Emotion Experience and Well-BeingBy Brett Ford and Iris B. Mauss
University of Toronto, University of California, Berkeley
Emotions don’t just feel good or bad, they also contribute crucially to people’s well-being and health. In general, experiencing positive emotions is good for us, whereas experiencing negative emotions is bad for us. However, recent research on emotions and well-being suggests this simple conclusion is incomplete and sometimes even wrong. Taking a closer look at this research, the present module provides a more complex relationship between emotion and well-being. At least three aspects of the emotional experience appear to affect how a given emotion is linked with well-being: the intensity of the emotion experienced, the fluctuation of the emotion experienced, and the context in which the emotion is experienced. While it is generally good to experience more positive emotion and less negative emotion, this is not always the guide to the good life.
- Describe the general pattern of associations between emotion experience and well-being.
- Identify at least three aspects of emotion experience beyond positivity and negativity of the emotion that affect the link between emotion experience and well-being.
How we feel adds much of the flavor to life’s highest—and lowest—moments. Can you think of an important moment in your life that didn’t involve strong feelings? In fact, it might be hard to recall any times when you had no feeling at all. Given how saturated human life is with feelings, and given how profoundly feelings affect us, it is not surprising that much theorizing and research has been devoted to uncovering how we can optimize our feelings, or, “emotion experiences,” as they are referred to in psychological research.
Feelings contribute to well-being
So, which emotions are the “best” ones to feel? Take a moment to think about how you might answer this question. At first glance, the answer might seem obvious. Of course, we should experience as much positive emotion and as little negative emotion as possible! Why? Because it is pleasant to experience positive emotions and it is unpleasant to experience negative emotions (Russell & Barrett, 1999). The conclusion that positive feelings are good and negative feelings are bad might seem so obvious as not to even warrant the question, much less bona fide psychological research. In fact, the very labels of “positive” and “negative” imply the answer to this question. However, for the purposes of this module, it may be helpful to think of “positive” and “negative” as descriptive terms used to discuss two different types of experiences, rather than a true value judgment. Thus, whether positive or negative emotions are good or bad for us is an empirical question.
As it turns out, this empirical question has been on the minds of theorists and researchers for many years. Such psychologists as Alice Isen, Charles Carver, Michael Scheier, and, more recently, Barbara Fredrickson, Dacher Keltner, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and others began asking whether the effects of feelings could go beyond the obvious momentary pleasure or displeasure. In other words, can emotions do more for us than simply make us feel good or bad? This is not necessarily a new question; variants of it have appeared in the texts of thinkers such as Charles Darwin (1872) and Aristotle (1999). However, modern psychological research has provided empirical evidence that feelings are not just inconsequential byproducts. Rather, each emotion experience, however fleeting, has effects on cognition, behavior, and the people around us. For example, feeling happy is not only pleasant, but is also useful to feel when in social situations because it helps us be friendly and collaborative, thus promoting our positive relationships. Over time, the argument goes, these effects add up to have tangible effects on people’s well-being (good mental and physical health).
A variety of research has been inspired by the notion that our emotions are involved in, and maybe even causally contribute to, our well-being. This research has shown that people who experience more frequent positive emotions and less frequent negative emotions have higher well-being (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998; Lyubomirksy, King, & Diener, 2005), including increased life satisfaction (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991), increased physical health (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004; Veenhoven, 2008), greater resilience to stress (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004), better social connection with others (Fredrickson, 1998), and even longer lives (Veenhoven, 2008). Notably, the effect of positive emotion on longevity is about as powerful as the effect of smoking! Perhaps most importantly, some research directly supports that emotional experiences cause these various outcomes rather than being just a consequence of them (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
At this point, you might be tempted to conclude that you should always strive to experience as much positive emotion and as little negative emotion as possible. However, recent research suggests that this conclusion may be premature. This is because this conclusion neglects three central aspects of the emotion experience. First, it neglects the intensity of the emotion: Positive and negative emotions might not have the same effect on well-being at all intensities. Second, it neglects how emotions fluctuate over time: Stable emotion experiences might have quite different effects from experiences that change a lot. Third, it neglects the context in which the emotion is experienced: The context in which we experience an emotion might profoundly affect whether the emotion is good or bad for us. So, to address the question “Which emotions should we feel?” we must answer, “It depends!” We next consider each of the three aspects of feelings, and how they influence the link between feelings and well-being.
The intensity of the emotion matters
Experiencing more frequent positive emotions is generally beneficial. But does this mean that we should strive to feel as intense positive emotion as possible? Recent research suggests that this unqualified conclusion might be wrong.
