The Psychology Behind Positive Emotions


The Psychology Behind Positive Emotions
Associate Professor of Psychology at Auckland University, Dr Niki Harre, discusses the psychology behind emotions and how positive emotions actually work.

Positive emotions work in at least four ways. They open the mind, encourage creativity, make threatening information more palatable, and facilitate cooperation. Hope also has a special role in inspiring us to act collectively.

Positive emotions open the mind

Emotions have three components. First, they are bodily sensations (they aren’t called feelings for nothing), such as hands trembling with nervousness, jaw clenched with anger, and the particular weightlessness that comes from joy. Second, emotions are thoughts – pictures and words that invade our heads in ways that can be highly disruptive, good or bad. Third, they are ‘action tendencies’; that is, ideas about what to do next.

Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina suggests that one of the differences between positive and negative emotions is that positive emotions broaden our sense of what we can do, whereas negative emotions narrow this sense.

According to Fredrickson, a negative emotion is telling us that something is dangerous, and we had better attend to it. So we narrow our focus to the potential threat and work out how to make it go away. If we feel anger, for example, we have the sense that we or someone we care about has been wronged, and we want to attack in order to restore justice.

Anxiety makes us churn the threat over and over in our minds, trying to work out what might happen and what we could do to prevent it. If we are scared we want to retreat. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are a signal that things are going well.

One of the implications of this is that we can afford to look around at what the world has to offer. We might try things we haven’t done before, even take a few risks. Positive emotions are therefore conducive to creativity, expansion, and looking for and seizing opportunities.

In one study, Fredrickson and her colleague Christine Branigan divided 104 university students into groups. Each group watched one of five short films intended to produce particular emotional responses.

The film Penguins shows groups of penguins ‘waddling, swimming, and jumping’, which generates amusement. Nature features ‘fields, streams, and mountains in warm, sunny weather’ and elicits contentment and serenity. Witness shows ‘a group of young men taunting and insulting a group of Amish passers-by in the street’ and elicits anger and disgust. To generate anxiety and fear, one group watched Cliffhanger which shows a ‘prolonged mountain climbing accident’.

The final film, Sticks, is emotionally neutral and features an ‘abstract dynamic display of coloured sticks piling up’.

Having watched their allocated film, the students were asked to concentrate on the emotions aroused by the film and live them as vividly and as deeply as possible. They then had to list everything they could think of to do, given this emotional state. The results showed that participants who had watched Penguins or Nature, the two films that generated positive emotions, had more ideas for actions. The Penguins film, for example, produced fourteen action statements on average, with the Witness film producing just nine statements.

Why did the films produce these differences? Fredrickson and Branigan argue that it is because of the broadening effect of positive emotions and the narrowing effect of negative emotions.

The films that made participants feel happy also made them open-minded. They saw life as full of possibilities, so could think of lots of things to do. The films that produced anger and anxiety, on the other hand, encouraged the participants to narrow in and have a more restricted sense of behavioural options.

Fredrickson also suggests that different positive emotions work in different ways. Joy creates the urge to play and be creative. Interest prompts us to explore, take in new information, and expand our understanding of the world. Love creates a desire to play and explore with people we care about.

A sense of pride spurs people towards new and better achievements; and even contentment, that blissful sense of being satisfied with what we have, encourages an expanded sense of who we are, where we fit in the world, and what we may be able to contribute.

Fredrickson’s conclusion is that positive emotions are valuable and have become part of our nature, because the actions they inspire make us stronger and more knowledgeable, improve the quality of our social relationships, and help us gather resources.

A joyful person will wonder what is over the hill and go and explore; a contented fisherman will be open to teaching others how to mend fishing nets; and the woman who is proud of her garden will plant even more tomatoes the following season.

The finishing touch in favour of positive emotions is that the knowledge, relationships and physical resources accumulated during these good times are there even if we become miserable.

Positive emotions encourage creativity

Other studies have found that people in a positive state are more creative. For example, one study set participants the task of attaching a candle to the wall in such a way that wax would not drop on the floor when it burned.

To do the task, they were given drawing pins and a box of matches. Seventy-five per cent of the people who had been put in a good mood (by watching bloopers from television Westerns) got the solution, which is to pin the matchbox to the wall and stand the candle in it to catch the wax. Only 20 per cent who had watched Area Under a Curve, a maths film, did so. The task requires a bit of imagination and this was provoked more readily by humour than calculus.

It is not just films that do the trick. People given attractively wrapped candy have been found to seek greater variety when choosing from a selection of snacks than people not given candy. Simply being asked to imagine a recent event that provoked a good mood increased the creative performance of people constructing a lunar hotel from card and tape.

The studies described so far used tasks that the participants would not normally encounter in real life, and most used university students as participants. In a somewhat more real-world setting, Carlos Estrada and his colleagues examined the effect of positive emotions on 44 physicians who had been practising for an average of fourteen years.

A positive mood was induced in some by giving them candy, while others weren’t so lucky and got no gift. All 44 were given a written case study describing a patient’s symptoms as follows: ‘. . . a 45-year-old female who presented with a 6-month history of arthralgias, fatigue, dark urine, and “red spots” on both legs’. In addition, they could seek tests and obtain the results (which were pre-prepared and available from the research assistant).

The doctors were asked to think out loud and their thoughts were recorded. They went something like this: ‘. . . um, red spots, I think something like thrombocytopenia . . . immune hemolysis creating dark urine . . . dark urine makes me, um, think of a possible hepatic disease but that doesn’t seem as likely. So the working diagnosis, thrombocytopenia, collagen vascular disease . . .’

The researchers found that being given candy did not affect whether the physicians eventually arrived at the correct diagnosis of chronic active hepatitis, with around 62 per cent doing so overall.

But those who had been given the candy were twice as quick to consider liver disease, and also showed much less ‘anchoring’ than the no-candy group. That is, they were quicker to drop their initial diagnoses when given evidence that these were incorrect.

What this study seems to show (apart from the benefits of giving your doctor sweets if you want a quick result) is that being in a good mood encouraged the doctors to be more open-minded, or, to use Fredrickson’s terminology, to broaden their thinking.

Positive emotions may make threatening information more palatable

Positive emotions also seem to improve people’s ability to handle threatening information. When threatened, we usually feel fear, anxiety, anger, or jealousy – one or more of the negative emotions that narrow our focus.

The sensible strategy when faced with an emotionally arousing threat is to deal with the threat itself. If I am angry because a new motorway is proposed for my suburb, ideally, I should write to members of my community board, organise a petition, or take other direct action.

However, people often, perhaps most often, try to alleviate the emotion aroused by the threat, rather than the threat itself. This is often done by discounting the threat; that is, by telling themselves it is less bad than it appears.

We talk with our friends about the motorway and collectively come to the conclusion that it will be perfect for an electric train line when oil hits $500 a barrel. Reframing the threat in this way serves the purpose of dispelling the bad feelings almost as effectively as doing something about it.

And, being eager to conserve energy (in the psychic sense, not in the light-bulb sense), people very often take that way out. Such a strategy might work in the short term, but if the threat is real, convincing ourselves it isn’t is unlikely to make it go away forever.

People who feel good, however, seem a little more willing to look directly at threats than those who aren’t in a positive mood. One study by Mark Reed and Lisa Aspinwall from the University of Maryland involved young women who were high caffeine users.

Half of the women were asked to recall their acts of kindness towards others. This was designed to put them in a positive frame of mind by drawing attention to how nice a person they were. The other half, the control group, were asked to complete a more general questionnaire about their personal characteristics, designed to leave them feeling neutral.

All the participants were then told that medical evidence suggested a link between caffeine use and a ‘painful but noncancerous breast disease’. (In case the last sentence made you want to pour your coffee down the sink, a study came out in July 2017 suggesting that coffee – the major source of caffeine for many of us – is good for you. The study found that ‘participants in the highest quartile of coffee consumption had statistically significantly lower all-cause mortality’. I found that a great relief, as I suspect will many readers. Go on, take another sip.)

Anyway, having been told this disturbing and personally relevant news, participants were given the opportunity to read three articles: ‘Caffeine consumption can be dangerous to your health’, ‘Drinking caffeinated beverages poses little health threat’ and ‘Physiological effects of caffeine on the human body’. The aim was to see if there were any differences between the two groups in the articles they chose to read. Would a good mood give women the courage to look at the first article listed?

Well, those who had been encouraged to think about themselves positively were twice as quick as those in the control group to look at the first article that implied caffeine was bad for them. Importantly, too, the group that were feeling good about themselves later rated themselves as having more control over reducing their caffeine use than the other group. What these findings suggest is that if people are confronted with a threat, their tendency to examine the threat from all angles, including those that may reveal unwelcome information, is stronger if they are feeling good. It would seem, therefore, that positive emotions are not only useful for creative tasks, but also for tasks that involve re-examining our personal practices. This has very interesting implications for nurturing sustainability, as will be discussed later.

