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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.

Cover of The Language of Emotions book and audio learning programWhen 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 one mistake is a doozy, 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 are unwanted things instead of really important parts of our lives.

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

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.

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 information, then you won’t be surprised that each emotion has a downside.

Let’s look at the negative things that can happen when happiness, contentment, and joy are 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 angers and fears 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 actually reduce people’s overall happiness because it squelches 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 so-called negative emotions, but we aren’t usually taught about this problem in regard to the so-called 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.

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 identify unfairness or 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.

How forced contentment creates a backfire effect

Contentment is a very important emotion that arises to tell you when you’ve done a good job or acted in a way that makes you feel proud of yourself. It’s an important component of healthy self-esteem, and it’s an important part of your ability to manage your behavior. Contentment also works in a partnership with your healthy shame (or, it should). When both of them are are healthy, your shame and your contentment work together to help you manage your behavior and your self-esteem.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that if some contentment is good, then too much is great! But forcing and faking your way to contentment (trying to feel good about yourself at all times, no matter what is going on) actually backfires.

Researchers have found that enforcing contentment with positive affirmations actually has a backfire effect in the people who tend to use affirmations the most.

In a 2009 study in the journal Psychological Science, British psychologists Joanne Wood, John Lee, and Elaine Perunovic discovered that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive affirmations:

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement—but only slightly.

In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts. They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants’ moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The psychologists suggested that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely,” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem. Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts. And, if people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, they may find negative thoughts to be especially discouraging.

As the authors concluded, “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people [such as individuals with high self-esteem] but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”  (“Positive Self-Statements: Power for some, peril for others,” Psychological Science, 2009)

This story includes a wonderful phrase: “unreasonably positive self-statements,” which is so delightful. Positive statements that are not true are unreasonable!

Observe the idea of positive self-statements empathically: If you try to enforce positive affirmations and stay in contentment at all times, and then you experience change, novelty, or hazards, your healthy fear won’t be able to help you orient to any of it.

If someone challenges you or tries to bully you, your healthy anger won’t be able to help you re-set your boundaries and regain your composure.

If someone threatens your relationship, your healthy jealousy won’t be able to help you identify the threat and repair your relationship. Or if you desperately need to let go of something, your healthy sadness won’t be able to help you let go and move on. And so forth.

If all you’re willing to feel is contentment, you’ll lose your way. And that’s not a positive outcome.

Contentment is only positive when it’s the correct emotion for the situation. In certain troubling situations, contentment can actually become a negative emotion, because it’s not appropriate, it’s not doing the right thing, or it’s not working with its best friend shame in the way it should.

The deeply troubling side of contentment

In The Art of Empathy, I talk about a strange situation in which contentment can go off the rails and help people feel proud of a deeply unworthy behavior called bullying (see pages 239-242). See the middle of this post for: When contentment goes rogue: bullying

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

It was once thought that bullies had low self-esteem, but researchers discovered that many bullies actually test high on self-esteem, but also have problems with feeling and working with healthy shame (healthy shame would challenge their mean-spirited behavior and help them become respectful).

Because their shame isn’t working properly, bullies can’t seem to hold themselves to a moral or ethical standard. What’s fascinating is that without the moderating influence of healthy shame, their contentment may start rewarding them for unethical thoughts and deeds (hence the high self esteem)! This wayward form of contentment actually makes people feel proud of their thoroughly shameful behaviors.

As it is with any emotion, too much contentment is definitely not a positive thing! Emotions work best when they’re in balance with each other.

Joy: Delight and danger grow on the same stalk

Joy is a delicious and expansive emotion that is often treated as the queen of the emotions, poor thing. We’re taught to chase down joy and exploit it as a goal, a prize, a sign of enlightenment, or a badge of honor — but we’re rarely taught to treat it as a normal human emotion that contains its own gifts and skills, and that has its own reasons for arising.

Joy is actually very accessible (the Empathic Mindfulness practice of Rejuvenation is based on joy), but you wouldn’t know it from the messages we get about chasing after joy, wrapping it around ourselves like a cloak, and imprisoning it.

Here in the United States, this message about chasing after joy (and happiness and contentment) is actually written down in our Declaration of Independence!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That’s such a funny thing to put in a government document, and the pursuit part is fascinating. It places happiness (and contentment and joy) outside of us — always out of reach, always needing to be chased down and owned rather than felt, respected, and then released.

Happiness, contentment, and joy are natural human emotions that live inside us. When we’re chasing after them, where are we going? What are we running after?

Welcoming the gifts of joy

Joy is a very expansive emotion that brings you a sense of full-bodied and soulful communion with everyone and everything. In Emotion Theater, which is the teaching game I created to help people observe how emotions work together in real time, joy is one of what I call the “Guest China” emotions.

The Guest China are the emotions that we don’t use every day, but keep in a safe and out-of-the-way place until we need them. Joy isn’t an everyday emotion — it’s reserved for special occasions and special places, partly because of the way it interacts with the rest of the emotions.

When joy arises, you can experience a blissful sense of utter oneness with experiences, ideas, places, and all living things. When this joyful state appears, a number of your other emotions will naturally recede.

When you’re in a joyful state, your boundaries will drop so that you can essentially breathe oneness into your soul — which means that your anger will recede and take its friend apathy with it. Also, you won’t have any sense of the “other,” so your hatred will recede along with your anger and apathy.

Most of your fears will recede as well: In joyful bliss, you become very aware of the present moment (your soft fear will remain), but because you are one with everything, you won’t require anything or need to plan for the future — so your jealousy, envy, and anxiety will naturally recede — as will your panic, because you’ll feel no sense of physical danger.

Your sadness will also recede when joy is present, because there’s nothing in joy that needs to be released; also, your depression will recede because you’ll have all the energy you need — and more. And though this quieting of so many of the other emotions is a necessary part of joy, it can be very perilous as well.

In the Joy chapter of The Language of Emotions, I wrote about the problems ungrounded joy (which I call exhilaration and mania) can create. As you look at the number of emotions that essentially go offline when joy is present, it becomes easy to see why joy is a Guest China emotion, why it’s supposed to last for only a short time, and why exhilaration and mania can be so destructive.

People can lose a lot of their emotional intelligence when ungrounded exhilaration and mania are active, and they can get into real trouble. This ungrounded form of joy can lead people into very unhealthy and even life-endangering behaviors, because so many of their emotions aren’t available to help them set boundaries, slow down, access their instincts, and ground themselves.

Joy is a wonderful emotion, but it can definitely be too much! 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.

There is no such thing as a positive emotion or a negative emotion.

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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