from Emma Young
Sometimes our emotions are one-dimensional. For example, this morning when my kids and dog jumped into bed, I was happy. However, during the Halloween party my husband and I organized for our boys, the joy of their pleasure was definitely coupled with the fear / stress of running a house full of rampaging children. And here we are entering darker emotional territory. While so much research has been done on individual, “basic” emotions, more complex emotional experiences have been neglected. However, recent studies have shown some surprising and special roles for mixed emotions in our lives.
What to do we feel?
One of the most impressive explorations of our everyday emotional experiences was made in 2017 in. released Emotion evaluation. The US participants carried a beeper that sounded at random moments. Whenever it started, they wrote down what, if anything, was present in their inner experience. Christopher Heavey of the University of Nevada and colleagues found that most of the time attendees weren’t feeling everything special. If it was them, it was usually a single emotion – like happiness or fear. But they sometimes reported experiencing several different feelings at the same time, which could include a negative and a positive emotion. Sometimes they also reported individual, “mixed” feelings with positive and negative facets – for example, a “sad kind of happiness”. Of course, we already have a term for this: urgency. But new studies reveal other combinations of emotions.
“The curious case of fear of threat”
This is the title of a new work in emotion by researchers from the University of New South Wales. “Curious”, because although “threatening awe” at the sight of an approaching thunderstorm was seen as a negative, fearful aspect of awe, the team did not find this.
Awe and fear are clearly defined, both in terms of their feelings and the types of thoughts and behaviors associated with them. Srinwanti Chaudhury and colleagues found that threat awe has some fear-related aspects and some awe-related aspects, as well as a general emotional / behavioral profile that sets it apart from both. For example, people who felt threatened by awe, like those who felt fear, were less willing to take risks than those who felt awe, but fear of threatening felt significantly more comfortable than fear. When participants were simply asked to indicate on a matrix what threat-awe felt like, they said both were negative and positive feelings. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to empirically show that threat ave should be viewed as a mixed emotion rather than a negative variant of awe,” the team concludes. They also speculate on the function of threat fear. Perhaps, they write, it helps us to see “beauty in adversity” that can build resilience to stressful or even traumatic situations.
Mixed emotions and meaning in life
Hedonistic wellbeing – often called happiness – involves feeling many positive emotions such as joy and excitement. However, the work of Raul Berrios from the University of Santiago in Chile suggests that mixed positive / negative emotions contribute to mental wellbeing. However, they do not promote happiness, they promote eudaemonia – the important feeling that your life has meaning. The team conducted two studies to investigate this. One interviewed participants who remembered a recent challenge related to their goals in life or values. In the other, students watched a graduation video that focused on the urgency of the event. In both studies, participants who then reported experiencing stronger mixed feelings also rated their lives as more meaningful. This work suggests that mixed emotions not only help people deal with stress, but also have broader effects on wellbeing. And a study from 2021 goes even further …
Mixed emotions make you think smarter
Vincent Oh and Eddie Tong of the National University of Singapore conducted four studies on 1,419 people in Singapore and the United States in March and April 2020, a peak time for Covid-19 infections and deaths. They report that more frequent mixed emotions – but no positive or negative emotions – were associated with greater eudaimonic well-being and also more self-reported infection prevention behaviors, such as: These results fit well with some other recent studies that suggest mixed emotions make it easier for us to incorporate information from multiple perspectives and support more complex thinking and wellbeing.
Interestingly, a relatively large number of positive or negative emotions predicted “unsupported and atypical virus prevention behaviors,” such as eating more honey or even using detergents rather than mouthwashes. This is in line with the finding that positive emotions can promote gullibility and negative emotions can encourage inappropriate coping, the team writes.
So next time you experience conflicting emotions, don’t worry – the lesson from all of this recent work seems to be: it’s good for you.
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles