The Value in Bad Moods

Is the baseline of human emotion constant happiness?  Should it be?  What effects does a perpetual state of happiness have on cognitive abilities?  On empathy?  In the following article by Kira Newman we learn how pursuing a perpetual state of happiness can impair our ability to connect meaningfully with others, how it can affect our ability to analyze situations, and how others manipulate us to feel good so they can exploit our temporary inability to analyze and discern a good deal from a bad one.

We highly sensitive people process emotions more deeply than those without the trait (sensory processing sensitivity).  This deep processing of all experience can be a heavy burden to bear as we feel the emotions in our bodies and minds.  Often we may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of an emotion, especially when we reason that it may be out of proportion to the stimulus.   We know from the research that HSPs tend to dislike superficial conversations, instead preferring the deeper, more meaningful discussions of greater importance.   This likely has as much to do with wishing to avoid overloading on stimulation as a desire to connect more deeply with others.  I submit to you that positive emotions certainly are a good thing that we should cultivate but neutral states are also perfectly acceptable, even desirable many times as we seek to rest and recharge.  As HSPs we experience more complex states of being with a broader possible range of emotional expression.  Many of us have learned to hide these away from a world that neither understands nor values this emotional depth but I suggest to you that you hold that part of yourselves to be precious and indispensable to who you are as a sensitive being in a world of madness.

In a sense, HSPs may serve as the torchbearers for empathy leading to compassion, positive action in the world fueled by an appreciation and understanding of complexity, and a willingness to remain open where the world constricts and seeks to revert to harsher, crueler times.  Your variety of moods, thoughts, and feelings are the finer senses of the species and should be treasured as such.

Tracy Cooper, PhD

In a Bad Mood? Studies Show Why That Can Be a Good Thing

Five reasons why the quest for constant happiness is misguided.
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Like many seekers of happiness, I once aspired to feel good as much as possible. There’s probably a part of everyone that would prefer to avoid life’s more difficult, or even mundane, feelings—and self-help books assure us that we can, if only we adopt the right attitude.

Perpetual joy is not a practical goal.

Yet most of us know that perpetual joy is not a practical goal—and recent research is starting to suggest that it may actually be a harmful one. Scientists are discovering that feel-good states can be detrimental to our problem-solving, judgment, morality, and empathy in the moment.

The upshot? Context matters.

On the whole, it’s absolutely beneficial to be someone for whom feeling good comes easy, who can appreciate a good meal, connect warmly with others, and dream up sunny possibilities for the future. But our whole spectrum of different feelings, from anger to elation, evolved for a reason: to help us confront and handle challenges to survival. There are times in life when feeling positive won’t help—and could even hurt.

1. When you’re working on critical reasoning tasks

Research suggests that positive feelings can help us be more productive at work overall and more adept at creative tasks, particularly those that involve brainstorming responses and ideas. But a positive mood isn’t conducive to the best performance on certain analytical tasks.

In a 1989 study, researchers induced a positive mood in half the participants by either giving each of them $2 or showing them a funny video. Then, everyone read an editorial they disagreed with—except some editorials contained strong, thoughtful arguments, and others contained weak arguments.

Under time pressure, the amused participants were equally persuaded by the strong and weak arguments, couldn’t remember as many of the points made, and relied on shortcuts more in their evaluations (whether the author was a scholar or not) compared to the control, non-amused group. (When amused participants had more time, these patterns disappeared: They read for longer, and then they were more likely to be persuaded by strong arguments, remembered more details, and didn’t tend to rely on shortcuts.)

Serious focus may not be pleasant, but it may be the optimal mood for certain tasks.

In a 1995 study, a group of around 60 undergrads solved syllogisms—logic problems that ask you to deduce conclusions from statements like “All A are B” and “Some B are C.” Again, a group that had been induced to feel amused performed worse. They spent less time working on the syllogisms and drew fewer diagrams to help solve them. They also gave riskier “all” or “none” answers (rather than “some”), perhaps indicating that they were overoptimistic about their problem-solving abilities.