In fact, experiencing very high levels of positive emotion may be harmful (Gruber, 2011; Oishi, Diener, & Lucas, 2007). For instance, experiencing very high levels of positive emotion makes individuals more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as binge eating and drug use (Cyders & Smith, 2008; Martin et al., 2002). Furthermore, intense positive emotion is associated with the experience of mania (Gruber et al., 2009; Johnson, 2005). It appears that the experience of positive emotions follows an inverted U-shaped curve in relation to well-being: more positive emotion is linked with increased well-being, but only up to a point, after which even more positive emotion is linked with decreased well-being (Grant & Schwartz, 2011). These empirical findings underscore the sentiment put forth long ago by the philosopher Aristotle: Moderation is key to leading a good life (1999).
Too much positive emotion may pose a problem for well-being. Might too little negative emotion similarly be cause for concern? Although there is limited empirical research on this subject, initial research suggests supports this idea. For example, people who aim not to feel negative emotion are at risk for worse well-being and adaptive functioning, including lower life satisfaction, lower social support, worse college grades, and feelings of worse physical health (Tamir & Ford, 2012a). Similarly, feeling too little embarrassment in response to a social faux pas may damage someone’s social connections if they aren’t motivated by their embarrassment to make amends (Keltner & Buswell, 1997). Low levels of negative emotion also seem to be involved in some forms of psychopathology. For instance, blunted sadness in response to a sad situation is a characteristic of major depressive disorder (Rottenberg, Gross, & Gotlib, 2005) and feeling too little fear is a hallmark of psychopathy (Marsh et al., 2008; Patrick, 1994).
In sum, this first section suggests that the conclusion “Of course we should experience as much positive emotions and as little negative emotions as possible” is sometimes wrong. As it turns out, there can be too much of a good thing and too little of a bad thing.
The fluctuation of the emotion matters
Emotions naturally vary—or fluctuate—over time (Davidson, 1998). We probably all know someone whose emotions seem to fly everywhere—one minute they’re ecstatic, the next they’re upset. We might also know a person who is pretty even-keeled, moderately happy, with only modest fluctuations across time. When looking only at average emotion experience, say across a month, both of these people might appear identical: moderately happy. However, underlying these identical averages are two very different patterns of fluctuation across time. Might these emotion fluctuations across time—beyond average intensity—have implications for well-being?
Overall, the available research suggests that how much emotions fluctuate does indeed matter. In general, greater fluctuations are associated with worse well-being. For example, higher fluctuation of positive emotions—measured either within a single day or across two weeks—was linked with lower well-being and greater depression (Gruber, Kogan, Quoidbach, & Mauss, 2013). Fluctuation in negative emotions, in turn, has been linked with increased depressive symptoms (Peeters, Berkhof, Delespaul, Rottenberg, & Nicolson, 2003), borderline personality disorder (Trull et al., 2008), and neuroticism (Eid & Diener, 1999). These associations tend to hold even when controlling for average levels of positive or negative emotion, which means that beyond the overall intensity of positive or negative emotion, the fluctuation of one’s emotions across time is associated with well-being. While it is not entirely clear why fluctuations are linked to worse well-being, one explanation is that strong fluctuations are indicative of emotional instability (Kuppens, Oravecz, & Tuerlinckx, 2010).
Of course, this should not be taken to mean that we should rigidly feel the exact same way every minute of every day, regardless of context. After all, psychological flexibility—or the ability to adapt to changing situational demands and experience emotions accordingly—has generally demonstrated beneficial links with well-being (Bonanno, Papa, Lalande, Westphal, & Coifman, 2004; Kashdan, & Rottenberg, 2010). The question remains, however: what exact amount of emotional fluctuation constitutes unhealthy instability and what amount of emotional fluctuation constitutes healthy flexibility.
Again, then, we must qualify the conclusion that it is always better to experience more positive emotions and less negative emotions. The degree to which emotions fluctuate across time plays an important role. Overall, relative stability (but not rigidity) in emotion experience appears to be optimal for well-being.
The context of the emotion experience matters
This module has already discussed two features of emotion experiences that affect how they relate to well-being: the intensity of the emotion and the fluctuation of the emotion over time. However, neither of these features takes into account the context in which the emotion is experienced. At least three different contexts may critically affect the links between emotion and well-being: (1) the external environment in which the emotion is being experienced, (2) the other emotional responses (e.g., physiology, facial behavior) that are currently activated, and (3) the other emotions that are currently being experienced.
