Benefits of ‘Negative’ Mental States

We have a tendency to think of our brain states as being either positive or negative. That is to say: being very happy is good but being angry is bad. Likewise, being inspired is good but being stressed is bad.

But is it really that simple?

Evolutionary psychology would suggest not. According to this school of thought, every aspect of our personality is the result of adaptation and natural selection. We are the way we are, because that has proven to be the most beneficial way to be in terms of our survival.

Or to put it more simply: we wouldn’t have bad moods if bad moods didn’t have some kind of advantage for us.

Is There No Such Thing as a ‘Bad Mood’?

So this then begs the question: is there really no such thing as a bad mood?

You could always argue that society has changed to the point that some moods and mental states are now negative. For instance, stress was once positive when we were in the wild and had to stay alert to escape predators. Today though, stress mainly just means we have high heartrates in the office.

Even then though, this means that under the right circumstances that negative mood could still be used positively.

And this then is really the point: there isn’t such thing as a bad mood, only poor use of moods.

Our moods change and our state of mind changes throughout the day and in response to various factors. This isn’t the problem. The problem is that we try and fight our bad moods instead of harnessing them.

So instead, perhaps we would do better to consider what the positive uses of bad moods might be…


Being angry has obvious survival advantage in the wild. When we’re angry, we become much more likely to stand up for ourselves and to retaliate against contemporaries. In the wrong context, anger can make us reckless and prone to poor decision making. In the right context though, anger essentially ‘trumps’ fear. If you’ve ever felt like you’re being taken advantage or walked all over, then a little anger can go a long way to helping you turn the tables.

What’s more, anger can be great fuel for a workout. If you’re feeling low on inspiration and energy, then getting yourself a little worked up can help you to overcome that and to power through. Just note that ‘catharsis’ doesn’t actually work as far as overcoming bad moods goes: you’re likely to come out of the gym even grumpier than you went in!


The obvious use of tiredness is that it can encourage you to sleep and to sleep soundly – which is pretty much crucial for general health.

But at the same time, being tired also has other advantages. For example, it actually helps to make us more creative! How does this work exactly? Well essentially, when we get tired, it causes our neurons to fire less and reduces our focus. Instead of having intense activity in certain key brain areas, our brain activity ‘relaxes’ and spreads out. This leads to our thoughts becoming less grounded in what’s happening, less logical and ultimately more creative.

You might notice this when you enter the ‘hypnagogic’ state. This is the point just before sleep where our thoughts begin to make less and less sense and we begin slipping into a dream-like state. In other words, we don’t just ‘suddenly’ start dreaming but rather gradually move towards this state as our thoughts become more and more obscure. Somewhere on this spectrum is the kind of useful creativity that leads to lateral solutions to problems and ‘eureka’ moments.

The problem is that we will too often try to force ourselves to be highly productive when we’re really tired. The result is that we end up ‘half’ doing things or procrastinating.

Instead then, why not change tact and use tiredness as a cue to try another type of work? Creative work that involves brain storming and coming up with ideas. You’re also more prone to take risks when you’re tired: which is no bad thing if you’re just spit balling. So change your schedule and move the creative thought processes to the points in your day where you are most tired.

Sleep Inertia

Another type of tiredness is sleep inertia. This is the grogginess we all feel when we’ve just got out of bed and when we haven’t yet made a proper start on the day.

What can you do with sleep inertia? Well one popular suggestion is to use this time doing all the menial and boring tasks that you would otherwise put off. This not only wakes you up but makes use of a mental state that prevents you getting bored and that makes you quite happy to just be ‘quietly getting on’. Some people refer to this as ‘zombie mode’ and say you should use this time to perform ‘zombie tasks’.

What’s a zombie task? A good measure is to say it’s anything that you could do equally well were the TV on!


Stress is so often considered ‘the bad guy’ when it comes to our mental states when actually it has a lot going for it. In particular, stress is a powerful motivator that increases focus and concentration while driving motivation.

So what do you do when you’re stressed? Simple: you work on the thing that is making you stressed. There are few things that will kill procrastination faster than thinking you’re about to get fired! Next time you feel faintly stressed about what you’re doing, harness that and use it to drive you further into your work. Better yet, by the time you’re finished, you’ll have less to be stressed about!

Likewise, jealousy can also be a motivator, as can frustration or disappointment. Like pain receptors, these negative emotions are here to drive you away from things that cause you distress. Tap into that and you’ll have less need of them in future!

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