Alternative Truths

The unexpected truths about judgment and decision making.

Sometimes Agony and Ecstasy Coexist

Humans are capable of being happy and sad simultaneously.

I ran my first timed race in Central Park last weekend, and I began the race alongside several Ethiopian superstars who finished the race just as I passed the halfway mark. I committed the schoolboy error of going out too hard, my exuberance pushing me to keep the Ethiopians in sight for the first mile. For the remaining four miles, I experienced a powerful mix of ambivalent emotions. On the one hand, I was ecstatic to be surrounded by hundreds of running comrades, and on the other hand my body was punishing me for pushing too hard early in the race.

Emotions arise from deep within our reptilian brains, and we sometimes mistake their primitiveness for simplicity. When someone says they're feeling a certain way, we have a pretty good idea of what that means; we have an intuitive sense of what it means to be happy and sad, hateful and enamored, proud and embarrassed--but what dawned on me during my blissfully painful run was how often we experience two seemingly contradictory emotions simultaneously.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Ambivalent emotional experiences (literally, experiences that prompt emotions of opposing valences) aren't unusual. Staying with sport for the moment, the Australian football team recently bowed out of the World Cup despite ending their campaign with an inspiring win over Serbia. I shared a strange mix of emotions with the other Australians who watched the game at a small bar in New York City, and it wasn't clear whether we were supposed to celebrate our short-term win or lament our longer-term departure from the tournament. Many films similarly inspire happiness and sadness simultaneously. Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful is one such film, as Benigni's character tries to shield his son from the horrors of the Nazi death camps by turning life into a game. The audience laughs at Benigni's clownish antics one minute, and remembers the terrible gravity of the backdrop the next minute. (The critics felt similarly ambivalent: the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert lauded the film for finding "the right notes to negotiate its delicate subject matter," whereas Salon.com's Charles Taylor complained about "the sheer callous inappropriateness of comedy existing within the physical reality of the camps.")

 

Much of the work on ambivalent emotions comes from the lab of Jeff Larsen, a social psychologist at Texas Tech University. Larsen and his colleagues began by questioning whether people could feel happiness and sadness at the same time. Folk wisdom suggests that the two emotional states fall at opposite ends of a single continuum, so you're either happy (and therefore not sad) or you're sad (and therefore not happy). But, as the examples above show, sometimes we do experience happiness and sadness at the same time. The uplifting agony of running, the bittersweet experience of victory couched in the broader context of defeat, and the disconcerting sense that you're enjoying a tragic film all provide anecdotal evidence that happiness and sadness sometimes coexist. Larsen and his colleagues showed similar effects in other contexts: leaving college and moving out of a memory-filled freshman dorm room evoke happiness and sadness, as does winning $5 when you realize that you were a hair's breadth from winning $12.

Although humans experience emotional states from the moment they're born, children younger than 11 or 12 years of age struggle to understand that people can experience happiness and sadness simultaneously. In one study, Larsen and his colleagues asked a group of children to watch a scene from Disney's The Little Mermaid. Ariel, the mermaid who occupies the title role, decides to marry a human, and her father, Triton, is forced to accept that he will never see his daughter again. The scene is bittersweet, but children aged 5-6 and even 7-8 tend to spontaneously describe Triton's emotions in univalent terms, ignoring the possibility that he might experience both happiness and sadness. Older children, aged 11-12 years, are significantly more likely to suggest that Triton is experiencing positive and negative emotions at the same time.

Emotional experiences are sometimes tied to particular people, places, or events, and ambivalent emotions become ambivalent attitudes when they're directed at a specific target. Just as certain experiences inspire both happiness and sadness, certain people, places, and events, inspire positive and negative evaluations simultaneously. Children love ice cream unreservedly, but adult dieters take their ice cream with a sprinkle of self-loathing. Ambivalent attitudes become especially dangerous when they're directed towards other people. Research by Susan Fiske, Peter Glick, Amy Cuddy, and their colleagues, suggests that many men hold ambivalent attitudes towards women, appreciating their feminine qualities while railing against their "masculine" attempts to enter male-dominated professions. The same is true of whites' attitudes towards other groups: on the one hand, minorities deserve credit for swimming against the current of denied opportunities, but on the other hand "they might do better if only they worked harder." (I discussed the perils of impartiality in my last post; ambivalent attitudes are particularly insidious, because they allow people to latch onto the negative components of the attitude, while selectively ignoring the attitude's positive components. Thus, a male employer might choose not to hire otherwise suitable female employees because they come across as "too domineering.")

The upshot of this illuminating line of research is that people experience the absence of emotion differently from the simultaneous presence of strong positive and negative emotions. If you simply summed ecstasy and pain, you might arrive at neutrality, but as any runner can tell you as he or she crosses the finish line, the painfully gritty joy of finishing a race couldn't be farther from emotionless.

References: A summary of Jeff Larsen's work: http://webpages.acs.ttu.edu/jelarsen/research.htm.

Adam Alter is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University Stern School of Business.

more...

Subscribe to Alternative Truths

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.