Recent work published in the social-science textbook Embitterment: Societal, Psychological, and Clinical Perspectives (Springer, 2010) suggests that feelings of bitterness about our failures may damage our physical health, especially if we hang on to them over time.
Research indicates that negative emotions may disrupt endocrine function and elevate cortisol levels, says Carsten Wrosch, PhD, a Concordia University in Montreal psychology professor. “If such changes become chronic, they may suppress the immune system and increase a person’s vulnerability to disease.”
To avoid these poisonous effects, you basically have two options, says Wrosch. The first is to pursue failed goals more vigorously until reaching a successful outcome: Success will banish those feelings of bitterness, and you will also reap the positive psychological benefit of devoting focused attention to a meaningful goal. Increased effort and attention on meaningful goals have an energizing effect on mood — and an overall positive impact on quality of life.
For failed goals that are no longer attainable, Wrosch says the best path is to disengage from the situation, chalk it up to experience, and move on to new goals. A spouse who blames his or her partner for the dissolution of a marriage may not be able to rebuild the relationship, for example, but it doesn’t mean he or she must hold on to bitterness, says Wrosch. “If it’s not possible to undo the problem, it’s important for people to let go and find something else in their lives that can make them feel purposeful and provide meaning for them,” he says.
Illustration by Michael Austin