In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Are Negative Emotions More Important than Positive Emotions?

The average person considers herself happier than the average person.

"There can be no rainbow without a cloud and a storm." John H. Vincent

In order to explain and understand emotions, we can divide them into two groups: The emotions we term 'positive' and those that we term 'negative'. On this issue, there are two major claims that appear to be contradictory: (a) that negative emotions are more noticeable, and (b) that, because people typically consider themselves to be happy, the average person considers herself to be happier than the average person. How can this apparent paradox explained?

Before examining these claims, let me clarify that in speaking about positive and negative emotions, I refer to their psychological, rather than moral nature.
From a psychological viewpoint, a positive emotion is one that involves a positive evaluation of the object, a positive type of motivation, and an agreeable feeling. From a moral viewpoint, a positive, or rather good, emotion is one that is positively evaluated in the light of moral values. The two perspectives may conflict: for example, pleasure-in-others'-misfortune is a positive emotion from a psychological viewpoint, but negative from a moral one; compassion is a negative emotion from a psychological viewpoint, but positive from a moral one. Love is positive from both perspectives.

(a) Negative emotions are more noticeable. Although for every negative emotion we may find a corresponding positive emotion, negative emotions are more differentiated than positive emotions. Thus, there are considerably more ways to describe negative emotional experiences than there are for positive ones. Interestingly, even though English contains more words with positive than negative connotations, the reverse is true of words describing the emotions. Indeed, we do not have satisfactory terms for all our positive emotions. In fact, people ruminate about events that induce strong negative emotions five times as long as they do about events that induce strong positive ones. Hence, it is no wonder that people tend to recall negative experiences more readily than positive ones. The love-hate pair seems to be an exception: love is more common and noticeable than hate, and there are indeed more types of love than of hate. There is little doubt then that love is both more noticeable and powerful in our everyday life.

A major reason for the more noticeable role of negative emotions is that they possess greater functional value. The risks of responding inappropriately to negative events are greater than the risks of responding inappropriately to positive events, since negative events can kill us while positive events will merely enhance our well-being.

Moreover, a greater variety of response options is needed to cope with potential harm than is needed to "cope" with potential good. In a sense, one does not need to "cope" with good fortune. Moreover, there are more ways in which a situation can be unpleasant than pleasant, and there are more ways to ruin something than to build it. Further, an individual who is governed by the seeking of pleasure more than by the avoidance of pain would not survive. Another relevant consideration in this regard is that negative emotions are often experienced when a goal is blocked; this requires the construction of new plans to attain the blocked goal or the formation of a new goal to compensate for the blocked one. In contrast, positive emotions are usually experienced when a goal is achieved. Accordingly, negative emotions require more cognitive resources to be allocated for dealing with the given situation.

These considerations are compatible with the findings that people who are depressed are more realistic than those who are optimistic, and those who are perceptive are more likely to be pessimistic and depressed because they have a more accurate picture of life and its troubles. Nevertheless, most people appreciate optimism more than pessimism. In Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, the Princess of France says: "A heavy heart bears not a humble tongue." In light of the above claims, we could add to that: "A heavy heart bears not a deceptive eye."

(b) People typically consider themselves to be happy. The majority of people see themselves as above-average as far as most of their qualities are concerned and they rate their happiness as more than one-third above the middle of the scale. This means that our baseline is above average in the positive realm. A major advantage of such a rating is that it has motivational value, which is important in coping with our surroundings and which produces a strong immune response to infections. While sad and pessimistic people can better perceive and understand their environment, happy and optimistic people can better cope with their environment.

The above two claims are not necessarily incompatible] -being happy could allow threatening negative events to be noticed quicker.

In accordance with the above considerations, Nico Frijda has suggested what he calls "The Law of Hedonic Asymmetry," which states that pleasure is always contingent on change and disappears with continuous satisfaction, whereas pain may persist under persisting adverse conditions. Frijda further explains that emotions exist in order to signal situations in the world that require a response. Since in his view positive circumstances do not need a specific response, the emotional signaling system can be switched off.

The more noticeable nature of negative emotions does not imply that their impact on our life is greater. This issue is connected to our general view of human beings, and there are conflicting views on this matter. Thus, Spinoza argues: "A desire that arises from joy is stronger, other things being equal, than one that arises from sadness." Spinoza connects this contention to his assumption that the very essence of a person is a striving to persevere in his being. Similarly, while Adam Ferguson claims that "pain, by its intenseness, its duration, or frequency, is greatly predominant", he thinks that "love and compassion are the most powerful principles in the human breast." Ferguson believes that positive emotions are more compatible with our basic positive disposition toward others. Descartes' view is different: "Sadness is in some way primary and more necessary than joy, and hatred more necessary than love."

While an empirical investigation might determine whether negative emotions are more noticeable, it is more difficult to verify empirically which type of emotion has a greater impact on our life. However, in this issue I tend to agree with Spinoza and Ferguson.

To sum up, negative emotions are more noticeable than positive ones since attending to negative events is more important for our survival than attending to positive events. This does not necessarily imply that negative emotions have a more important role in our lives. The emotions that are more frequent and obvious are not always the more significant. In any case, love, in all its forms, seems to be one of the most significant and powerful emotion in our lives.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, although you are so good at detecting all my negative traits, from time to time please try to put on the rose -colored glasses through which some of my positive traits will be more easily discerned."

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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