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The Myth of Positive Emotions

The Myth of Positive Emotions is of course related to The Myth of Negative Emotions

In my work with emotions, I don’t treat any emotion as better or worse than any other. Instead, I focus on why each emotion arises, what job it does, and how you can work with each and every emotion you have.

When you can see your emotions as important parts of your intelligence and your social skills, you can learn to treat each emotion as a specific and necessary helper. This is so much healthier than treating some emotions as magical rewards, and other emotions as major problems.

Every emotion has a purpose, and every emotion is important.

You can’t leave any emotions out if you want your life to work

But sadly, leaving some emotions out and focusing too much attention on others is what most of us are taught to do. We’re taught to suppress or run from the so-called negative emotions, and to overdo or chase after the so-called positive ones.

This is a huge mistake, because it teaches us to be comfortable with just a tiny percentage of our emotions, and to react to the rest of them as if they’re unwanted things instead of essential parts of our lives.

When we treat emotions as positive or negative, we can’t work with them properly.

There is no such thing as a positive emotion or a negative emotion. All of your emotions are necessary.

When we think of emotions as positive, we tend to like them and value them. We want to feel them regularly, and we want to learn more about them.

But when we think of emotions as negative, we tend to dislike and devalue them. We don’t want to feel them, we tend to feel ashamed about them, and we try to ignore them as much as we possibly can.

When we think of emotions in these positive and negative ways, we tend to feel comfortable only when positive emotions arise.

This is a big part of why we’re so uncomfortable around most emotions; we’ve been taught to treat most of them as problems instead of as necessary and valuable parts of our lives.

Another problem: There are a lot more of the so-called negative emotions than there are of the so-called positive ones, which means that most of us feel comfortable with only a very small percentage of our emotions.

The emotional math that doesn’t add up

I organize the so-called positive emotions into three main categories: Happiness, Contentment, and Joy. It’s amazing to realize that, of the seventeen emotions that help us think, learn, communicate, and live our lives, only three of them are usually considered positive.

Three out of seventeen emotions is just 17.6 percent. We’re taught to feel comfortable with less than a fifth of our emotions!

It’s no wonder, then, that most of us struggle to work with and understand our emotions.

The downsides of the so-called positive emotions

This positive/negative problem also makes us less intelligent about the three so-called positive emotions, because each of them has a downside. When you can remove the positive and negative ideas and simply look at emotions as powerful in its own way, then you won’t be surprised that each emotion has a downside.

Let’s look at the negative things that can happen, for instance, when happiness is overused and overemphasized.

Happiness is a delightful emotion that brings you hope, amusement, anticipation of good things, and a sense of optimism. When your happiness is allowed to work as a team member with your other emotions, it comes and goes gracefully — and it stays out of the way when it isn’t needed (there are times when happiness isn’t appropriate, and when other emotions, such as sadness, fear, or anger, need to be heard).

But when happiness is treated as the best emotion ever, it can become a very troubling emotion indeed.

Ungrounded optimism [constant happiness] can lead people into uncomfortable situations that their anger and fear would have warned them about, and it can also cause people to hold on to unworkable situations (I know things will work out if I just love everyone more and work harder!) that their sadness and grief — and eventually their depression — would have helped them identify and let go of.

Ungrounded optimism can also reduce people’s overall happiness because it silences the intelligence and gifts inside the rest of their emotions.

Too much of any emotion usually leads to trouble. We all know this about the allegedly negative emotions, but we aren’t usually taught about this problem in regard to the allegedly positive ones.

Positivity backfires when real problems are present

Psychological researcher James K. McNulty reviewed four separate long-ranging studies of newlyweds to identify the actual outcomes of so-called “positive” behaviors (including optimism [happiness], forgiveness, and upbeat speech patterns) on marital satisfaction.

McNulty found that these so-called positive behaviors worked fine for couples who were not facing serious problems, but that they were actually damaging to couples whose problems were more serious.

McNulty was surprised to find that:

… less-positive expectations, less-positive attributions, more-negative behavior, and less forgiveness most effectively maintained satisfaction among spouses facing more-frequent and more-severe problems, partly because those processes helped spouses acknowledge, address, and resolve those problems. Accordingly, distressed and at-risk couples may benefit from interventions that teach them to think and behave in ways that motivate them to resolve their problems, even if those thoughts and behaviors are associated with negative emotions in the moment. (“When Positive Processes Hurt Relationships.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, June 2010, 19:167-171)

McNulty’s research focuses on the seemingly surprising benefits of working with what he calls “negative” emotions, but to my eye, what he’s really discovered is the power of being emotionally honest and respectful of the intelligence inside each emotion.

Merely pasting happiness on top of a true difficulty is actually disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to the true emotions; it’s disrespectful to the happiness that is being falsely used; and it’s disrespectful to the true needs of the people involved.

Happiness cannot handle everything all by itself

Sometimes, sadness needs to arise to help people identify what’s not working (and let it go). Sometimes, anger needs to arise to help people set boundaries. Sometimes, anxiety needs to arise to help people focus on a future they aren’t prepared for.

Every emotion has its place and its specific job to do. If people are only willing to feel happiness, their lives can’t work properly.

The empathic approach to happiness is the same as it is for all of your other emotions: Your happiness needs to know that it’s welcome to bring you its gifts when they’re necessary, and it also needs to know that you’ll make room for your other emotions when their gifts are necessary.

Emotions work best when they’re welcomed as equally important members of a valued and respected team.

All emotions can be too much when they’re out of balance, and all of them can be just right when they’re needed.

If you can stop thinking of emotions as positive or negative, you can almost immediately become more emotionally awake and skilled.