The authors of a different study from 1994 offered this interpretation:

“Happiness is a kind of safety signal, indicating that there is no current need for problem solving. … Unhappy people will think more deeply about their social environment (in an effort to solve their problems), whereas happy people can contentedly coast on cruise control, not bothering to think very deeply about surrounding events unless they impinge directly on their well-being.”

A 2000 study complicates the picture a bit, though. Here, students read moral dilemmas and had to pick the best arguments to solve them; their performance was rated more highly if they chose arguments that were more principled and abstract, rather than concrete and simple. In this situation, amused people took longer and performed worse. But this wasn’t always the case: When students imagined themselves in the moral dilemma, or when the moral dilemma was serious and disturbing, involving war or racism, the amused students performed just as well as those in a neutral mood.

In the end, the type and even the content of the task we’re working on matter. For some parts of the work we do, particularly tasks that involve logical reasoning and critical thinking, positive emotions may not be the best helper. In other words, don’t expect yourself to feel joyful proofreading a document or formatting a spreadsheet; serious focus may not be pleasant, but it may be the optimal mood for certain tasks.

2. When you want to judge people fairly and accurately

Cognitive psychologists classify stereotyping as a form of “heuristic processing”: using general knowledge about a group to efficiently make predictions about individual members. In this sense, stereotyping is a kind of superficial thinking—and people in a good mood may be prone to it.

In a 1994 study, participants were asked to make judgments about student misconduct; some had been induced to feel good by remembering and writing about a happy event from their past. The researchers were trying to find out if participants feeling good would make more stereotyped judgments: judging the Latino student guilty of assault or the track-and-field athlete guilty of cheating.

People who are in a good mood are sometimes more likely to jump to conclusions about others.

And so they did. (Notably, researchers were able to overcome this bias by telling happy participants that they would be held accountable for their judgments and should be able to justify them—effectively increasing their motivation to make good judgments with external accountability, and eliminating stereotypical reasoning in the process.)

People feeling amused also made more stereotypical judgments in a 2000 study: Here, they were more likely to (incorrectly) identify African-American-sounding names as belonging to criminals or basketball players. They didn’t make the same mistakes with European-sounding names. Participants in a neutral mood weren’t as likely to fall back on stereotypes.

However, other research has shown that white people in a happy mood show less implicit bias toward African American faces—so, again, the effects may be complex. Perhaps it matters whether we come face to face with the people we’re judging, where a happy mood may help dampen our fear response to unfamiliar faces.

In any case, it’s still true that people who are in a good mood are sometimes more likely to jump to conclusions about others—and less likely to consciously correct for any stereotypical notions they harbor.

3. When you might get taken advantage of

The 2000 study also found that feel-good participants were prone to applying European American names to politicians—a (theoretically) positive bias.

If feeling good inclines us to see certain people in a positive light, does that mean it might make us more likely to be manipulated? Maybe.

In a 2008 study, nearly 120 students were induced to feel amused, neutral, or sad (by watching a comedy video, a nature documentary, or a film clip about cancer). Then, they watched interrogation videos where other students lied or told the truth about stealing a movie ticket. Overall, the negative-mood group was better at detecting deception than the neutral or positive groups, correctly identifying the liars more often.

A negative mood makes us process information in more detailed, systematic ways.

Researchers believe this is because a negative mood makes us process information in more detailed, systematic ways, and also makes us more likely to recall other negative information (like when our roommate lied about stealing our Pringles).

People intuitively seem to realize this: When we express high levels of happiness, research suggests, we are perceived as more naive and are more likely to be targets of exploitation than when we express moderate happiness. This explains why we wait for people to be in a good mood before we ask for favors, hoping that they won’t be as critical and careful in considering our request.

4. When there’s temptation to cheat

In some cases, feeling good may also compromise our morality.

In a 2013 study, 90 students were induced to feel either positive or neutral by watching clips from a cartoon or something resembling a screensaver. Then, they were instructed to complete a crossword-puzzle-type task, grade their own work with an answer sheet, and compensate themselves 50 cents for each correct answer. Although the worksheets appeared to be anonymous, invisible ink let the researchers figure out who was honest and who wasn’t—and the amused group stole more money than the neutral one.

