At Edge.org, After explaining that “happiness” is a much more nuanced concept that traditionally conceived, June Gruber explains that positive emotion is a often-neglected topic. In fact, she has found is that positive emotions can present danger if not kept “in balance.” Based on psychological experiments, Gruber also concludes that there is a danger to making feeling good one’s goal.
We all think that positive emotion is something that should enhance our ability to creatively think about solving problems, that it just opens our repertoire to pick from different possible ideas or strategies. We find, though, that when people actually go beyond a critical threshold—hit a peak and pass that —they actually have a harder time solving problems effectively; they become more rigid or inflexible in their behavioral repertoires. It seems to be the case that too much positive emotion, thinking especially about these high arousal states of excitement and joy, actually leads us to become less creative.
Then the piece that I love the most is thinking about what are the action tendencies associated with some of our most common positive emotions. If we think of some of them, especially excitement or enthusiasm, they motivate us importantly to seek out rewards in the environment, to try to obtain them, and once we obtain them, to go about savoring them. In many ways I think it narrows our focus on rewards, how can we find them, attain them, and keep them for as long as possible.
What we find is that individuals who experience this sort of heightened magnitude of positive emotion (this is measured in a lot of different ways, using self-report scales, and also with children, parent and teacher-rated observations) out of balance, it causes you to neglect important threats and dangers, and pieces of information in the environment around you. And so as a result we see associations with greater risk taking—engaging in reckless driving, substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices. Some people would argue that this may help explain this one finding: looking at children who were rated in terms of their dispositional cheerfulness, and followed them longitudinally over the lifespan, and what you find is that children who were rated as more highly cheerful actually had a greater mortality risk later in life.
There could be many reasons to account for this, but I think one possibility might be, at least tentatively, that there’s something about heightened positive emotion beyond a critical threshold that we need to be careful of, and think about keeping in balance. In my lab, we try to study this in the clinical context of individuals suffering from emotional disorders. One entry point that we’ve begun to look at is among individuals with mania that show some characteristic signs of heightened positive emotion and this appetitive system that’s kind of go, go, go towards rewards, and finding (not surprisingly) that these are individuals who engage in all kinds of reckless behavior. They wipe out their bank accounts, they destroy some of the most important social bonds in their lives with their partners through lots of sexual promiscuity. They will report when you talk to them, and I interviewed a lot of these people clinically, that they just felt so good—that nothing else could enter their mind, that it was a one mind that was really all about feeling good, and finding ways to keep that going.
I think this first theme, and it’s a new theme, needed a lot more empirical attention on it. What it’s beginning to suggest is something about human nature that suggests that maybe we need to put aside these conventional notions of trying to maximize positive emotions, and that positive emotion may be in line with many psychological states that are subject to this principal of moderation. We really want to be experiencing things in balance— not too little, or not too much—and in many ways it’s also consistent with biological theories, postulating optimal functioning, and moving towards a sense of homeostasis, or equilibrium. . . . . in many cases the more we try not to be unhappy, the more unhappy we seem to be. So it suggests that in many ways this is this paradoxical backfiring, and in many ways that if we want to have affective or psychological goals for ourselves, then we ought not to make that the end focal point in itself, but perhaps to be focusing on other things from which those emotions might emerge.
Follow-up question by Daniel Dennett:
There is this question of whether we’re making a big mistake in trying to cocoon our children in a world of positive emotions, and shield them from ever really experiencing fear, or loneliness, or boredom, and I wonder has there been research on this.
GRUBER: Your intuition is absolutely right, and there’s been some work on this. We’ve been doing some with a colleague of ours, Michael Norton, that many of you know, looking at this concept of emotional diversity. If you think about it just within a broader sense of ecosystems, diversity is really important for health and survival of that particular system. We started taking this looking at the inner psychological system and what is most important for well-being. And when we talk about well-being, we’re talking about not only psychological function, but actually physical health functioning, so we have these large medical reports from people. What we’re finding is that it’s the diversity of emotional experiences that both cross-sectionally and longitudinally are predicting some of our best outcomes.
You want a mixture of things. It’s fine to have some joy, but you also want sadness; you want the experience of guilt; you want the experience of loss. All of these things are really important in building a psychological strength to know how to experience these emotions, to know how to cope with them, and to get information from the world around you, too. In terms of how does this relate to raising children, I think as much as you can expose them to different kinds of emotions, and not let any one kind predominate. I think that’s what’s going to be most critical, the diversity of experiences at the affective level.