Why haven’t our brains learnt to get rid of negative emotions? Why is it so hard to stop feeling something you know is bad for you? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
I have studied questions like this deeply and interviewed tons of experts from psychologists to neuroscientists (and much more) - and I think I can help shed some light on why this question is a bit misguided and also give you some simple and easy tools to help deal with negative emotions.
For starters - this question misunderstands how evolution works. Our brains don’t evolve towards some pre-defined end. Evolution is a process that simply selects genetic trains based on reproductive capacity - what that literally means is that when someone reproduces they pass on their traits because, by definition, those traits got them to the point of being able to reproduce. Over time, this shapes populations towards certain behavior types and trends - the ingrained behaviors and biases that happen to lead to reproduction. That’s it. The people who didn’t make it to reproductive age and actually reproduce, whether they had low sex drive, weren’t afraid of danger, didn’t care about foraging for food, etc - simply never reproduced and so their genes never got passed along.
Our brains aren’t evolving to make us happier and more content, if anything, the crucible of evolution evolved us to be constantly worried, thinking about dangers and problems, and being anxious. This is an oversimplification - but think about it - 500,000 years ago - who was more likely to reproduce - the person who is fearless and goes out into the wild every day staring danger in the face - or the person who is scared to leave camp? The hero ends up getting eaten by a lion and the person who was scared at camp ends up procreating and passing along their genes.
In fact - your brain is a 2 million year old piece of hardware that was programmed to live in a world where we face real physical threats, like tigers and lions and starvation - not a world where the biggest danger posed to us comes in the from of an email from our boss. And that’s not changing any time so - because there is essentially no evolutionary pressure on humans - we aren’t really evolving towards anything anymore.
But what about these negative emotions? The notion that negative emotions are bad for you is also not really the right way to look at it. Here are a few key things to understand about negative emotions.
(1) Negative emotions are unavoidable. You cannot avoid experiencing negative emotions - and by trying to or by pushing them down, ignoring them, and distracting yourself - you are actually causing these emotions to intensify and become greater. Trying to avoid experiencing negative emotions, paradoxically, makes you experience them more frequently and with more intensity.
Tal Ben Shahar - who taught the most popular class in Harvard’s history which was on Happiness - famously says that only two types of people never experience negative emotions - psychopaths and dead people. He has also shared a number of paradoxical strategies to embrace and accept negative emotions and improve your happiness.
Emotional perfectionism - or the idea that you should always be in positive emotional states - can cause some serious problems - and worsen the experience of going through negative emotions. Cultivating self compassion and a more realistic perspective that negative emotions are inevitable and natural helps tremendously.
Your emotions are messengers trying to send you information. The sooner you accept that and listen to what they are saying, the better off you will be.
(2) Negative emotions are data, not direction. Negative emotions provide you with meaningful and relevant information that you can use to make decisions, prioritize, and understand that something is going on in your life. Listen to that message. But also know that emotions aren’t necessary correct or right - they don’t mean you have to go in that particular direction, but they are providing you with incredibly useful information that you should listen to and incorporate into your behavior.
In fact, when you look at high stakes performers like stock traders and professional poker players - they don’t try to remove emotion from the equation - they leverage their emotions to improve their decision-making process.
Consider Meditation & Mindfulness
With that said - there are some tools you can use to more effectively harness your negative emotions and productively learn from them.
The first and most obvious is meditation. While evolution certainly isn’t coming to the rescue any time soon, meditation is proven again and again in the science (here is an overview and a ton of scientific studies about meditation and its power) to be one of the most effective paths of dealing with anxiety, stress, and negative emotions.
In a recent interview I did with Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the book Buddha’s Brain, which is about the neuroscience behind meditation, he shares a number of insights into how meditation helps deal with stress and anxiety.
Very closely related is the concept of self compassion. This helps combat emotional perfectionism and build an understanding that it’s OK to experience negative emotions. I highly recommend checking out this conversation with Dr. Ronald Siegel - a Harvard Medical School psychology professor who discusses proven strategies for meditation and self compassion as well as this interview with Megan Bruneau - which helped me personally overcome my own struggles with emotional perfectionism.
I am always happy to answer any questions personally as well. Feel free to reach out to me if you want to learn more. I hope this helps shed some light on both how our brains work and why negative emotions are not only necessary, but good.
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