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Do You Know These Nine Varieties of Positive Emotion?

Neuroscientific and evolutionary evidence suggests there’s not just one.

Source: Liderina/Shutterstock

Psychologists used to think of “positive emotion” in a very simple way: Happiness sits at the opposite end of a continuum from unhappiness. Being on the happy side is associated with a set of (sometimes unhappy) consequences, such as thinking in oversimplified and stereotypic ways.

Michelle "Lani" Shiota and her colleagues disagree. They recently reviewed an impressive array of findings — including studies of human behavior, cognition, bodily physiology, and brain chemistry in animals ranging from lobsters to rhesus monkeys and their human cousins. Their review, published in the American Psychologist, suggests that positive emotion is not one thing at all, but at least nine different experiences that may have very different consequences for behavior and thought.

The problem with "positive emotion"

In the classic view, if you are experiencing “positive emotion,” you will not want to think too hard. Whatever you’re doing must be working, so why overthink things? But along with Vlad Griskevicius and Samantha Neufeld, Shiota conducted a study in which the team presented college students with weak or strong arguments advocating a controversial proposal — that students should be required to take a series of comprehensive examinations before graduating from college (not an idea that the subjects were likely to be enthusiastic about. If people in a positive mood don't think very hard, they should disregard the quality of the arguments and instead just focus on how many arguments they heard (so that nine bad arguments are just as persuasive as nine good arguments). That is indeed what happened when people were feeling amused, enthusiastic, or content. But the opposite happened when people were feeling awe or nurturant love: Those participants were much more persuaded by high-quality arguments (as you might expect from people in a bad mood).

Functionally, the results make sense. When you are experiencing awe, your mind is open to new information and ready to process it carefully. When you are experiencing nurturant love, you may, for example, be taking care of young, helpless children and so you want to be careful. If you are feeling amused, on the other hand, things are going well, and you're having fun, so why ask why?

Shiota and colleagues' proposed "family tree" of positive emotions. Used with author's permission
Source: Shiota and colleagues' proposed "family tree" of positive emotions. Used with author's permission

A new tree of positive emotions

Shiota and her colleagues argue that all positive emotions stem from a common ancestor — a general “reward system” that helped our ancestors (going back before the dinosaurs) pursue desirable foods. When something generally pleasant is on the horizon, a burst of dopamine in the brain’s mesolimbic circuit produces a general emotional state of enthusiastic anticipation, or wanting. When you feel that general positivity, your attention is focused, and you are more likely to remember anyone or anything in the center of your attentional field.

The Branches

Shiota and her colleagues review evidence for several distinct positive emotions, linked to activity in additional neurotransmitters beyond dopamine:

Pride. People feel pride when they accomplish something important and socially valued, something that merits a boost in social status. Shiota and colleagues reviewed evidence linking pride to serotonin activity, as well as dopamine. A study by Wai and Bond (2002) found that experimentally boosting serotonin levels led to more assertive and confident behavior. Jessica Tracy and her colleagues have suggested that there is a broad tendency across species for serotonin to be linked to dominance and displays of pride.

Sexual desire. This emotion, obviously necessary for reproductive success, is associated with a very different pattern of physiological activity than pride. Research across species demonstrates that testosterone is a key hormone involved in promoting sexual arousal, for females as well as males. It doesn't require testes to produce testosterone; females produce it in their adrenal glands (Dabbs & Dabbs, 2000).

Sensory pleasure, attachment love, and gratitude. Pride and sexual desire are appetitive emotions, prompting us to go get whatever we want, but some positive emotions are more linked to enjoying the moment. When we are consuming something purely pleasurable, like a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Double Chocolate Fudge, the same opioid receptors become active that are activated by drugs such as heroin, codeine, and morphine. Shiota and her colleagues review evidence that opioid neurotransmitters also help alleviate the distress of being rejected by or separated from our loved ones. This system may be active when we are feeling gratitude as well.

Amusement and play. According to Shiota and her colleagues, we experience amusement when we play. Play is fun, but it also serves the important purpose of practicing some new skill, like throwing a spear or swinging a golf club, in a situation in which the consequences are not too serious. (It’s not as much fun if you're fending off an attacking leopard, or making a clumsy chip shot with Phil Mickelson watching.) Shiota suggests that amusement may involve broad activity in the basal ganglia, a group of structures sitting under your cerebral cortex behind your forehead and between your temples, which are full of cannabinoid receptors.

Contentment and nurturant love. When you’ve just eaten a delicious plate of tagliatelle smothered in ragù Bolognese, and you’re feeling pleasantly full, oxytocin helps produce a sense of pleasant fulfillment — what Shiota and colleagues call contentment. Oxytocin has been much-lauded lately as the “love hormone," and while this is something of an exaggeration, oxytocin activity can be triggered by cuddling a baby or seeing your lover’s smile. Contentment is associated with the sympathetic fight-or-flight system being turned down, with the more zen parasympathetic system taking over.

What don’t we know about positive emotions?

Shiota and her colleagues are admirably careful in developing their case. In fact, they include a table laying out where there is good evidence for their model, and where their speculations have yet to be tested. But while all the evidence is not yet in, some parts of the case are pretty clear: Positive emotion isn’t just one thing. What’s going on in our brains and bodies when we feel proud, amused, content, nurturant, satisfied, sexually aroused, or simply fond of our love objects are different experiences, with different implications for what we’ll do next.

Lani Shiota, author of "Beyond Happiness," used with permission
Source: Lani Shiota, author of "Beyond Happiness," used with permission

Shiota and her colleagues end with another set of questions yet to be answered, regarding the practical consequences of making these distinctions. Here’s one interesting question: Psychotherapists have traditionally focused on reducing different types of negative emotions, but might there be some useful treatments that focus instead on increasing different types of positive emotions — specifically, tailoring a particular positive emotion to a particular psychological problem?

In a follow-up post, I make some suggestions about how to set up a personal tour of each of the 9 distinct positive emotions.

Related posts:


Dabbs, J. M., & Dabbs, M. G. (2000). Heroes, rogues and lovers: Testosterone and behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Griskevicius, V., Shiota, M. N., & Neufeld, S. L. (2010). Influence of different positive emotions on persuasion processing: a functional evolutionary approach. Emotion, 10(2), 190-206.

Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., Oveis, C., Hertenstein, M., Simon-Thomas, E., & Keltner, D. (2017). Beyond happiness: Toward a science of discrete positive emotions. American Psychologist. 72, No. 7, 617–643.

Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2007). Emerging insights into the nature and function of pride. Current directions in psychological science, 16(3), 147-150.

Wai, S. T., & Bond, A. J. (2002). Serotonergic intervention affects both social dominance and affiliative behaviour. Psychopharmacology, 161(3), 324-330.

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