The external environment
Emotions don’t occur within a vacuum. Instead, they are usually elicited by and experienced within specific situations that come in many shapes and sizes —from birthday parties to funerals, job interviews to mundane movie nights. The situation in which an emotion is experienced has strong implications for whether a given emotion is the “best” emotion to feel. Take happiness, for example. Feeling happiness at a birthday party may be a great idea. However, having the exact same experience of happiness at a funeral would likely not bode well for your well-being.
When considering how the environment influences the link between emotion and well-being, it is important to understand that each emotion has its own function. For example, although fear is a negative emotion, fear helps us notice and avoid threats to our safety (öhman & Mineka, 2001), and may thus the “best” emotion to feel in dangerous situations. Happiness can help people cooperate with others, and may thus be the best emotion to feel when we need to collaborate (e.g., Van Kleef, van Dijk, Steinel, & van Beest, 2008). Anger can energize people to compete or fight with others, and may thus be advantageous to experience it in confrontations (e.g., Tamir & Ford, 2012b; Van Kleef et al., 2008). It might be disadvantageous to experience happiness (a positive emotion) when we need to fight with someone; in this situation, it might be better to experience anger (a negative emotion). This suggests that emotions’ implications for well-being are not determined only by whether they are positive or negative but also by whether they are well-matched to their context.
In support of this general idea, people who experience emotions that fit the context at hand are more likely to recover from depression and trauma (Bonanno et al., 2004; Rottenberg, Kasch, Gross, & Gotlib, 2002). Research has also found that participants who want to feel emotions that match the context at hand (e.g., anger when confronting someone)—even if that emotion was negative—are more likely to experience greater well-being (Tamir & Ford, 2012a). Conversely, people who pursue emotions without regard to context—even if those emotions are positive, like happiness—are more likely to experience lower subjective well-being, more depression, greater loneliness, and even worse grades (Ford & Tamir, 2012; Mauss et al., 2012; Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino; 2011; Tamir & Ford, 2012a).
In sum, this research demonstrates that regardless of whether an emotion is positive or negative, the context in which it is experienced critically influences whether the emotion helps or hinders well-being.
Other emotional responses
The subjective experience of an emotion—what an emotion feels like—is only one aspect of an emotion. Other aspects include behaviors, facial expressions, and physiological activation (Levenson, 1992). For example, if you feel excited about having made a new friend, you might want to be near that person, you might smile, and your heart might be beating faster as you do so. Often, these different responses travel together, meaning that when we feel an emotion we typically have corresponding behaviors and physiological responses (e.g., Ekman, 1972; Levenson, 1992). The degree to which responses travel together has sometimes been referred to as emotion coherence (Mauss, Levenson, McCarter, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2005). However, these different responses do not co-occur in all instances and for all people (Bradley & Lang, 2000; Mauss et al., 2005; for review, see Fridlund, Ekman, & Oster, 1987). For example, some people may choose not to express an emotion they are feeling internally (English & John, 2013), which would result in lower coherence.
Does coherence—above and beyond emotion experience per se—matter for people’s well-being? To examine this question, one study measured participants’ emotion coherence by showing them a funny film clip of stand-up comedy while recording their experience of positive emotion as well as their behavioral displays of positive emotion (Mauss, Shallcross, et al., 2011). As predicted, participants differed quite a bit in their coherence. Some showed almost perfect coherence between their behavior and experience, whereas others’ behavior and experience corresponded not much at all. Interestingly, the more that participants’ behavior and experience cohered in the laboratory session, the lower levels of depressive symptoms and the higher levels of well-being they experienced 6 months later. This effect was found when statistically controlling for overall intensity of positive emotions experienced. In other words, experiencing high levels of positive emotion aided well-being only if it was accompanied by corresponding positive facial expressions.
But why would coherence of different emotional responses predict well-being? One of the key functions of an emotion is social communication (Keltner & Haidt, 1999), and arguably, successful social communication depends on whether an individual’s emotions are being accurately communicated to others. When someone’s emotional behavior doesn’t match their experience it may disrupt communication because it could make the individual appear confusing or inauthentic to others. In support of this theory, the above study found that lower coherence was associated with worse well-being because people with lower coherence felt less socially connected to others (Mauss, Shallcross, et al., 2011). These findings are also consistent with a large body of research examining the extent to which people mask the outward display of an emotional experience, or suppression. This research has demonstrated that people who habitually use suppression not only experience worse well being (Gross & John, 2003), but they also seem to be particularly worse off with regard to their social relationships (Srivastava, Tamir, McGonigal, John, & Gross, 2009).
