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August 14, 2017

“Don’t worry, be happy,” is not always the best advice.

According to research published by the American Psychological Association, the secret to true happiness is actually a bit counterintuitive. Researchers claim people might be happier when they feel the emotions they desire, even if they’re not positive.

“Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain. Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have. All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant,” said lead researcher Maya Tamir, PhD, a psychology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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The study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, surveyed 2,324 university students in eight countries: the United States, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland, and Singapore.

According to the research, “11 percent of the participants wanted to feel fewer transcendent emotions, such as love and empathy, than they experienced in daily life, and 10 percent wanted to feel more unpleasant emotions, such as anger or hatred.”

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But why would anyone want to feel unpleasant emotions? Tamir's research suggests that feeling more emotions, even if they’re negative, is actually better for your well-being.

“[Survey participants] rated their life satisfaction and depressive symptoms. Across cultures in the study, participants who experienced more of the emotions that they desired reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms, regardless of whether those desired emotions were pleasant or unpleasant,” Tamir said.

For example, the study uses a hypothetical situation of a person who reads about child abuse but feels they should be angrier about the plight of abused children. This would be considered a “negative” emotion, even though the person desires it in the moment.

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“The study may shed some light on the unrealistic expectations that many people have about their own feelings,” Tamir said. “People want to feel very good all the time in Western cultures, especially in the United States. Even if they feel good most of the time, they may still think that they should feel even better, which might make them less happy overall.”

Tamir acknowledges that further research is needed on the subject, but until then, you might be better off just feeling your feelings.

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