’s ill, you can’t get her to take medicine. That’s the big hurdle that hampers ED.

  • Ben,

    Does going through a grieving process contribute more to your emotional depth than going through a period of intense joy?

    …Yes…when I lost my father as young as I did…it made me realize so many things…1) We will never know when our numbers up, which is why we need to make the most of everyday. 2) We come to realize that life is not about “things” but rather the things unseen…love, friendship, companionship, helping others…etc 3) In the end it also made me realize that the only connection that is truly worth something to those you love is the relationship that you have with them…and while your physical body is gone…your spirit, friendship and love stays with them forever.

    Does sadness stretch you more than happiness? Does experiencing intense loneliness change you more than intense companionship? In short, do only negative emotions count for depth?

    ….yes…when we are lonely we tend to ponder…and ask ourselves those difficult questions which stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone and help us bring ourselves back to where we want to be. Its only after we have hit rock bottom…where the real growth in anything we do begins. Because when we hit rock bottom…you really learn who you are as a person, and further do everything you can to bring yourself back to where you want to be.

  • I do believe it is about experiencing the full range – I know the best thing I did for myself in going through challenging times is to choose to fully experience them, to not anesthetize as tempting as that occasionally was. As in paintings, contrast can add definition and nuance.

    I also don’t believe you have to experience a catalyst directly to have a fully developed emotional range capable of holding and encompassing the grief side of the spectrum as well as the joyous – that through the cultivation of profound empathy. If you have time, “Field Notes on a Compassionate Life” is a great book.

    The story of the Buddha is an interesting one because he was deliberately kept from all the sufferings of the world, and chose to experience them anyway. (I approach Buddhism as a philosophy, and from that vantage point, have really enjoyed and gained a lot from various teachings.)

  • I agree that you have to experience both good and bad emotions to truly appreciate either.

    One who only experiences comfort, happiness, joy, etc. will begin to accept those feelings as “normal,” which dilutes the feeling, meaning that they will have to experience even more comfort, happiness, and joy to truly “feel” it.

    One who only feels betrayal, hate, and pain will also begin to accept those as normal, and will have to experience those negative feelings on a higher level to “feel” it.

    On the flip side, one who has lived in a “positive bubble” will be crushed more easily by anything remotely resemblng pain or another negative emotion. Vice-versa, one who lives in a “negative bubble” will experience more joy from a small positive occurrence than another (unless their “negative bubble” experience colours their perception of the positive experience – that it is a “fluke”).

    I’ve been very happy, as well as very devastated. And I’m still learning to deal well with both sides of the equation. But life is for learning – no matter how difficult the lesson may be sometimes. And it is possible to be okay with a feeling of loneliness or betrayal or loss… it is in how one deals with the feeling that one learns the most about oneself.

  • What a great topic, Ben! I think that learning the deep lessons depends more on the person than on that person’s experiences. I say this because I know people who have experienced tragedy without learning a darned thing about themselves or the world, so the bad experience itself does not give you depth. If you’re a person who considers his or her life, who observes and contemplates, who views others with compassion, then you are a person who can find his or her own depths.

    I agree with Gayle: Read Field Notes on a Compassionate Life. And keep asking these good questions!

  • Wonderful questions, Ben — and great replies here.

    These questions are very much on my mind right at this moment, because I am going through something very difficult. As you know, my dad died suddenly about four years ago, but just this last week, my mother has been going through an intense psychological and medical crisis that shows no signs of abating in the near future. I thought suffering the grief over my dad’s death was tough; this is much harder. So here I am, right in the middle of the soul-crucible we’re talking about.

    One thing I notice — as several people have alluded here — is that suffering can open your eyes. That’s what Buddha’s story is about, in part. The other night, I watched a wonderful documentary called The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg for the second time. I’ve mentioned that Ginsberg was a long-time mentor and friend of mine, but after the sad events of this week, I felt like I was able to understand fully a third of the movie that I was nearly blind to before, particularly the parts dealing with Allen’s relationships with his mother (who died in a mental institution) and his lover Peter (who has spent the last couple of decades in and out of mental institutions.) I now feel like I understand the context of many things he said and did while I knew him much better than I did before.

    One thing that emotions like grief have going for them is that they can increase compassion. They don’t always; the world is full of bitter, grieving alcoholics whose compassion does not seem to extend much to compassionate action. Surviving grief and sadness seems to change something at an almost visceral level in the human psyche, opening a door to a greater level of empathy with others — *if* you’re feeling these things in a context that enables you to walk through that door.

    Empathy is good, because I think it delivers a *more accurate picture of who we really are*. Can joy bring empathy? Perhaps so. But suffering and grief are highly effective in this regard.

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  • only the end of my life will say if the negative empowered my emotional depth, if it hasn’t already gobbled me up.

    I will change this world, if being can do it.

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