It’s tempting, but not necessarily helpful, to label emotions ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on how they make us feel. Given the choice, who wouldn’t prefer to be joyful, carefree or content all the time and avoid negative feelings entirely? But it doesn’t work like that. We don’t get to opt in to the nice stuff and opt out of the unpleasant stuff. To be human is to experience a diverse range of feelings.
In his 2019 book, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings, doctor and author Randolph Ness asks why we experience so many negative feelings and whether they have some purpose or benefit. He takes a long view. A very long view. His book explores mental health and the emotions from the perspective of human evolution.
He explains that states like anxiety have a useful purpose and can keep us safe by alerting us to possible harm. Anger and jealousy might feel unpleasant but they are protective responses that can encourage us to focus on our own needs. Fear may not be a welcome feeling, though we can probably see how a fear of heights, for instance, reduces the risk of dangerous falls. Low mood or depression can be beneficial by encouraging us to make changes to our life, such as switching direction rather than wasting energy on unreachable goals.
We are social animals who live in groups, so it is logical to worry about what others think because this aids social cohesion. Evolution prioritises reproduction and human survival, so it matters how other people – especially potential sexual partners – view us.
Ness uses a ‘smoke detector’ metaphor. Smoke detectors are designed to be overly sensitive because it is safer for them to trigger too easily than to risk missing a real fire. In a similar way, our internal stress responses can signal that we are in danger when actually there is no threat because, for our survival, it is better to pay attention to false alarms than to miss something genuinely dangerous. The result is that our defences often get activated when it isn’t an emergency.
Even though anxiety is a natural response to protect us from harm, there is a mismatch between the ancient environments in which we evolved and the modern world, which for most (though not all) people is comparatively safe, compared to the physical risks and dangers of the past. But with so many false alarms, we start to live in a heightened state of anxiety. This is exhausting and takes a toll on our physical and mental health.
Ness’s point is that evolution is ultimately about survival of the species, even if this comes at the cost of individual happiness. However disagreeable to us as individuals, feeling bad is good if it helps us to survive.