Savoring and Dampening Positive Feelings

Dampening entails snatching hedonic defeat from the jaws of victory.

Posted May 03, 2011

Why would anyone dampen a positive feeling? I can think of reasons - not wanting to show off to others, not wanting to get one's hopes up that the future will be as wonderful as the present, and so on (cf. Parrott, 1993). But a paper I just read suggests another reason, and this one is supported by a series of research studies and thus deserves to be taken more seriously than my mere speculation (Wood, Heimpel, & Michela, 2003).

It turns out that someone's self-esteem influences tendencies to savor versus dampen a positive feeling.

Using a variety of methods - surveys and experiments - researchers at the University of Waterloo showed that those with higher self-esteem savor positive feelings by using one or more of the strategies for enhancing and sustaining good moods. In contrast, those with lower self-esteem dampen positive feelings by deliberately muting them or distracting themselves from them. These patterns held even when the personality traits of extraversion and neuroticism were measured and statistically controlled. The psychologically rich become richer.

Using other data obtained in their studies, the researchers argued that these effects occurred because people are motivated to sustain a consistent view of themselves. Those with higher self-esteem - people who like and value themselves - see happiness as a state consistent with who they are, and thus they savor their good feelings. Those with lower self-esteem - people who neither like nor value themselves - analogously see unhappiness as a state consistent with who they are, and thus they dampen their good feelings.

If this interpretation is correct, then consistency is a more potent influence on feelings than is hedonism, a conclusion with interesting implications.

I have always thought that some people are unhappy because they do not know how to be otherwise. It is pointless to tell someone to cheer up if he or she does not know how to do so. But perhaps another reason that some people are unhappy is because they are motivated to be unhappy - or at least not happy - in order to preserve the view they hold of themselves.

Positive psychologists have devised a host of strategies to make people happier; most of these instruct people what to do in order to be happier (e.g., Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). The results of the research program I have described suggests that skills are not always enough. People also need to have reasons to be happy, and the task of the applied positive psychologist becomes more daunting.

Have a good day. Or perhaps I should say: See a good day as consistent with who you are.


Bryant, F. B. (2003). Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI): A scale for measuring beliefs about savouring. Journal of Mental Health, 12, 175-196.

Langston, C. A. (1994). Capitalizing on and coping with daily-life events: Expressive responses to positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1112-1125.

Parrott, G. W. (1993). Beyond hedonism: Motives for inhibiting good moods and for maintaining bad moods. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.), Handbook of mental control (pp. 278-305). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

Wood, J. V., Heimpel, S. A., & Michela, J. L. (2003). Savoring versus dampening: Self-esteem differences in regulating positive affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 566-580.