How Our Emotions Work: 10 Psychological Insights
Do anger and envy have upsides? Does keeping busy make us happy? Why is regret so powerful? These and much more… Emotions aren’t just things that happen to us, they are vital components of how we reason, motivate ourselves, think about the past and future and how we communicate with others.
Our emotional selves are sometimes remarkably resilient, sometimes out of control and often difficult to understand. Good feelings inevitably fade, while negative ones can stay with us forever.
To help explore your emotional side, here is my top 10 pick of articles from PsyBlog on the psychology of emotions:
1. Does Keeping Busy Make Us Happy?
People dread being bored and will do almost anything to keep busy, but does keeping busy really make us happy? Much of modern civilisation can be credited to our very human habit of keeping busy.
Science, art, philosophy, technology, commerce and all the rest: it’s not just necessity that’s the mother of invention, it’s also boredom.
But there is a tension in us between our desire for activity and inactivity. Given a choice we’ll remain idle—whether happily or otherwise—but at the same time we take almost any excuse to be busy. And let’s be honest, some of these excuses are pretty flimsy (how else can you explain train-spotting, shoe shopping or golf?).
This tension is very nicely demonstrated in a recent study by Hsee et al. (2010). When given the choice, participants preferred to do nothing, unless given the tiniest possible reason to do something: a piece of candy. Then they sprang into action.
2. The Upside of Anger: 6 Psychological Benefits of Getting Mad
We tend to think of anger as a wild, negative emotion, but research finds that anger also has its positive side. There are all sorts of good sensible, civilised reasons to avoid getting angry. Not only does it make you feel bad, it makes you do stupid things without noticing the risks and it can be self-destructive. As a result civilised people do their best to suppress, redirect and mask their anger. Most of us treat our anger as though it’s unreasonable, unshowable and unmentionable. But like all emotions anger has its purposes, which can be used to good effect.
1. Anger is a motivating force
Research has shown that anger can make us push on towards our goals in the face of problems and barriers.
In one study participants were shown objects they associated with a reward. Some, though, were first exposed to angry faces. Those shown the angry faces were more likely to want objects they were subsequently exposed to (Aarts et al., 2010).
2. Angry people are more optimistic
Take one study of fear of terrorism carried out in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In this study those experiencing anger expected fewer attacks in the future (Lerner et al., 2003). In contrast those experiencing more fear were more pessimistic about the future and expected further attacks.
3. Anger can benefit relationships
Oddly enough research has shown that hiding anger in intimate relationships can be detrimental (Baumeister et al., 1990). The problem is that when you hide your anger, your partner doesn’t know they’ve done something wrong. And so they keep doing it. And that doesn’t do your relationship any good.
4. Anger provides self-insight
Anger can also provide insight into ourselves, if we allow it.
A sample of Americans and Russians were asked about how recent outbursts of anger had affected them (Kassinove et al., 1997). 55% claimed that getting angry had let to a positive outcome. One top of this one-third said that anger provided an insight into their own faults. If we can notice when we get angry and why, then we can learn what to do to improve our lives. Anger can motivate self-change.
5. Anger reduces violence
Although anger often precedes physical violence, it can also be a way of reducing violence. That’s because it’s a very strong social signal that a situation needs to be resolved. When others see the signal they are more motivated to try and placate the angry party.
If you’re still not convinced that anger might reduce violence, imagine a world without anger where people had no method for showing how they felt about injustice. Might they jump straight to violence?
6. Anger as negotiation strategy
Anger can be a legitimate way to get what you want. In one study of negotiation participants made larger concessions and fewer demands of an angry person than one who was happy (Van Kleef et al., 2002).
Anger is likely to work best when it’s justified, if you appear powerful and when the other side’s options are limited (Sinaceur & Tiedens, 2006; Van Kleef et al., 2007).
In the right circumstances, then, it’s possible to both get mad and get even.
3. 12 Laws of the Emotions
Emotions follow their own rules, like that of situational meaning, habituation, closure and concern. We tend to think of our emotions as having laws unto themselves, but one psychological researcher has suggested that our emotions do follow certain general rules.
Professor Nico Frijda puts forward twelve laws of the emotions (Fridja, 2006). As with most laws there are exceptions, but these have been synthesised from years of psychological research and hold true much of the time.
1. The Law of Situational Meaning
Generally the same types of situation will elicit the same types of emotional response.
2. The Law of Concern
We feel because we care about something, when we have some interest in what happens, whether it’s to an object, ourselves, or another person. Emotions arise from these particular goals, motivations or concerns. When we are unconcerned we don’t feel anything.
3. The Law of Apparent Reality
Whatever seems real to us, can elicit an emotional response. Similarly it’s difficult to get emotional about things that aren’t obvious, right in front of us.