In some cases, feeling good may also compromise our morality.

In surveys, the amused group reported being more morally disengaged—more apt to come up with justifications for immoral actions without judging themselves harshly. In this case, for example, they might think, “I’m not getting paid enough for this boring experiment, and I could have found more words if I tried harder.”

Interestingly, these effects disappeared when the researchers put mirrors in their workspace, making them more self-aware.

“Although conventional wisdom would suggest that happy people are less likely than unhappy people to be dishonest, our work suggests that anyone who buys into this simplistic cliché might be blindsided by the stealth behind the smile,” the researchers write.

5. When you’re empathizing with suffering

Research suggests that being happier in general makes us kinder and more generous. But people who try to feel good all the time, at all costs, can miss some opportunities to connect with others.

A 2014 study, for example, found that positive people less accurately empathize with certain negative emotions. Over 120 young adults watched four videos where people described good or bad events in their own lives (e.g., winning a scholarship or having a dispute with a landlord). During the videos, the participants continuously rated how they believed the storyteller was feeling on a scale of one to nine, changing their rating any moment they sensed an emotional shift. Those ratings were compared to the storytellers’ ratings of their own feelings over the course of the video.

In general, positive participants—those who reported experiencing positive emotions more in general—were more confident in their empathic skills but weren’t actually any better at identifying the storytellers’ emotions than other participants.

In fact, when the storyteller was describing a high-intensity negative event, like the death of a parent, positive people were less accurate than their peers. For whatever reason, they seemed unable or unwilling to engage with such difficult emotions.

“It perhaps takes more sacrifice to ‘drop down’ and focus on another person’s high-intensity negative emotions, and this may be particularly difficult to do” for positive people, the researchers explain.

People who try to feel good all the time, at all costs, can miss some opportunities to connect with others.

If there’s anyone in your life with inveterate positivity, you’ve probably experienced something similar. When I share my anxiety or sadness with a hyper-positive friend of mine, he usually insists that the situation doesn’t merit despair, or reassures me that everything will turn out okay—neither of which make me feel better (or understood).

Should we give up on feeling good?

Clearly, while feeling good does feel good, it doesn’t always bring us the success and connection we desire. It doesn’t seem ideal in all situations for all outcomes, meaning—as evolutionary psychologists could have already told us—that other, less-blissful feelings serve a purpose.

Indeed, according to a survey of more than 35,000 people, those who reported high levels of positive emotion weren’t as protected against depression as those with high emodiversity—those who experienced many positive and negative emotions, from awe and amusement to anger and sadness.

And that’s another point worth making: “Feeling good” doesn’t always refer to the same feeling. Much of the research focused on amusement, induced by watching a cartoon or a standup comedian. And none of the studies looked at warmer, more interpersonal feelings like love and compassion.

In a quest for more happiness, I once tracked my mood every hour for a month, hoping to identify the downers in my life and try to eliminate them. But instead, I came away from that experiment a little less concerned about my negative moods—because they never lasted! Each hour brought a new feeling with a different cause, and I realized I didn’t have to stress so much.

Similarly, this research might help you relax about yesterday’s bad mood—and give you a greater appreciation for all sorts of feelings.

This article was originally published by Greater Good. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.

Producing in-depth, thoughtful journalism for a better world is expensive – but supporting us isn’t. If you value ad-free independent journalism, consider subscribing to YES! today.

Kira M. Newman wrote this article for Greater Good. Kira is an editor and web producer at the Greater Good Science Center. She is also the creator of The Year of Happy, a year-long course in the science of happiness, and CaféHappy, a Toronto-based meetup. Follow her on Twitter @KiraMNewman.

Considerations for the High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Entrepreneur

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So, you want to go into business for yourself.  You want to be your own boss, call your own shots, and set your own schedule.  What kind of considerations should you take into account before going into business for yourself?  There are at least a hundred but here let’s focus on just three: making sure your inner house is in order, your business idea is sound, and your commitment is long-term.  Without any of these three your chances for success will be greatly diminished.

