The Surprising Up Side of Feeling Down

The problem with happiness is that it makes us too comfortable; we strive for it and (some of us) eventually reach our destination only to find that it's so damn good that we want things to stay exactly how they are.

Let's be honest, sometimes there is nothing worse than feeling down and having to be around happy people, especially if those people insist on telling us to 'cheer up' or (god forbid) to 'turn that frown upside-down' (and please don't tell me how many muscles it takes to frown).

But is there any benefit to those unhappy moods? Well, despite many claims that happy people are more productive, there appears to be just as much evidence to the contrary. Here are four reasons why you should embrace your down days.

1. Happy People Are Lazy Thinkers.

Happy people tend to rely on superficial strategies in order to make sense of the world and are more likely to employ stereotypes than their unhappy counterparts.

Christian Unkelbach conducted an experiment using a 'shoot 'em up' computer game where participants were told to shoot characters carrying guns. The interesting part of the experiment was that some of the characters were wearing turbans (displaying the stereotypical image of Muslim). Happy people were more likely to shoot the characters wearing turbans (even if they were unarmed) than less happy individuals. Apart from revealing some very sad truths about the destructive nature of stereotyping, the so-called 'Turban Effect' also suggests that people who display higher levels of positive emotion are less likely too judge the situation in any real depth, unconsciously choosing instead to activate stereotypes stored in long-term memory. These destructive stereotypes are also fuelled by current events and media representations.

2. Sadness Enhances Memory.

Research conducted by Elizabeth Kensinger, a psychology professor at Boston College, discovered that negative life events are remembered better than positive ones, suggesting that negative mood actually enhances memory. Joseph Forgas, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales asked people to recall items they had seen in a shop. In the first condition the task was carried on one of those grey rainy days when most of us feel a little down and perhaps even in a bit of a bad mood. In the second condition, and in an identical situation, the task was carried out on a bright day. Forgas found that the rainy day condition resulted in a larger recall tally and that memories for items were in much greater detail than the same task carried out on a sunny day. The suggestion is that, while positive mood impairs memory, negative mood somehow enhances it.

3. Sad People Are Less Influenced By Misleading Information.

Participants were shown a photograph of either a car crash or a wedding. Later on the same participants were asked to recall either a happy memory or a sad memory from their past in order to shift their mood into either negative or positive. They were then asked a series of questions about the photographs, including some misleading information (for example, asking about an object that didn't appear in the photograph). It was discovered that those participants who had recalled a negative memory from their past (the negative-mood group) were better able to recall the original details and were much less likely to be influenced by the misleading information. Participants in the positive-mood group, on the other hand, were much more likely to recall details that had been contaminated with the false information.

4. Sad People Are More Motivated.

The problem with happiness is that it makes us too comfortable; we strive for it and (some of us) eventually reach our destination only to find that it's so damn good that we want things to stay exactly how they are. Becoming settled in the status quo means that there is little motivation to move on, in fact, moving on might lead to less happiness. Sad people, on the other hand, have something to strive for and aim towards: that small but personally significant achievement that lifts the spirit for a moment, filling as with good vibes and a more acute feeling of self-worth.

In another study conducted by Forgas, participants watched either a happy film or a sad film and were then given a demanding cognitive task to complete. The task included a number of questions that had no time limit, so participants could spend as long on them as they wanted. They were then assessed on total time spent on the questions, the number of correct answers and the number of questions attempted. Those participants who watched the happy film (let's call them the 'happy group') spent less time on the questions, attempted fewer questions and received a lower score than the 'sad group'. It seems that people are less motivated to exert effort if they are already experiencing a positive mood, those with a more negative mood, however, have more to gain from persevering in terms of elevating their negative feelings.

So next time you're in a low mood and that annoyingly bubbly person invades your precious space in an attempt to cheer you up, remember that you brain is working more productively than a head full of happy thoughts.