Positive emotions facilitate cooperation

People are also likely to be better negotiators when feeling good. Two studies involved putting some participants in a good mood (through exposing them to funny cartoons or pleasant scents – such as Renuzit ‘Fresh ’N Dry Powder Soft’) and then comparing their negotiating skills with participants who were not induced to feel happy. The studies found that those in a good mood were more efficient and effective, and also favoured less confrontational tactics. Once again, this seems largely due to the broadening effect of positive emotional states. As Carnevale and Isen, the authors of one of these studies, point out, the superior negotiating skills of those in a good mood was primarily about their willingness ‘to integrate, find creative ways of combining issues, and to develop novel solutions’. Hope – the positive emotion up next – has also been found to reduce the desire for retaliation when there is conflict between groups, and thus function as a critical calming agent.

The special role of hope in collective action

Hope is the feeling that all is not well but it is possible for the situation to improve. It is a sense of anticipation, as if there is, or at least there might be, a light at the end of the tunnel. Several researchers in psychology and related fields have discussed the importance of hope in inspiring collective action. After all, if there was no chance that society might shift in a positive direction, then why bother? Recent research has further fine-tuned how hope works and why, sometimes, it doesn’t. Essentially, hope for social improvement seems to come in two forms that lead to very different outcomes. The first form is motivational hope, which increases interest and potentially action that supports progress on the issue in question. The second form is complacent hope. Complacent hope latches on to signs that improvement is on the way or is not even needed, and so leads people to relax and leave the work to others.

A series of studies by a Swedish researcher, Maria Ojala, illustrate this distinction. In a 2012 questionnaire study with Swedish teenagers on climate change, she found that the more motivational hope the young people had, the more they used sustainable transport, recycled, and saved energy at home. In fact, trust that technology, politicians, public awareness, environmental organisations and they themselves were constructively engaged with the climate-change problem (Ojala’s measures of motivational hope) was a greater predictor of their pro-environmental behaviour than the extent to which they held values aligned with respect for the natural world. The relationship between motivational hope and the young people’s pro-environmental behaviour was matched only by the extent to which their parents encouraged these practices. On the other hand, complacent hope, measured by the teenagers’ ratings of the extent to which climate change ‘is [not] as big of a problem [sic] as certain researchers claim’, was related to lower rates of the pro-environmental behaviours measured. A second study with young Swedish adults found that the two types of hope functioned in a similar way in relation to energy saving.

To have the capacity to feel motivational hope, you see, people need to be concerned about the problem in the first place. Hope that simply brushes away a nagging possibility in the person’s mind – that climate change might be a major threat – leads only to further disengagement from the issue. So, what are the limitations of relentless positivity and do negative emotions have a part to play in encouraging engagement in social and environmental issues?

The downside to positive emotions

The evidence presented so far shows that positive emotions make us more creative, better at sifting through complex information, more open to information that is personally threatening but potentially important, and better negotiators. The research on hope, however, suggests that feeling good isn’t always a useful response. Unmitigated positivity, nice as it feels, has limitations.

If you recall, one of the functions of positive emotions is to signal that things are going well. When this is the case, we sense that we can afford to broaden our attention – whatever is happening now is under control, so we can look elsewhere. This is often good for encouraging creative thinking and the exploration of new activities. However, it can also distract us from the task at hand, particularly if the task is boring or unpleasant. There is experimental evidence to support this contention. Studies have found that university students in a positive mood judged both strong and weak arguments about acid rain and increasing university fees as equally valid, unlike students not in a positive mood who judged the strong arguments more favourably. People in good moods have also been found to use social stereotypes more readily when judging if an individual is guilty of a crime. What these studies suggest is that people in a good mood are motivated to move on quickly from tasks that are dull, and so may latch on to poor-quality arguments or stereotypes to get the job done. Intriguingly, however, the last of these studies found that if participants were told they were accountable for their judgement of guilt or innocence, people in a good mood were just as careful in their judgements as were others. This suggests that one downside to being in a good mood – lack of focus in boring situations – can be reversed as long as people are convinced that care is important.

Another downside to positive emotions is that they may not reflect a realistic appraisal of the situation at hand. As we’ve seen, if we are hopeful because we are denying the seriousness of what is happening, that’s putting your head in the sand. Some negativity may be necessary to dig us out.

Extract from Psychology for a Better World by Niki Harre, Auckland University Press, $29.99.


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