4, 5 & 6. The Laws of Change, Habituation and Comparative Feeling
The emotions, therefore, respond most readily to change. This means that we are always comparing what is happening to a relatively steady frame of reference (what we are used to). As a result our emotions tend to respond most readily to changes that are relative to this frame of reference.
7. The Law of Hedonic Asymmetry
There are certain awful circumstances to which we can never become accustomed. No matter how much we are in love, how big the lottery win, or how copious the quantities of drugs consumed, positive emotions like pleasure always slip away.
8. The Law of Conservation of Emotional Momentum
Time doesn’t heal all wounds – or if it does, it only does so indirectly. Events can retain their emotional power over the years unless we re-experience and re-evaluate them.
9. The Law of Closure
The way we respond to our emotions tends to be absolute. An emotion seizes us and send us resolutely down one path, until later that is, when a different emotion sends us down the opposite path.
10. The Law of Care for Consequences
Emotions may absolutely dictate a type of response, but people do modulate the size of that response (usually!).
11 & 12. Laws of the Lightest Load and the Greatest Gain
The emotional impact of anThe law of the lightest load means people are particularly motivated to use re-interpretations to reduce negative emotions. event or situation depends on its interpretation.
4. The Psychological Immune System
We get over bad moods much sooner than we predict, thanks to the covert work of the psychological immune system. One of the most incredible things about the human mind is its resilience. Let’s face it, life can be pretty depressing at times, and yet people generally push on much the same as they always have, sometimes even with a spring in their step and a smile on their face.
The reason is that we all have a secret weapon against bad moods: a psychological immune system. When we experience events that send us into an emotional tailspin it kicks in to try and protect us from the worst of it.
The difference between our physical and psychological immune systems is that we know all about the physical. When we get a cold, we can see and feel our body’s defence systems activating. Not so for the psychological immune system. Strangely we seem not to notice it working away to reduce our negative emotions, our secret weapon is also a secret from ourselves.
5. What “The Love Bridge” Tells Us About How Thoughts and Emotions Interact
How much control do you have over your emotions? Men crossing the bridge were approached by an attractive woman who asked them to fill out a survey. The men were chosen because they were known to be nervous and this was exaggerated by the fact the bridge was swaying, its handrails were very low and there was a 230-foot drop to the river below.
After the men filled out the survey the woman gave them her number and said they could call her if they wanted the study explained in more detail.
A little further up men crossing another bridge were also being approached by a female researcher half-way across. The difference was that this bridge was sturdy, did not sway and was only a few feet above a small stream.
One of the key tests was: how many people would call up the attractive woman?
On the stable, safe bridge only 2 out of the 16 participants called. But, on the rickety bridge, 9 out of 18 called. So something about the rickety bridge made people more likely to call. Dutton and Aron’s explanation was that it’s how we label the feelings we have that’s important, not just the feelings themselves. In this experiment men on the rickety bridge were more stressed and jittery than those on the stable bridge. And the argument is that they interpreted these bodily feelings as attraction, leading them to be more likely to make the call.
So: fear had been transformed into attraction.
This explanation is now controversial because subsequent studies have found that it’s rare to be able to reinterpret a negative emotion like fear into a positive one like attraction. Indeed some studies have specifically shown it can’t be done (Zanna et al., 1976). However, we can reinterpret one positive emotion into a different positive emotion, and the same for negative emotions.
6. The Power of Regret to Shape Our Future
Why people are reluctant to exchange lottery tickets, but will happily exchange pens. Regret might not make a list of the most powerful emotions. It would probably include things like anger, happiness, jealousy, sadness and especially for us English, embarrassment.
We tend to think of regret as essentially a backward-looking emotion. We regret things in the past, like not trying hard enough in school, how we treated a friend or the things we said to our partner in the heat of an argument. In this sense you might argue that it’s useless: why regret something you can’t change?
But regret isn’t just a backward-looking emotion, it also looks forward and it can be a terribly powerful emotion which affects our behaviour in the here and now. That’s because we also have the power to anticipate feeling regret in the future, which we naturally try to avoid.
7. 4 Ways Benign Envy is Good For You
Feeling green with envy? If it’s the right type of envy, maybe it’s no bad thing… Benign envy is the kind which raises you up rather than making you want to pull the other person down. Here are four ways that this type of benign envy can be useful.
1. Benign envy motivates
Benign envy can motivate, as long as you compare yourself to the right person. If he or she is in your league, then they can push you on to greater achievements
“Relevant superstars provoke self-enhancement and inspiration when their success seems attainable but self-deflation when it seems unattainable.” (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997)So stick to being envious of people who are doing a bit better than you. For motivation envy beats admiration (see: why envy motivates).
