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Your Most Important Emotional Tools

They're not necessarily positive emotions.

Key points

  • Emotions can serve both as reactions to events and as instruments that can be manipulated to solve a problem or change a situation.
  • People tend to use positive emotions as tools more often than negative emotions.
  • Faking positive emotions can take a toll on people, so using that tactic isn't always beneficial.

Have you ever had to put on a false front to others in order to cover up your true feelings? Perhaps you’ve had a terrible day but your job requires that you enact what’s called “emotional labor” in which you pretend to your colleagues, friends, or customers that everything’s fine. Conversely, you may decide that a situation requires you to show not positive, but negative emotions. You may want to let a salesperson know that you’re not a pushover, so you act more grumpily than you otherwise would.

People can put on all types of emotions in order to shape situations in ways that will best serve them. At the same time, people’s emotions can be shaped by the situation. You’ve tried to maintain your equanimity with someone who’s being rude or mean to you, but at some point, you can no longer contain your anger. It’s also possible for a positive emotion to be generated by events. You’ve worked hard on a particular home improvement project, and as you admire your handiwork, you can’t help but feel a certain degree of pride. That positive feeling is amplified when a relative visits and effusively praises your hard work.

Emotions as Tools

These examples show that emotions can serve both as reactions to events and as instruments that you manipulate to solve a problem or change a situation. The idea that emotions are “tools” is the underlying premise in a recently published study by the University of Michigan’s Aaron Weidman and Ethan Kross (2021). In the opening to their paper, they note that, as tools, “emotions… are responses that help people solve context-specific problems in social life.” Furthermore, if emotions are tools, “then they are most usefully deployed (experienced or expressed) in contexts in which their functional purposes match situational demands.” In other words, you use emotions as tools because you think they’ll work. Just like you’d pick up a hammer to nail a picture hook to a wall rather than a screwdriver, you could use anger to help you try to get a better deal out of a negotiation.

The question of whether emotions can be thought of as tools leads to the next theoretical plot twist. Are people more likely to use one set of emotions than others, and which are more effective? The authors reasoned that it might make more sense for people to try to generate pleasant rather than unpleasant emotions just because, for example, it feels better to be happy than to be unhappy. Indeed, research that the team cites on emotion regulation shows that 90% of the studies conducted in this area focus on people’s needs to rid themselves of such negative emotions as frustration, envy, or anger.

The “pervasive preference for positive emotions” suggested by this research would imply that people would try to use them as tools, proactively, because they feel they are “worthwhile to feel.” The initial prediction guiding the first of six studies, in accordance with the presumably greater value of positive emotions, was that people would more frequently choose feeling good from their emotional toolkit than to choose feeling bad.

Whether a tool works or not, though, reflects its ability to solve the problems it was meant to fix, much as the hammer would be the method of choice vs. the screwdriver. The second question that Weidman and Kross therefore tackled was whether people would feel better or worse after generating positive vs. negative emotions.

The predictive value of positive emotion tool use, the University of Michigan psychologists went on to propose, would be whether it felt “authentic” or not for people to try to pull pleasant feelings from that toolkit. Think again about that example of emotional labor. It’s draining to have to put on a smile when you feel like frowning. In the words of the authors, “using a positive emotion as a tool may produce feelings of inauthenticity, in that one may enact or force an emotion experience that is not in line with genuine inner experience.” This “surface acting” can lead to a host of negative outcomes including anxiety, stress, and even a tendency to engage in “undesirable behaviors.” The emotionally drained employee could, according to this logic, act in what are called counterproductive work behaviors such as stealing office supplies or cheating on an expense sheet.

See What’s in Your Emotional Toolkit

The basic framework of the Weidman and Kross research involved comparing positive and negative emotions as both tools and reactions using feelings of authenticity as the key mediating factor. Participants in these studies ranged from college students to online adult samples, and the authors used a mix of methods.

In one of the more intriguing studies within the series, participants completed real-life exercises, known as “experience sampling,” in which they followed a pre-set series of instructions that they were to carry out over a 2-week period. Each participant’s instructions involved either positive or negative emotional content, but all participants received instructions to record situations in which they initiated an emotion to serve a function (“emotion as tool”) and those in which their emotion was a response to an event over which they had no control (“reactive”).

You can see what it was like to be in this part of the study by reading each set of instructions (excerpted):

Emotion as tools:

As you go about your day, think about which emotions would be useful in each situation you encounter. When you identify an emotion that might be useful, we would like you to intentionally feel that emotion.

Emotions as reactions (reactive):

As you go about your day, allow yourself to feel whatever emotions you happen to feel in each situation you encounter. If an emotion comes upon you, you need not make an effort to change or manage it.

Those in the positive emotion condition focused on feelings of pride, gratitude, love, and compassion and those in the negative emotion condition received instructions specific to anger, anxiety, envy, and guilt.

Moving on to the second experimental component, you can now ask yourself the following question tapping into how authentic you felt in each encounter: “To what extent did you feel like you were being your real, genuine self during the situation?”

The final question to pose to yourself is to ask, “How satisfied were you with how the situation played out?”

If you were to track your emotions using this set of evaluative criteria, you could most likely see a pattern emerge indicating whether you felt more or less like your true self in the positive emotion-as-tool or in the negative-as-emotion tool scenarios. How about the reactive emotion experiences. Did you notice a difference? How about the way it all turned out for you?

Turning to the findings, the main summary point across all studies within the Weidman and Kross investigation was that, as the authors predicted, participants found the experience of forcing their positive emotions to be less beneficial than the experience of digging into their negative emotional toolkit. The key factor, again as predicted, was the sense of authenticity. To put it in the words of the authors, “this paradoxical effect may arise in part because using positive emotions as tools fosters distressing feelings of inauthenticity.”

Sadly, however, the authors note that people are more likely to try to dredge up the positive emotions that they don’t necessarily feel because they think they are more effective tools for improving their situation, leading “these emotions to feel sour.” By the same token, because people are reluctant to draw upon their negative emotions as tools, they fail to capitalize on the benefits that these could provide when appropriate for the given context.

What to Do with Your New Emotional Tool Knowledge

Much as you might turn to an instruction book to learn how to use a new tool, these findings provide you with not new, but at least revised, ways to bring the right emotional strategies to situations in your life. Perhaps you found when you were taking stock of those positive emotion-as-tool experiences in your life you realized that you were putting up a screen between your inner feelings and their outward expression. The cost of maintaining that false sense of optimism becomes the opposite of what’s intended and you are more miserable than you were when you started out.

These findings are consistent with the critique of happiness research which contrasts finding a sense of meaning in life with the need to be constantly upbeat. By forcing yourself to try to feel what you’re not, your search becomes ever more frustrating.

Positive mood induction can indeed be beneficial, however, and the findings don’t suggest that you try to make yourself miserable all the time. Instead, thinking back on that hammer-screwdriver analogy, the best use of your emotional tools indeed seems to be quite comparable and that the tool should be suited to fit the situation.

To sum up, being able to take stock of the emotions you use to address your daily experiences can provide you with a starting point so that the tools you use will be the ones to give you the greatest sense of fulfillment.

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References

Weidman, A. C., & Kross, E. (2021). Examining emotional tool use in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(5), 1344–1366. https://doi-org/10.1037/pspp0000292.supp (Supplemental)

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