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Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy

New research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that sharing negative views of a third party brings two people closer together than sharing positive views.

It seems that expressing a mildly negative opinion will make another person feel that he or she knows you—perhaps because positivity is a default in polite society and may or may not be the truth. A little negativity seems like a peek inside your private thoughts. (This has  limits: mild negativity worked, very negative feelings were a turn-off.)

I’m pretty cool with negativity and believe there’s a place in the world for pessimism.

I’ve already aired some thoughts about our culture’s passion for optimism.  And I’m always on the lookout for research that chips away at this.

For example, research finds that pessimism is perfectly functional for some people. For people who lean towards pessimism, pretending to be optimistic (imagining successful outcomes) before starting a task can actually work against them; the same with optimists approaching a task pessimistically (by imagining all the things that can go wrong). Both optimists and pessimists found that fighting their nature interfered with their performance. (This falls under defensive pessimism. Take a quiz here and see if you’re a defensive pessimist.)

For my honors thesis in college, I wrote a paper suggesting that rising depression rates can be attributed to evolution: Pessimists survive because optimists don’t see it coming. Barbara Ehrenreich got a whole book out of the debate, called Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

I’m not quite the curmudgeon that Ehrenreich is, but I do think that negativity is not always odious.

In social situations, gentle negativity seems sincere to me. And it can require courage. “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” we are taught.  So being negative risks, at the very least,  social censure. Of course, nobody needs a stream of unsolicited, unvarnished truths–everything in moderation. But many times, negativity is either effective or, at the very least, an honest expression of a different take on the world. No harm done.

Actually, in a weird way, being negative also implies movement, progress, to me. If everything is good, nothing needs to change, and then where are we? Settling for good enough, lacking goals, gettin’ fat on the couch.

I’m a Yankee living in the South. In informal sociological research (going to parties, hanging around with people) I’ve concluded that negativity is part of my cultural heritage. No surprise that New York magazine was drawn to the research about expressing negative opinions. New Yorkers are kvetchers. In my  first book, The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas, I called it “recreational bitching and moaning.” This is how we blow off steam, and how we bond.

But here in the South, negative blurts draw confused polite smiles, a rebuke, or the kind of face a cat makes when it smells something bad. So I try to tone down my gripiness. But I’m always happy on the rare occasions some researcher is brave enough to say something positive about being negative.

Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Apr 2011
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