2. Benign envy feels good
Benign envy is the norm: most people automatically compare themselves with people doing better than themselves. And when we see other people doing better than us, it can give us hope, which makes us feel good.
3. Benign envy makes you more creative
People who are doing better than us can spur us on to be more creative. In one study on creativity
“…participants were exposed to comparison targets who either threatened or boosted self-evaluations and then completed a performance task. Participants exposed to the threatening target performed better than those in a control group, whereas those exposed to the nonthreatening target performed worse.” (Johnson & Stapel, 2007)”
4. Benign envy makes you smarter
In the same way as it can make you more creative, being envious can make you smarter. Blanton et al. (1999) found that students who compared themselves with others tended to do better in school.
Similarly, these sorts of upward social comparisons can make women better at maths:
“…women’s math test performance was protected when a competent female experimenter (i.e., a female role model) administered the test.” (Marx & Roman, 2002)
8. Duchenne: Key to a Genuine Smile?
Experiments cast doubt on the classic marker of a genuine smile. For years psychologists have thought that a real smile, which reflects felt, positive emotion, is signalled by upturned lips and crinkly eyes. This genuine smile is named after the French physician Duchenne, who passed electrical currents through live subjects and took photos of their weirdly contorted faces.
Oddly enough when some people try to fake a smile they look like one of Duchenne’s subjects: in pain. It has been suggested that 80% of us are unable to conjure up a fake smile that will trick others because we don’t have voluntary control over the muscles around our eyes which signal the Duchenne smile.
Others, though, may well be much better at faking a real smile, which is a handy trick because people automatically trust, like and want to be with those who appear to be showing real emotion.
9. The Surprising Power of an Emotional ‘Memory Palace’
Can a ‘memory palace’ help you recall happier times, even when life is hard?
“I’m going to my happy place!”
Saying this in moments of stress has become a rather tired joke. And the joke conceals the fact that having a so-called ‘happy place’, or even several happy places can help boost mood when times are hard. However, the problem with thinking back to happy moments from the past is that it’s hard if you’re not in the habit.
ndeed people experiencing depression find it particularly difficult. Worse, when they do recall happier times, they tend to do it abstractly, focusing on the causes, meaning and consequences, and looking for clues as to how to regain it. Unfortunately it’s re-experiencing the pleasure that gives you the boost in the moment, not thinking about it abstractly.
The problem is frequently memory. To feel better by thinking back to past glories, you’ve got to pull up the right memories and in the requisite detail. This can be hard enough for the most equable of souls and nearly impossible when low mood strikes.
What is required is a really strong technique for instantly conjuring up the right moments from the past so that you feel right there, in the moment.
10. 4 Life-Savouring Strategies: Which Ones Work Best?
We can increase our positive emotions and life satisfaction by using the right mix of savouring strategies. What was the last good, positive thing that happened to you? Perhaps it made you smile or dance around the room or maybe even want to shout it from the rooftops.
We all want to feel good, both in the moment and about our lives in general. And most of us do this automatically by using strategies to help savour those precious happy times.
Here are the standard four savouring strategies that we tend to use. Each is paired with the corresponding dampening strategy;
1. Showing you’re happy
Savour: If you’re happy and you know it…then smile! Our physical actions feed back into how we feel and displaying happiness makes us feel even happier. This is known as embodied cognition: check out this article on 10 Postures That Boost Performance.
Dampen: But sometimes people don’t like to show they’re happy. Whether it’s because of fear, shyness or modesty, people do hide their positive emotions. Whatever the reason, it’s likely to make us less happy if we suppress our positive emotions.
2. Being present
Savour: Our minds naturally wander, even when we’re busy (see this article: Does Keeping Busy Make Us Happy?). But if we can keep focused on what we’re doing now we’ll feel better.
Dampen: Distraction is the enemy of savouring. Instead of enjoying what’s happening now, our minds wander off. Unfortunately we quite often wander off to our worries. This dampens down the positive emotion we feel.
Savour: If something good happens then make sure you celebrate it by telling others. By capitalising on our success (or luck) when it comes along, we increase our positive emotions. So, throw a party!
Dampen: Instead of celebrating, though, sometimes people look for faults. Yes, they say to themselves, this was good, but it could have been better. This tends to reduce life satisfaction, optimism, self-esteem and happiness. Avoiding nit-picking will lead to more enjoyment.
4. Using positive mental time travel
Savour: Although our minds often wander to depressing subjects, they can also wander to good things. We can remember good times and anticipate upcoming events. I’ve often thought that one of the secrets of life is to try and always have something to look forward to, no matter how small it is.
Dampen: The other side of the coin is that our minds can just as easily take us back to past embarrassments or forward to imagined future irritations. The more we can resist this, clearly the happier we’ll be.