A week after graduation, I found myself crying on the floor of my new apartment. I had just returned from a year abroad working in Africa, had moved to a new city, and my beloved grandmother had just passed away. I felt like my world was upside down. However, when I called my father, he uttered his wonderful wisdom: “Celebrate the depth of your heartache. Feel it deeply and completely. Triumph in the amount of pain.” Nearly three decades later, my father’s comments still hold true.
It’s natural to want to avoid emotional deterioration, but that doesn’t mean you should. Both highs and lows nourish us in unique ways, and this may be a particularly important lesson to consider now.
Finding emotional control
During a pandemic, the pursuit of control has become a functional necessity for many of us. As our accepted systems begin to fall apart due to telecommuting, tele-education, and social distancing mandates, achieving some form of balance is becoming increasingly important. Of course, with most of our familiar routines, habits, practices, and rituals disrupted, we were desperate to do anything possible to mitigate anything that felt out of the norm, including emotional highs and lows. But is compromise necessarily the best way to live all the time?
There are some people who benefit from avoiding emotional peaks on both sides of the spectrum. For example, people with bipolar disorder generally improve when they avoid any of the severe cases. However, for most people, experiencing emotional highs and even the occasional emotional low is beneficial. After all, emotional climax is not necessarily stressful. For most people, they are an integral part of the emotional experience of learning, exploring, and forming new relationships.
The benefits of emotional highs
The benefits of emotional highs have been extensively documented. Among other things, we know that happy people tend to report better life outcomes, and this includes greater financial success, better relationships, better mental health, and even better physical health and longevity (see among other studies Cohn et al., 2011 And the Lyubomirsky, King, and Diner, 2005). Likewise, there is evidence that happiness precedes and predicts positive outcomes and not the other way around. In other words, we are better off because we are happy and not happy simply because we are better off.
As a result, intentionally avoiding activities that might make us happier (for example, attending celebrations with friends, celebrating special occasions with loved ones, pursuing activities that make us happy, etc.) happiness. Nowadays but also something that has the potential to have long-term consequences for our overall success and wellness.
Benefits of emotional dips
While no one likes to feel bad and it is never a good idea to feel bad for an extended period of time, avoiding or suppressing all instances of emotional decline can negatively affect one’s health and wellness.
To start, people who accept negative emotional experiences in exchange for judgment or suppression are said to have better mental health in general, mainly due to the fact that their acceptance helps them deal with emotional stressors as they arise (Ford et al., 2018). Other studies have found that avoiding or suppressing negative emotions over time may increase the risk of certain diseases and even reduce life expectancy (see among other studies) Grossarth Matsic, 1980; Mond and Mitte, 2011; Chapman et al., 2014). But that’s not the only reason why it’s important to embrace emotional decline from time to time.
As my father reminded me many years ago, we also learn the limits of our love by celebrating the depth of our heartache. In this respect, allowing ourselves to grieve and be deeply saddened is not necessarily a bad thing. As discussed in my interview with Michelle Palmer, LICSW and Executive Director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington, D.C., which I published early in the pandemic, feeling sad and even grieving seems to have a distinct purpose.
Experience a full spectrum of feelings
In the face of constant uncertainty due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic and political and economic turmoil, many people naturally aspire to maintain a balance in their daily lives. While this can be a great way to live every day, staying away from emotional highs and lows all the time also comes at a cost. Even if it doesn’t make sense in these turbulent times, remember that we are at our best when we allow ourselves to experience the full range of emotions, from joy to heartache.