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Thread: Nine Varieties of Positive Emotion

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    Advisor Jovialis's Avatar
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    Nine Varieties of Positive Emotion

    Psychologists used to think of “positive emotion” in a very simple way: Happiness sits at the opposite end of a continuum from unhappiness. Being on the happy side is associated with a set of (sometimes unhappy) consequences, such as thinking in oversimplified and stereotypic ways.

    But Michelle "Lani" Shiota and her colleagues disagree. They recently reviewed an impressive array of findings—including studies of human behavior, cognition, and bodily physiology as well as brain chemistry, in animals ranging from lobsters to rhesus monkeys and their human cousins. Their review, published in the American Psychologist, suggests that positive emotion is not one thing at all, but at least nine different experiences that may have very different consequences for behavior and thought.

    The problem with "positive emotion"

    On the classic view, if you are experiencing “positive emotion,” you will not want to think too hard. Whatever you’re doing must be working, so why overthink things? But along with Vlad Griskevicius and Samantha Neufeld, Shiota did a study in which they presented college students with weak or strong arguments advocating a controversial proposal (that the students should be required to take a series of comprehensive examinations before graduating from college; not an idea college students are likely to be enthusiastic about). If people in a “positive mood” don't think very hard, they should disregard the quality of the arguments and instead just focus on how many arguments they heard (so that nine bad arguments are just as persuasive as nine good arguments). That is indeed what happened when people were feeling amused, enthusiastic, or content. But the opposite happened when people were feeling awe or nurturant love—those participants were much more persuaded by the high quality arguments (what you’d expect from people in a bad mood).

    Functionally, the results made sense. When you are experiencing awe, your mind is open to new information and ready to process that information carefully. When you are experiencing nurturant love, you are likely taking care of young helpless children and so want to be careful. If you are feeling amused, on the other hand, things are going well and you're having fun, so why ask why?

    A new tree of positive emotions

    Shiota and her colleagues argue that all positive emotions stem from a common ancestor—a general “reward system” that helped our ancestors (going back before the dinosaurs) pursue desirable foods. When something generally pleasant is on the horizon, a burst of dopamine in the brain’s mesolimbic circuit produces a general emotional state of enthusiastic anticipation, or “wanting.” When you feel that general positivity, your attention is focused, and you are more likely to remember anyone or anything in the center of your attentional field.

    The branches: The emotional subsystems

    Shiota and her colleagues review evidence for several distinct positive emotions (linked to activity in additional neurotransmitters beyond dopamine):

    Pride. People feel pride when they accomplish something important and socially valued; something that merits a boost in social status. Shiota and colleagues review evidence linking pride to serotonin activity as well as dopamine. A study by Wai and Bond (2002) found that experimentally boosting serotonin levels led to more assertive and confident behavior. Jessica Tracy and her colleagues have suggested that there is a broad tendency across species for serotonin to be linked to dominance and display of pride.

    Sexual desire. This emotion, obviously necessary for reproductive success, is associated with a very different pattern of physiological activity than pride. Research across species demonstrates that testosterone is a key hormone involved in promoting sexual arousal, and that this is true for females as well as males. (It doesn't require testes to produce testosterone; females also produce testosterone in their adrenal glands.) (Dabbs & Dabbs, 2000)

    Sensory pleasure, attachment love, and gratitude. Whereas pride and sexual desire are appetitive emotions, prompting us to go get whatever we want, some positive emotions are more linked to enjoying the moment. When we are consuming something purely pleasurable, like a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Double Chocolate Fudge ice cream, our opioid receptors become active; the same receptors that are activated by addictive drugs such as heroin, codeine, and morphine. Shiota and her colleagues review evidence that opioid neurotransmitters also help alleviate the distress of being rejected by or separated from our loved ones. This system may be active when we are feeling gratitude as well.

    Amusement and play. According to Shiota and her colleagues, we experience amusement when we play. Although play is fun, it also serves the important purpose of practicing some new skill, like throwing a spear or swinging a golf club, in a situation where the consequences are not too serious (it’s not so fun if you're fending off an attacking leopard, or a making a clumsy Mulligan shot with Phil Mickelson watching). Shiota suggests that amusement may involve broad activity in the basal ganglia, a group of structures sitting under your cerebral cortex behind your forehead and between your temples, which are full of cannabinoid receptors.

    Contentment and nurturant love. When you’ve just eaten a big, delicious plate of tagliatelle smothered in ragù Bolognese, and you’re feeling pleasantly full, oxytocin helps produce a sense of pleasant fulfillment -- what Shiota and colleagues call contentment. Oxytocin has also been much-lauded lately as the “love hormone.” While this is something of an exaggeration, oxytocin activity can be triggered by cuddling a baby, or seeing your lover’s smile. Contentment is associated with the sympathetic fight-or-flight system being turned down, and the more Zen parasympathetic system taking over.

    What don’t we know about the positive emotions?

    Shiota and her colleagues are admirably careful in developing their case. They in fact include a lovely table laying out where there is good evidence for their model and where their speculations have yet to be tested.

    Although all the evidence is not yet in, some parts of the case are pretty clear. Positive emotion isn’t just one thing. What’s going on in our brains and bodies when we are feeling proud, amused, content, nurturant, satisfied, sexually aroused or simply feeling fond of our love objects are different experiences, with different implications for what we’ll do next.

    Shiota and her colleagues end with another set of questions yet to be answered, regarding the practical consequences of making these distinctions. Here’s one interesting question: Psychotherapists have traditionally focused on reducing different types of negative emotions, but might there be some useful treatments that focus instead on increasing different types of positive emotions, specifically tailoring a particular positive emotion to a particular psychological problem?

    Give yourself a holiday present of the nine kinds of positive emotion. In a follow-up, I make some suggestions about how to set up a personal tour of each of the 9 distinct positive emotions (see Give yourself 9 Kinds of Happiness).

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog...ection=1110037


    Pretty interesting. Happiness is a complex emotion that is triggered by different chemical reactions in the brain according to the situation. I like the fact that it points out that amusement and play is actually necessary for our survival. Often by society it has been historically seen as frivolous, and a waste of time. But it turns out its actually an important and practical activity.

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    What about humor, laughter, joy of sharing and giving or even eating or singing?
    Be wary of people who tend to glorify the past, underestimate the present, and demonize the future.

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    Advisor Jovialis's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LeBrok View Post
    What about humor, laughter, joy of sharing and giving or even eating or singing?
    I think it might fall under amusement for humor and laughter.

    Joy of sharing and giving may fall under nurturant love

    and eating may fall under contentment.

    I'm not sure what happiness from singing may fall under. Or the enjoyment you would get from listening to songs that make you feel a certain way. Music is interesting, because even if you feel down, a sad song you identify with, may make you feel better about that emotion, which is not necessarily happiness.

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