Think of what happens when you experience an intense negative emotion like anger or resentment: You may feel pressure in your head and tension throughout your body. Sometimes, this energy explodes outward, and you yell, bang things or stomp around. Or maybe you’re an internalizer and keep negative energy inside: You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t think straight.

Why do negative emotions generate so much more energy than positive ones? When the milk spills, we may get aggravated and annoyed; on the flip side, we don’t feel joy and exhilaration when the milk lands in the glass. We remember stopping at red lights but not sailing through the green signals. We expect things to go right for us most of the time, so we don’t notice or pay attention to the good that happens. Our negative emotions are activated only when things don’t go the way we think they should.

Very often, our happiest emotions are triggered by relief: finding an important object that was lost or finding out that we don’t have a terrible disease after all. The elation of an averted tragedy is greater than the humdrum contentment of daily life. Imagine if we could feel joy with the same intensity as we feel anger and annoyance. We wouldn’t need to win a million dollars to feel a surge of glee.

The Divine Plan: Light Out of Darkness

Why did G‑d create the world this way, that we experience negative events more intensely than positive ones?

The descent of the soul into this world is a yerida l’tzorech aliyaha descent for the sake of an ascent. Initially, the soul was in the highest possible spiritual world, in communion with the Divine. But G‑d sends the soul down below into a world of darkness and pain in order for us to transform it. If we would just go back to the place we were before, there would be no purpose to this journey. There has to be some payoff.

When we take the anger and hurt of the past and do something beautiful with it, we have created light out of the darkness. The greater the negative feeling and pain, the greater the intensity of good that can come out of it. This has been our goal and purpose throughout generations of exile. Take every bit of oppression and suffering and elevate it; make it holy. Refuse to be beaten down by exile; on the contrary, come out the victor.

  • Whenever I’m feeling frustrated or irritated, I attack the dishes. The warm running water soothes me, and the rubbing and scrubbing is a good outlet for nervous energy. As an added bonus, I end up with a clean sink and clean dishes.
  • I work in a toxic environment with a lot of gossiping, backbiting and overall hostility. I brought a charity box and coins to my office. Whenever a co-worker makes a snippy remark, instead of stewing or retaliating, I drop a coin into the box. Slowly, I can feel the negativity being pushed away, and a greater calm and amiability take its place.
  • My 6-year-old thrives on drama. She will do anything to get a rise out of me—kick, pinch, throw something, use bad language. I used to take the bait every time and react with anger. After taking a parent training course, I learned instead to save the most intense response for the good things she does. I cheer like mad for her if she puts away her clothes, clears her dish from the table or plays nicely with her sister. She quickly learned that doing good is a lot more fun and stimulating than being bad.

Restoring the ‘Hey’

We are now in the 10 days of teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Teshuvah is commonly translated as “repentance,” but is more accurately defined as return or restoration. Our purpose on earth is to restore the hey of the Divine name back to its rightful place.

The four-letter Divine name consists of a yud, hey, vav and hey. The letter yud is a point, representing the essence of the Divine. When G‑d created the world, He expanded that essence in all directions, symbolized by the hey. The letter vav represents the downward extension of Divine energy into the lower worlds, and the second hey symbolizes its further expansion in the physical universe.

Whenever we do something wrong, we take the Divine energy of the hey and use it for negativity, thus trapping the Shechinah (Divine presence) within the force of evil. When we do teshuvah, we release the Shechinah from its exile and restore it to its original source.

But the purpose of the soul coming down into the world is not just to restore the world to the same state in which we found it. We are meant to gain something from it. This is accomplished through a higher form of teshuvah, which actually transforms our misdeeds into merits.

How Our Misdeeds Become Merits

Whenever we do wrong, we create distance between ourselves and G‑d. When our soul becomes sensitive to this, it evokes in us a profound and intense yearning to be closer to G‑d. What was the impetus for this yearning? Our sin. Through that sin, we created a negative energy, which then propelled us forward to reconnect to G‑d with greater devotion.

This is the greatest expression of turning something negative, our sins, into mitzvot.

When I lost my job due to a poor performance evaluation, I was devastated. I wanted to curl up into a ball, and wallow in resentment and misery. But I decided to adopt a growth mindset. I enrolled in a course to improve my skills and worked through my emotions with a therapist. I soon landed a new job that was a better fit in every way—better hours, better working conditions and better pay.

Channeling Negative Energy

Negative energy is powerful and can be channeled into useful work. Here are some ways you can transform negative energy into something positive:

  1. Spend more time noticing the things that are going right. Before getting annoyed with a friend for not calling you back, think of all the times she did call and was there for you. Instead of raging over a fender-bender, think of all the car trips that concluded safely and uneventfully.
  2. When negative emotions build up inside and demand an outlet, discharge that energy by using it to do something positive. Say a prayer. Give a coin to charity. Cook a nourishing meal for a friend who’s ill. Using negative energy for positive gain is a great way of seizing control and transforming our most painful emotions.
  3. Some people are driven to achieve great things to prove wrong those who had no faith in them, who told them they would not succeed. “I’ll show them!” is an example of taking negativity and transforming it for good.
  4. The Hebrew word for acceptance is hishtalmut, “to be at peace.” We can truly be at peace with negative events we experienced when we realize that there was a Divine purpose behind them. Think of some challenges you experienced in your life. Reflect on ways that the challenge helped you grow and become the person you are today.
  5. This Yom Kippur, take advantage of a once-yearly opportunity for growth, restoration and renewal. Complete the fast and try to spend at least part of the day at the synagogue in prayer and meditation. Choose one small mitzvah that you can commit to for the coming year. G‑d is right there waiting for you.