Spring Cleaning Your Inner House

Being in business for yourself may seem like a great idea because it offers many aspects that may be attractive to the high sensation seeking highly sensitive person like opportunity for new and novel experiences, a sense of personal control that allows you to potentially stay ahead of boredom, and a certain bucking the system of wage slavery and corporate malfeasance that you find compelling.  In order to have a reasonable shot at success we must first ensure that we have done the personal, inner work on ourselves that sets up the conditions we will need to be successful on a sustainable basis.

By inner work I mean we need to be aware of the factors in our lives that limit us like Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs).  ACEs occur in childhood and may deeply impact brain development in ways that cause us to overreact to ordinary stimuli, experience less connectivity in important parts of the brain regulating emotional control, and deal with the world on a perpetual fight or flight stance.  ACEs need not have been severe or long-lasting to have had a profound effect on us as highly sensitive people.  Highly sensitive people may have been significantly affected by domestic violence in the household, personal experiences of neglect, abuse, or trauma, or similar events in the school experience.  The more ACEs we have the worse our anxiety, depression, and fear may be at taking risks, feeling confident we can master new tasks, or tolerating ambiguity which abounds in small business.

To heal from ACEs, and other events that have scarred us in life, it is important to first acknowledge that they occurred and that we may have been powerless during those times.  It is also important to learn to practice self-care in a way that places emphasis on our needs.  Too often self-care is sacrificed to satisfy the harsh demands of a society that neither feels nor values those who do.  Learning and appreciating that we are whole people with particular needs that need to be met before we can perform at our best isn’t whining, it’s winning!  If you cannot or will not take care of yourself (mind, body, and spirit) you will crash and burn under the weight of starting and running a small business.  Get your inner house in order first before tackling the demanding world of small business.  By ensuring that you have sufficiently addressed your inner issues you decrease your own anxiety and stress thereby enabling you to be a more effective entrepreneur.

Tips for spring cleaning your inner house:

  • Reconcile any issues you may have that may be contributing to limiting your ability to function well in the world. This may require a great deal of reading, research, even booking sessions with a good therapist but will pay off in the long run.
  • Set personal boundaries and learn to stick to them. If you let people run all over you now, what will be different when you’re in business for yourself?  Know how and when you allow people to unreasonably cross boundaries and work on being more firm.  This means learning to say no and not feel guilty about it.  You’re a highly sensitive person, not a pincushion.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps you are fabulous on the telephone dealing with customers (and, yes, many highly sensitive people make awesome performers) but don’t do as well in face-to-face situations.  You can choose to either work on your face-to-face skills (and, yes, they can be learned by even the most reclusive hermit if the desire is there) or find ways to get around it (choosing a business with less face-to-face for instance or hiring people who are good in those situations).
  • Know and appreciate that inner work is never finished. There are always bits and pieces that crop up from time to time and will remind us (sometimes unpleasantly) of past ACEs.  In these times it is important to acknowledge how far we’ve come, how capable we have been in dealing with obstacles, and how we are doing our best at any given moment.  Never give up on yourself even if you are down for the count at times.  Tomorrow is always a new day.
  • Develop a self-care practice that you take as seriously as your spiritual life. Our bodies are very simply biological organisms capable of providing a finite amount of clear decision-making time on a daily basis.  We need to know how our bodies work, when our peak times are (and they may be completely off-cycle with the world), and work with that instead of against it.  Get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, get enough exercise and sunshine, and keep your emotional well-being in tune by developing one or more practices that calm the mind and keep you in tune with your body.  We enjoy good health as we age because we work at it, not because it’s a right.

Sound business idea

One we have effectively addressed spring cleaning our inner houses we need a good business idea.  There are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of business ideas.  Anywhere there is a human need there is a business idea waiting to be filled.  Even where a need does not exist currently but will there is a need waiting to be filled (though we may need to obviously do some education).  Of the hundreds of business ideas you will note that some come with more inherent control than others.  Purchasing a franchise for instance may be a low risk way to get into a proven business winner but you will also cede a great deal of control to the franchisor and will likely be required to work in the business a set number of days.  Not for you?  Perhaps you’d be better off inventing a new business or adapting an existing idea.  We do not need to reinvent the wheel just to be in business.