These findings underscore the importance of examining whether an individual’s experience is traveling together with his or her emotional responses, above and beyond overall levels of subjective experience. Thus, to understand how emotion experiences predict well-being, it is important not only to consider the experience of an emotion, but also the other emotional responses currently activated.
Up until now, we have treated emotional experiences as though people can only experience one emotion at a time. However, it should be kept in mind that positive and negative emotions are not simply the opposite of one another. Instead, they tend to be independent of one another, which means that a person can feel positive and negative emotions at the same time (Larsen, McGraw, Mellers, & Cacioppo, 2004). For example, how does it feel to win a prize when you expected a greater prize? Given “what might have been,” situations like this can elicit both happiness and sadness. Or, take “schadenfreude” (a German term for deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune), or “aviman” (an Indian term for prideful, loving anger), or nostaligia (an English term for affectionate sadness about something from the past): these terms capture the notion that people can feel both positively and negatively within the same emotional experience. And as it turns out, the other emotions that someone feels (e.g., sadness) during the experience of an emotion (e.g., happiness) influence whether that emotion experience has a positive or negative effect on well-being.
Importantly, the extent to which someone experiences different emotions at the same time—or mixed emotions—may be beneficial for their well-being. Early support for this theory was provided by a study of bereaved spouses. In the study, participants were asked to talk about their recently deceased spouse, which undoubtedly elicited strong negative emotions. However, some participants expressed positive emotions in addition to the negative ones, and it was those participants who recovered more quickly from their loss (Bonanno & Keltner, 1997). A recent study provides additional support for the benefits of mixed emotions, finding that adults who experienced more mixed emotions over a span of 10 years were physically healthier than adults whose experience of mixed emotions did not increase over time (Hershfield, Scheibe, Sims & Carstensen, 2013). Indeed, individuals who can experience positive emotions even in the face of negative emotions are more likely to cope successfully with stressful situations (Larsen, Hemenover, Norris, & Cacioppo, 2003).
Why would mixed emotions be beneficial for well-being? Stressful situations often elicit negative emotions, and recall that negative emotions have some benefits, as we outlined above. However, so do positive emotions, and thus having the ability to “take the good with the bad” might be another key component of well-being. Again, experiencing more positive emotion and less negative emotion may not always be optimal. Sometimes, a combination of both may be best.
Are emotions just fleeting experiences with no consequence beyond our momentary comfort or discomfort? A variety of research answers a firm “no”—emotions are integral predictors of our well-being. This module examined how, exactly, emotion experience might be linked to well-being. The obvious answer to this question is: of course, experiencing as much positive emotions and as little negative emotions as possible is good for us. But although this is true in general, recent research suggests that this obvious answer is incomplete and sometimes even wrong. As philosopher Robert Solomon said, “Living well is not just maximizing the good feelings and minimizing the bad. (…) A happy life is not necessarily filled with happy moments” (2007, p. 86).
- Journal: If you are interested in direct access to research on emotion, take a look at the journal Emotion
- Video: Check out videos of expert emotion researchers discussing their work
- Video: See psychologist Daniel Gilbert and other experts discussing current research on emotion in the PBS series This Emotional Life
- Much research confirms the relative benefits of positive emotions and relative costs of negative emotions. Could positive emotions be detrimental, or could negative emotions be beneficial? Why or why not?
- We described some contexts that influence the effects of emotional experiences on well-being. What other contexts might influence the links between emotions and well-being? Age? Gender? Culture? How so?
- How could you design an experiment that tests…(A) When and why it is beneficial to feel a negative emotion such as sadness? (B) How is the coherence of emotion behavior and emotion experience linked to well-being? (C) How likely a person is to feel mixed (as compared to simple) emotions?
- An experiential, physiological, and behavioral response to a personally meaningful stimulus.
- Emotion coherence
- The degree to which emotional responses (subjective experience, behavior, physiology, etc.) converge with one another.
- Emotion fluctuation
- The degree to which emotions vary or change in intensity over time.
- The experience of mental and physical health and the absence of disorder.
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- Brett FordBrett Ford is an assistant professor at University of Toronto. Her research examines how individuals think about and manage their emotions. Her research uses multi-method and interdisciplinary approaches — including experiential, behavioral, and physiological assessments — to examine the structure of emotion beliefs and emotion regulation strategies, the cultural, biological, and psychological factors that shape these beliefs and strategies, and the implications of these beliefs and strategies for health and well-being.
- Iris B. MaussIris Mauss is an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. In her research, she employs multi-method approaches to examine what emotions are, what functions they serve, how people can best regulate them, and how emotions and emotion regulation affect health.