You’ll also be far less likely to react to your emotions as problems or rewards. Instead, you’ll learn how to welcome your emotions as important  and necessary parts of your intelligence, your social skills, and your life skills.

Happiness is a marvelous emotion, but so are all 16 of your other emotions.

All of your emotions are necessary.


25 Responses

  1. Keith
    | Reply

    I read in a book about self compassion that people with high self esteem are actually more likely to become violent than those with low self esteem. Based on research.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yep. If self-esteem is overblown, people tend not to check in on their behavior. Why should they, if they always feel like they’re in the right?

      It’s why healthy shame and healthy contentment are so important to each other; balance is the key. Too much shame (or too little), and you’ve got problems. Too much contentment (or too little), ditto.

  2. Pamina Mullins
    | Reply

    This is a great in-depth analysis of a very important subject Karla! I totally agree that there really aren’t any “good” or “bad” emotions. It’s only the conditioned value judgements we assign them, that make them so.

    Isn’t it amazing how we’ve been conditioned to fear our emotions? But then again, many of us have been conditioned to fear our bodies too! No wonder the world is at war. We can’t even get along harmoniously with our SELVES :-)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Oh, ouch. Good point!

  3. Lindsay
    | Reply

    Yes, yes, and yes! To me, no emotion is completely positive OR negative; any one could be both, depending on the situation and how said emotion is handled. I don’t think any emotion gets a worse rap than anger, but the posts you’ve made about it beautifully show that it does indeed have its rightful place. It keeps boundaries up and protects us from being used and exploited. It also instills self respect. There is a right way and a wrong way to be angry.

    How I wish I knew that when I was younger! But it’s fellow empaths like you who have helped me so much to really get to know myself better and feel more at ease with each and every emotion I experience.

    And have you seen the Pixar film “Inside Out”? This autistic empath fell completely in love with it and cannot recommended it wholeheartedly enough!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Lindsay! Yes, any emotion can be wonderful or horrible, depending on the situation and the way the person uses it.

      And heck yeah, Inside Out was so fun! We saw it as a field trip for work back in August.

      I wrote about it on Facebook, here: Inside Out

      There were some very interesting omissions in that movie!

      • Lindsay
        | Reply

        You brought up some good and interesting points there, especially about Joy being rather… pushy. Interesting fact about that: when developing this film and its characters, the Pixar crew hit some roadblocks when people kept telling them that they really disliked Joy’s character. It’s kind of funny and ironic that in spite of how lauded joy is over every other emotion, most people find overtly happy characters to be VERY annoying.

        I also noticed that when it came to jealousy, Anger seemed to take on that role (when Riley discovers her best friend back home has made a cool new friend). Are anger and jealousy really that intertwined?

        • Karla
          | Reply

          Hi Lindsay,

          It’s true; overly happy characters can be a real drag. ;)

          Amanda saw Disgust taking over for Jealousy and Envy, too. Someone had to! Those are very important emotions.

          I see them as a combination of Anger (for setting boundaries and responding to challenges to self image) and Fear (intuition and instincts). I also call them the Sociological Emotions. I love Jealousy and Envy, though most people can’t use them properly at all. It’s sad.

  4. Margaret Cofer
    | Reply

    I believe I feel empathy after reading William Styron’s short story about his devolving into “madness” requiring hospitalization. The writing style led to emotional contagion, yet, the feeling can’t be empathy if I apply your exquisite definition of empathy. Should I deduce then, I am feeling sympathy and not empathy? Thanks

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Margaret.

      If I understand correctly, you’re empathizing and engaging Perspective Taking. In the Six Aspects model, you would be experiencing Emotion Contagion, Empathic Accuracy, Emotion Regulation (hopefully!), Perspective Taking, and Concern for Others (even if it’s a fictional other). I’m not sure if the final Perceptive Engagement step is there, but maybe the act of reading and taking the perspective of the protagonist is Perceptive Engagement?

      The definitions of sympathy and empathy are very unstable, but for the purposes of this situation, we can say that empathy is feeling alongside the protagonist, while sympathy would be a more removed memory of feeling. Sort of, “Oh, I remember that kind of trouble” rather than “I am experiencing alongside the protagonist.”

      Does that makes sense?

  5. Lloyd Hansen
    | Reply

    I’ve enjoyed and found most useful the wisdom in your books and blogs. I want to comment on your observations about “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Several years ago an author I was reading (I don’t remember now who it was) shared a plane trip on which she was seated next to an historian. Somehow this phrase came up and he told her that in Jefferson’s 18th-century understanding “the pursuit of happiness” would be rendered in our current understanding as “the practice of happiness.” It was understood to be an internal discipline. All the mischief in the phrase is in our modern (mis)understanding. It’s a commentary about us that our modern shallow understanding does not perceive the deep wisdom in the phrase.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Lloyd! I have a friend who’s into history, and she said something similar. I’ll go grab her and see what her input is!

  6. Bobbi
    | Reply

    I’ve read historians with a similar understanding of “the pursuit of happiness”.

    Based on their research, President Jefferson’s use derived from the Greco-Roman tradition in which happiness is “bound up with the CIVIC virtues of courage, moderation, and justice.” These are not so much personal attributes as civic responsibilities.
    – Carol V. Hamilton, History News Network

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Bobbi, and thanks Lloyd!

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the pursuit of happiness in the modern day included civic virtues and justice!

      • Lloyd Hansen
        | Reply

        Thanks for your response and further explication. I love the wisdom in Jefferson’s expression which has been lost to our rugged individualism, our sense of radical separation. For many years I have had the image that our task is to reweave the world back together, and it’s a source of illumination to know that Jefferson included in his eloquent declaration the virtues to bind together the social body. May there be a rebirth of the pursuit of such happiness.

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