Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his book Nicomachean Ethics [1], claimed that happiness is the ultimate goal of human existence. Today, about 2300 years after this claim, academic research has taken on a serious study of happiness and the role of positive emotions [2].

While negative emotions such as pain, sadness, and anxiety alert us that something wrong is occurring in our environment, positive emotions let us know that we are on the right path [3]. These feelings are, in a way, guides to action. These feelings are also connected to our circadian and energy levels. This is useful, as we need to be awake and aware when facing a stressful situation and can be more absent-minded during uneventful stretches of time.

Positive emotion is helpful [3]. It gives us the time to unwind, to be playful and curious, to form stronger and closer relationships, as well as prepare for possible negative future events.

Negative emotion is helpful [3]. For a short period of time, we are able to concentrate intently and pay attention to one thing very closely. We are ready to act when needed and grow as a consequence of challenges.

Both positive and negative emotions can hurt us [3]. High negative emotions for a long period of time, such as a few months, with very little positive emotion, can lead us into depression, into physical illness, it causes us to age faster and our initial focused attention leads to complete inability to concentrate.

What is under-discussed is the danger of high positive emotions. These emotions for a long period of time can also have negative consequences. This is best exemplified in a condition known as mania and its lesser form, hypomania. This condition is part of bipolar disorder and is described as a disturbance in positive emotion [4]. The individual feels on top of the world, creative, with little need for sleep to maintain this state. Over a period of a few weeks, though, this initial effervescence decays into impulsivity, such as excessive spending and taking high risks, relationship difficulties, and inability to focus.

Overconfidence is also an unfortunate consequence of high positive emotions. In 1993, researchers Baumeister (Case Western Reserve University), Heatherton (Harvard University) and Tice (Case Western Reserve University), used an experimental procedure to show that very high self-esteem may lead one to make predictions and commitments that cannot be met, thus leading to failure [5]. The authors report that high self-esteem, thinking and feeling positively about oneself, is generally good is pleasant and it will lead, generally, to better performance. On the flip side, this high positivity can also lead to making false promises, especially when the self-esteem is unstable. This instability of positive emotion may be key in determining whether positive emotion will lead to bad decisions. It certainly was in this experiment and it is also a critical difference between individuals who experience mania and those experiencing genuine happiness. Indeed, individuals with mania or hypomania are higher in the volatility of their positive emotions, as shown in an experiment by Kirkland, Gruber and Cunningham, in 2014, where they compared happiness with mania [6].

In the philosophical literature across centuries, there are two main views of happiness: the hedonistic and immediate pleasure that comes from engaging in pleasurable activities; and the sense of well-being that is achieved through a balanced and full life [7]. This latter view, which refers more to overall life satisfaction, is what Aristotle was advocating. Research indicates that positive emotion is, indeed, better than negative emotion and is related to such things as better health and higher productivity [8; 9; 10; 11]. However, a full life seems to be constructed based on both positive and negative emotion. You need to take the good and the bad.

 

By: Ioana Arbone

Edited by: Veerpal Bambrah

Image by: Getty Images


References:

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (2004), ed. Hugh Treddenick. London: Penguin. The main source for Aristotle’s ethics.

[2] Frawley, A. (2015). Happiness Research: A Review of Critiques. Sociology Compass, 9(1), 62-77.

[3] Gruber, J. (2011). Can Feeling Too Good Be Bad?: Positive Emotion Persistence (PEP) in Bipolar Disorder. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(4), 217-221.

[4] Johnson SL (2005) Mania and dysregulation in goal pursuit: A review. Clinical Psychology Review 25:241–262. PMID: 15642648

[5] Baumeister, R. F., Heatherton, T. F., & Tice, D. M. (1993). When Ego Threats Lead to Self Regulation Failure: Negative Consequences of High Self-Esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(1), 141-156.

[6] Tabitha, K., June, G., & William, A. C. (2015). Comparing Happiness and Hypomania Risk: A Study of Extraversion and Neuroticism Aspects: e0132438. PLoS One, 10(7).

[7] Haybron, Dan, “Happiness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/happiness/>.

[8] Cohn MA, Fredrickson BL, Brown SL, Mikels JA, ConwayAM(2009) Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion 9: 361–368. doi: 10.1037/a0015952 PMID: 19485613

[9] Diener E, SeligmanMEP (2002) Very happy people. Psychological Science 13: 81–84. PMID: 11894851

[10] Diener E, ChanMY(2011) Happy people live longer: Subjective well-being contributes to health and longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being 3: 1–43.

[11] Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E (2005) The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin 131: 803–855. PMID: 16351326