The Second Myth About Positive Emotions
Whether something is healthy or unhealthy depends on the situation.
Posted Mar 10, 2015
This post is the second in a series on myths about the experience and regulation of emotions. Information on the first myth can be found here. By unraveling these myths, we can make greater inroads into reducing suffering and enhancing well-being.
Myth #2: Emotion Regulation Strategies can be Categorized as Healthy or Unhealthy
In the initial wave of research on emotion regulation, researchers focused on a limited number of strategies according to the stage when emotions appeared. Think of a person that is tethered to avoiding anxiety. This information might serve as a useful starting point but we need to know when, how, and why someone is trying to control their anxiety. As shown in the Figure above, the stages when emotion regulation can occur include the selection of situations (e.g., choosing whether to rent a movie on a Friday night or go to the theatre), the modification of situations (e.g., sitting further away from groups of teens in the theatre), how we direct attention (e.g., looking around for an attractive, single person who might be approachable), how we derive meaning about a situation (e.g., thinking that being alone is ideal because nobody will interrupt the excitement), and how we alter the expression/visibility of our emotions (e.g., trying to walk with confidence through the crowd of happy, talkative moviegoers). Know that emotions can be modified at any stage and by no means it is necessary to walk through them. What is most important is to know the 'what' and the 'why' behind the desire to feel emotions other than what arises naturally.
These advancements in the understanding of emotion regulation led to a list of strategies that have generally been conceptualized as healthy or unhealthy. For instance, experimental, longitudinal, and experience-sampling studies have led to the conclusion that cognitive reappraisal is superior to attempts to suppress the experience and expression of emotions. In terms of positive emotion regulation, attempts to reframe thoughts about an emotionally-provocative situation via cognitive reappraisal predict an increase in positive emotions whereas attempts to inhibit emotion-expressive reactions via suppression predict a decrease in positive emotions .
In the next wave of emotion regulation research, researchers adopted a contextual lens with the assumption that the usefulness of emotion regulation strategies cannot be divorced from the situational demands being confronted, or the personality and superordinate goals of a person. We cannot assume a person wants to feel tranquil each and every moment of their lives—greater specificity is needed. Do they want to feel more tranquil when cheering for their kids at a soccer game? Do they want to feel more tranquil after getting feedback that they respond defensively when getting feedback? What is the primary reason that they want to feel tranquil? How will it serve them to be tranquil? Answers to these and related questions offer access to the end game—to be happier or perhaps tranquility is viewed as strategically useful for making a greater contribution to the world with one's strengths. Know the demands, know the personality, know the superordinate goals and it becomes easier to understand a person's quest to feel something other than what occurs naturally.
Consider savoring, which is a strategy to increase the intensity or duration of positive emotions by intentionally appreciating the positive aspects of life. Examples of savoring include reminiscing about the past by telling stories, being attentive to sensory experiences in the present moment, or asking for details from other people about an upcoming trip to Madrid to heighten the anticipatory excitement. Evidence from a daily diary study suggests that positive events lead to happy moods as a function of the strategic use of savoring. Other work suggests that using a greater diversity of savoring strategies (sorting through photos, playing music tied to past events, etc) is linked to greater life satisfaction. Unfortunately, a person suffering from bipolar disorder—defined by persistent positive emotions even in situations that are objectively neutral or negative—might suffer from greater manic symptoms when they use these same strategies. Compared to healthy adults, people diagnosed with bipolar disorder are more likely to perseverate on how happy they feel, how proud they are, and engage in behaviors to prolong positive emotions at the expense of attending to problems linked to their own impulsivity and neglect. Thus, whether savoring is healthy or unhealthy depends on the characteristics of the individual, including their current emotional and non-emotional goals. Here is another study suggesting that for certain people (in this case, being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder), creating an abundance of emotion regulation goals (whether to increase positivity or decrease negativity) is tied to a reduction in well-being. The simplest explanation for these findings comes from Dr. Steven Hayes who suggests "get out of your mind and into your life". The more energy spent perseverating on what you are feeling, the less effort is being devoted to interesting and meaningful life pursuits.
When deciding whether to use emotion regulation strategies and which one, there are cost-benefit tradeoffs to consider. In less emotionally intense situations (e.g., being snubbed by an author sitting at the bar who you asked to share a pint), early cognitive reappraisal is attractive because emotions can be down-regulated while the emotions that arise are still being processed and stored. Essentially, you change the meaning of a situation (e.g., you're friendly, they're a #@%!), and everything will be remembered in a way that is functional for you. Yet, there is still a cost—the choice between multiple and often conflicting interpretations of a situation is cumbersome, requiring a costly use of finite energy and attention. In more emotionally intense situations (e.g., receiving a rejection of your book proposal on the third and final resubmission), early distraction is attractive because emotions can be down-regulated before they gain traction and become overwhelming. The act of distraction can be as simple as turning the volume up on the radio to re-direct attention away from increasing bodily tension. Yet, the cost is the inability to process, remember, and harness emotional information. This is problematic because without learning from these emotionally intense situations, one’s ability to improve performance, expand knowledge, and persevere at long-term goals becomes compromised.
Distraction is just one variant of experiential avoidance and there is substantial research on the cognitive, physiological, and interpersonal problems linked to this family of emotion regulation strategies. Nearly every emotion regulation strategy that is seemingly healthy at the surface level can be misused in an attempt to avoid contact with unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories (i.e., experiential avoidance). Mindfulness can be used as a tool to inhibit or rid stress (which is explicit in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs). Physical exercise, intimate sex, and playing music can each be used in an attempt to feel joy or avoid pain. For these reasons, knowledge about an emotion regulatory strategy used must be coupled with the motive behind the movement.
It is intuitive why people regulate negative emotions, as most people prefer less pain in their lives. Yet, this is an oversimplified, incomplete idea. Recent research suggests that human beings often attempt to increase the presence of specific negative emotions because of their functional value. For instance, the effective expression of sadness can increase your ability to solicit help and support. In contrast to negative emotion regulation, positive emotion regulation might seem unnecessary beyond selecting rewarding events and being fully present in them. Once again, this is an incomplete idea. Sometimes people want to intentionally prolong or intensity their positive emotions and other times people want to dampen these experiences. To understand positive emotion regulation, researchers and practitioners must consider a person’s unique motivation for specific behaviors within each situation rather than adopting sweeping (and ultimately inaccurate) generalizations.
I offer a simple thesis - systematic and concerted attention to context will ensure that the wisdom of emotion regulation is more accessible, generalizable, and useful.
Kashdan, T.B., Young, K.C., & Machell, K.A. (in press). Positive emotion regulation: Addressing two myths. Current Opinion in Psychology
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com