Why "Why" Matters!

The pitfall of avoiding negative outcomes.

Posted Oct 23, 2011

From an evolutionary perspective, there is a distinct advantage to focusing on what can harm us. If an early human saw something that could harm them, like a bear, and decided to focus more on, say, a beautiful stream of water, that early human would be dead.

Indeed, reviews of dozens and dozens of studies show that negative information, or even the potential for something negative, tends to way more heavily on people's decision making than the potential for joy or positive outcomes.

But, this evolved tendency to focus more on avoiding the negative has a downside to it, according to recent research.

Charles Carver (professor of psychology at The University of Miami) and colleagues have conducted research on the impact that approach and avoidance motivations have on mood. Approach motivation is basically doing something because you desire some positive outcome. Avoidance motivation is basically doing something because you want to avoid a negative outcome. Dieting because you want to feel healthier would be an approach motivation, whereas dieting to avoid being criticized by others would be an avoidance motivation. Becoming a writer to share your life experiences would be an approach motivation; becoming a writer because you hate the idea of all other jobs would be an avoidance motivation.

Carver's research indicates that when people have an approach motivation, the emotional outcomes are either joy/elation or sadness/anger. If a person is succeeding in their goal, then they will feel joy/elation, and if they are failing, they will feel sadness or anger. 

Compare this to having an avoidance motivation. Research indicates that this will lead to - in the best case scenario—relief. If a person is not succeeding in an avoidance goal, then they will feel anxiety.

Of course, whether or not you set realistic goals and are able to achieve them plays an important role in mood too. If you are consistently failing at your goals, you will have negative emotions regardless of your motivational approach.

But, approach motivations have a higher upside than avoidance motivations (joy instead of mere relief). They also have about the same downside (sadness/anger instead of anxiety).

It appears then, that doing things for positive outcomes, as opposed to doing things to avoid negative outcomes, leads to greater happiness overall.

If you want to be happier, do not live life to simply avoid negative things!

More Posts