“Acceptance of one’s dark emotions is now backed by a body of evidence connecting the habit to better resilience and health.”
Habitually accepting negative emotions was found to not only reduce feelings of ill-being (as previous studies also demonstrate), but also was more likely to lead to elevated levels of well-being.
Acceptance involves not trying to change our feelings, but staying in touch with your feelings and taking them for what they are.
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” directly.
Buddhist leaders often underline that “acceptance” doesn’t mean being resigned to a stressful, negative situation, especially when the situation is within your control. Accepting situations is more complex and context-dependent. We need to accept a death, but we don’t need to endure unfair treatment from a landlord or employer, for instance, and doing so might lead to worse mental health.
That said, acceptance remains mysterious in some ways. Psychologists don’t know which factors influence some people to habitually accept less-than-rosy emotions, despite cultural pressures to stay positive. It’s also unclear whether acceptance might backfire in some individuals, or if people who usually suppress their darker feelings could seamlessly make the transition without the aid of a therapist or zen teacher.
“My hunch is that it’d be a challenge in the West, and in the US especially, where happiness and positivity are seen as virtues. Some companies want their customers and employees to be delighted all the time. That’s unreasonable, and when we’re faced with unreasonable expectations, it’s natural for us to start applying judgment to the negative mental experiences that we have.”
The other problem with only allowing ourselves to think positively, and constantly pursuing happiness, is that it puts people in a striving state of mind that is antithetical to calm contentment.
Like other cognitive habits, however, acceptance is a skill that can be acquired. (One commonly taught tactic is to think of your emotions as passing clouds, visible but not a part of you.) And according to a study Ford co-authored in 2010, older adults use acceptance more than younger adults. Like wisdom, the trait tracks with age, so most of us will get there eventually.
Ford believes her research could help inform future mental health interventions, which currently rely on some approaches that can fail people. “When something happens and you try to reframe it like, ‘Oh it’s not of such a big deal,’ or ‘I’m going to learn and grow from that that,’ it doesn’t necessarily work,” says Ford. People tend to reject that kind of reframing when their issues are severe, too. […]