Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet, famously compared emotions—”a joy, a depression, a meanness”—to “unexpected visitors.” His advice was to let them in laughing, but that’s not what we do. Instead, we pretend not to notice, or even hide. We want to bury resentment and anger, or trade loneliness in for the more fashionable gratitude.
In a cultural age that’s decidedly pro-positivity, the pressure to suppress or camouflage negative feelings is real.
However, psychological studies have shown that acceptance of those negative emotions is the more reliable route to regaining and maintaining peace of mind. Whether practiced through the lens of ancient Eastern philosophies, or in increasingly popular forms of treatment like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, acceptance of one’s dark emotions is now backed by a body of evidence connecting the habit to better emotional resilience, and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Acceptance, therefore, is having a moment—at least among academics. But how and why it works has been little studied, says Brett Ford, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. Not quite a strategy, she tells Quartz, “acceptance involves not trying to change how we are feeling, but staying in touch with your feelings and taking them for what they are.” So, she asks, how can it be that accepting negative emotions is paradoxically linked to long-term psychological thriving?
A few years ago, when Ford was a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley, she and three fellow Berkeley researchers devised a three-part study to try and find out. Their findings were just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
According to their analyses, the magic of acceptance is in its blunting effect on emotional reactions to stressful events. It’s that mechanism that can, over time, lead to positive psychological health, including higher levels of life satisfaction. In other words, accepting dark emotions like anxiety or rage, won’t bring you down or amplify the emotional experience. Nor will it make you “happy”—at least not directly.
“You always interpret null effects very cautiously,” Ford says, “but to us, it appears that acceptance uniquely affects negative emotions, and isn’t interfering with positive emotions.”