mimagephotography/shutterstockIt’s easy to be happy when things go your way—you landed a promotion! There was no traffic on your commute! You got a fat tax refund! But, the key to being happier in daily life is not enjoying great fortune every single moment—it’s how you deal when your luck runs out.
A recent study led by researchers at the University of Toronto confirms that our happiness is best determined by how we process negative emotions.
“You always interpret null effects very cautiously,” study author Brett Ford, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, told Quartz. “But to us, it appears that acceptance uniquely affects negative emotions, and isn’t interfering with positive emotions.”
For the study, the scientists used a series of three experiments to analyze the connection between overall well-being and how people accept negative emotions.
For the first experiment, around 1,000 study subjects filled out surveys about their mindfulness, life satisfaction, depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and the number of stressful events they could remember encountering during their lives. The team found that those who accepted their negative feelings on average had greater psychological health. They also found that while you’d think a low-stress life was a bigger predictor of well-being, it was actually the capacity to accept life’s difficulties and one’s own negative feelings non-judgmentally that was a greater factor in happiness. (Here’s how to stop being so judgmental.)
In simple terms: When it comes to being happy, your ability to manage the low points in life is more important than having fewer low points.
For their second experiment, researchers had 160 women, half of whom had experienced a significant life stressor within the past six months, complete either a neutral or stressful task. In results that echoed the previous experiment, women who accepted their stressful feelings were healthier mentally.
For the final test, the scientists asked 222 participants to keep diary entries every night for two weeks, making notes about stressful events they’d experienced. They were also asked to rate their feelings of 12 negative emotions including sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, shame, and guilt. Yet again, participants who willingly accepted their negative thoughts and feelings reporting feeling happier overall.
According to The Cut, Ford believes the results across all three experiments “underscore the broad relevance of acceptance as a useful tool for many people.”
Ford believes her research could be valuable for future mental health interventions, which aren’t always effective. “When something happens and you try to reframe it like, ‘Oh it’s not such a big deal,’ or ‘I’m going to learn and grow from that that,’ it doesn’t necessarily work,” Ford told Quartz. And such reframing is often hard to accept when your situation feels especially dire.
“The overall take-home message is that emotions are naturally short-lived experiences,” she says, according to The Cut. And if we embrace them rather than trying to push them away, “these emotional experiences would actually pass relatively quickly.”
Here’s how you can be happier without even trying.