Some great businesses are simply variations on a theme.  I once worked for a printing company whose business strategy involved not going after the big clients.  Rather, they chose to go after all the “leftovers” the big printing companies didn’t want to deal with (not enough profit, difficult customer, etc.).  They are a perfectly successful and thriving business yet started as a franchise that grew too big to constrained by the franchisor rules.  They rebranded, relaunched and today do very well.

There’s much talk in HSP circles about “finding your bliss,” “working from the heart,” or other feel-good catchphrases but I’d like to throw cold water on most of that by informing you that business is tough and few people care that you love what you’re doing.  Your potential customers come to you because you can fill their need (or at least they perceive that you can).  If you also like/love what you happen to be doing for a business that’s a bonus.  Life doesn’t have to be perfect and you shouldn’t expect that being in business will be easy or necessarily pleasant all of the time.  It shouldn’t be defeating otherwise why not just work for someone else and forget the hassle?  Be realistic about self-employment and don’t let your intuition take you from A-Z without understanding there’s a whole world of complexity from B-Y.

What makes a sound business idea?   A sound idea is one you can quantify as holding potential.  That means you have data showing there are potential customers or you have experience working with these potential customers in a previous capacity.  Some ideas are time-tested and will always hold good potential, ie., the trades (car mechanic, HVAC repair, construction remodeling, cleaning, etc.), healthcare-related concepts (because people will always be sick at some point, perhaps you can prevent this in your idea), or require a service you can provide (notary public, pest control, home inspector, or home organizer).  The point here is you do not need a million-dollar idea because you don’t need to make a million dollars.  You just need to make enough for yourself and your family.  Perfectly viable ideas exist that you can build up into very good businesses that will allow you to escape from wage slavery, no control over your waking hours, and the madness that can be the modern workplace.

Your business idea should:

  • Be doable given your financial means. Ideally you will start a business with no money borrowed from any source.  If that isn’t feasible you will have done your homework and have taken a well-calculated risk on your ability to pay back your loans.
  • Be realistic given your skills, experience, and geographic area. You may have always been told that you can “do anything you want if you just try.”  I’m here to tell you that you won’t be becoming a lawyer without years and years of education and training beyond school.  If your dream doesn’t fit your skills, experience, and capabilities you don’t have a good idea.  Within that reality we must be realistic and admit that growth is an inevitable part of starting a business.  You may not know everything at this moment (even in the first few years) but you will learn.  You will make mistakes but you will learn and, in time, you will be a seasoned businessperson who has hopefully taken on a challenging idea (but not completely out of your realm of possibility).  The best business idea is one that works for you given your unique characteristics as a person.

Where you live may also play a crucial role in choosing a business idea.  Will your business cater to local people, will it be internet-based, or otherwise not bound by your location?  If it is a local business you will need to know your market, where the gaps are, and how you will fill them.  If your business is non-local you still have to know your potential customers because your marketing efforts will have to key into their needs and convince them that your business is worth a try.  Internet-based businesses suffer from many issues but one of the chief issues is the fierce amount of competition.  Think you have a great idea?  Check the internet and make sure there aren’t already a million others doing it better.

  • Be something you do not absolutely hate. You may not love but if it works well enough you’ll find ways to either improve on it or find fulfillment outside of work.  No one ever said work is the end-all and be-all of life.  If it comes down to working in your own business as a way of not having to work somewhere else you find more unpleasant you have a winning situation.  Be realistic though, you do not need to love what you do.  It helps if you like it but love is optional and perhaps unrealistic in many areas of the world.  Acknowledging that this blog is read by HSPs all over the world I am sure many are shaking their heads in agreement.  Loving what you do is a luxury of countries with high qualities of life where people do not necessarily live hand to mouth.

Lastly, a good business idea is one with potential for growth.  Few things will end your business over time like stagnation.  If you’re cutting edge today you will not be in five years.  Entrepreneurs know that business concepts are constantly evolving to keep up with customer needs.  To do that you need to be in it for the long-term.

Long-Term Commitment

Depending on your age when you enter your new small business you may not think about the long-term but realistically business changes, customers go elsewhere, and you bore of treading the same pathway every day.  People quit businesses out of boredom and as much as desire to do something different as any other reason.  Some people will undoubtedly find being in business will alleviate many of the problems that brought them to entrepreneurship and be very grateful for what they have been able to achieve while others will need to move on to other things.  Regardless, once you have one business going it is relatively simple to set up another business and over time juggle several at once.  I am doing this very thing right now managing drtracycooper.com (a career consulting business for HSPs), a “real” job as a Program Chair for a Master of Liberal Arts degree at Baker University, and my newest venture ProHealth Advocates, llc which is a patient advocacy consulting business I will run the business side of but not otherwise work in.  I do expect to have to devote varying levels of time, effort, and energy to all three, plus continue to push for new angles and possibilities.  It’s likely I’ll start other businesses as well.  You should too.

You might think “this all sounds kind of rough and tumble for an HSP!”  Not at all, you have it wrong!  Highly sensitive people are emotional powerhouses who may use their emotional energy in creative ways to do whatever they like.  As an HSP you certainly have the qualities that would make a decent entrepreneur: more elaborate processing of stimulation in the brain, sensitivity to subtle cues, high empathy (possibly compassion too), high creativity (not just the art kind), and a keen sense of curiosity.  Put those to work for yourself and you can do quite well no matter where you are or what your situation.  You are an innovator, so go innovate!  Even if you don’t feel like you have a grasp on the above qualities you are likely deeply conscientious which can still take you far in many circles.  However, you choose to look at Sensory Processing Sensitivity what you really have is a marginally rare personality trait shared by over one billion people.  Don’t get too stuck on it and don’t let it define your life.

Long-term commitment to your new business/s means you are willing to:

  • Face failure when it happens, laugh in its face and try again.
  • Invest your life energies into something that matters to you and not be an observer.
  • Work to overcome your fears and anxieties while also working to embrace your creative nature. Business is scary but so is wasting your life in a job you hate.  You only live once and for a finite amount of time; make the most of it.
  • Tolerate some ambiguity to allow for a space in which your business can grow. As a creative person, you know ambiguity is necessary to facilitate room to grow.  Linear thinking will only take you to C from A and B.
  • Develop friendships with other entrepreneurs HSP or otherwise. Nothing will sustain you more than knowing you’re not alone.

Beginnings

Starting a new business requires that we know ourselves, that we are not needlessly hauling harmful emotional baggage behind us, and that we develop sound business concepts that we can commit to for the long-term.  As creative, sensitive individuals HSPs and HSS/HSPs may be in a unique position to innovate, create, and occupy a position in the world that is unique to us.  Though your business need not be the next great idea it may be one in which you can thrive in the fullest possible sense of the word.  To thrive means you have found a balance and work hard to maintain it in all facets of your life.  Thriving implies engagement with challenging tasks and, as such, means you take on risk.  Minimizing that risk through careful research and planning coupled with a flexible, creative approach to concept evolution will keep you in balance no matter what happens in the world.

If you are astute and refuse to allow yourself to be defined by a label you will transcend yourself and become a new possible self; one that may potentially exceed your dreams.  Starting a business is a complex task, or series of tasks, but HSPs are used to complexity.  We live and breathe complexity in our daily lives as we process the whirlwind of stimulation that modern life surrounds us with.  It is through a desire to engage meaningfully with our capacities in a calm, rational way that we may find entrepreneurship offers us the greatest opportunities for growth and development.  To be an entrepreneur means we assume all the risks but we also enjoy all the rewards and if life has led you to self-employment you should endeavor to do it with all the creativity, energy, and enthusiasm you can muster.  You may just find that you’ve found your best path in life.

Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.  Dr. Cooper also offers consulting to HSPs and HSS/HSPs on career transition and many other issues.  His website is drtracycooper.com