Chapter 13: Positive Emotions

Physiological Changes

SNS/PNS Activation

In two studies by Levenson and colleagues, participants completed the directed facial action task for happiness while physiological measures were taken.  In Levenson et al.’s (1990) study on American participants, happy facial expressions caused an increase in heart rate, but this increase was significantly less than the increase for fear, anger, and surprise.  For finger temperature, skin conductance, and muscle activity, a happy face caused a small increase from baseline.  In a later study (Levenson et al., 1992), American and Minangkabau participants made a happy facial expression.  For both groups, making a happy expression resulted in similar small increases in heart rate, finger temperature, and skin conductance.  Recall that in this study displaying negative emotions resulted in greater skin conductance for Americans than Minangkabu, but this cross-cultural difference did not occur for the emotion happiness.

Kreibig’s review (2010) investigated ANS changes for seven positive emotions: affection, amusement, contentment, happiness, joy, anticipatory pleasure, pride, and relief. The findings for pride were discussed in the pride chapter and can be found here.  Table 21 provides a good summary of the PNS and SNS changes for each emotion.  Following this table, the specific findings are discussed.

 

Table 21

SNS and PNS Changes for Each of the Positive Emotions (Kreibig, 2010)

A table showing a positive emotion and the corresponding SNS and PNS changes
Positive Emotion SNS and PNS Changes
Affection Increased SCR; decreased heart rate
Amusement SNS Activation; PNS Activation
Contentment SNS Withdrawal; PNS Activation
Happiness SNS Activation; PNS Withdrawal
Joy SNS Activation; PNS Activation
Anticipatory Pleasure SNS Activation; PNS Activation
Relief SNS Withdrawal
Pride SNS Activation

Adapted from “Autonomic nervous system activity in emotion: A review,” by S.D. Kreibig, 2010, Biological Psychology84(3), p. 406-408 ( https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.03.010) Copyright 2010 Elsevier B.V.

 

In this study, affection  is viewed as similar to love, tenderness, and sympathy.  Kriebig found that this emotion construct was linked to decreased heart rate and an increase in skin conductance.  This suggests SNS activation, but more work should be conducted.  Further, these findings do not consider the presence of several types of love – passionate, companionate, and caregiver.

For amusement, vagal tone and heart rate variability increased.  Skin conductance and cardiac PEP also increased.  Combined, these suggest activation of both PNS and SNS systems.

Contentment included pleasure, serenity, calmness, peacefulness, and relaxation feelings.  Eliciting contentment states caused deactivation of the SNS system (decreased heartrate, respiration, and skin conductance) and activation of the PNS system (vagal tone and heart-rate variability increase).

Happiness caused an increase in heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and skin conductance  suggesting SNS activation. Further vagal tone withdrawal suggests PNS withdrawal.

Joy or elation typically activates both the SNS and PNS systems.  Joy causes an increase in heart rate, skin conductance and shortened PEP and an increase in heart-rate variability.

Anticipatory Pleasure includes mostly the feelings associated with sexual arousal but also the feeling of satisfying an appetite. So, anticipatory pleasure is probably the same concept as sensory pleasure. Anticipatory pleasure caused an increase in vagal tone and heart-rate variability and an increase in skin conductance, decreased/increased heart rate.  Taken together, these findings suggest both SNS and PNS systems may be activated.

Relief (avoiding a possible shock in the laboratory) caused SNS withdrawal (decrease in skin conductance, decrease in respiration).  Another physiological change that occurs is a high frequency of sighing.

The summary of Kreibig’s finding of pride were discussed in the pride chapter.  This information is re-pasted below for your convenience.

“Kreibig (2010  ) reviewed five studies that investigated the physiological changes caused by authentic pride. Table X displays the eliciting events and resulting physiological changes for these studies.  We cannot draw definitive conclusions because we have so few studies.  But, based on these findings we might conclude that pride causes activation of the SNS system, because skin conductance increased.  But, the study on experimenter praise (Herrald & Tomaka, 2002) found that cardiac PEP was not shortened, suggesting the SNS system was not activated.  The only indicator we have on PNS is a study that elicited pride with film clips and found that heart-rate variability did not change, suggesting the PNS is not activated (Gruber et al., 2008)” (Yarwood, 2021, Pride Chapter).

 

Overall, Kreibig’s (2010) findings show that SNS and PNS activity vary with the specific positive emotion.  Remember, that constructivist and dimensional theorists view positive emotions as simply positive valence and any level of arousal. So, it could be that positive feelings simply vary in arousal or activation and that we try to categorize these feelings with specific labels.

Shiota et al. (2011) elicited five positive emotions in the lab and then measured physiological changes.  These five emotions were anticipatory enthusiasm, attachment love, nurturant love, amusement, and awe (see Table 22).  View anticipatory attachment as the emotion joy.

 

Table 22

Description of 5 Positive Emotions and Elicitation Method in Laboratory

A table showing a positive emotion, what it is elicited by, and the elicitor used in a lab setting.
Positive Emotion Elicited by Elicitor Used in Lab
Anticipatory Enthusiasm Anticipation of Rewards Slides with dollar amount; dollar amount increased with each slide
Attachment Love Attachment Figure Childhood characters such as Big Bird and Papa Smurf
Nurturant Love Caring for young Baby Animals
Amusement Physical / Cognitive play; humor Far Side Cartoons
Awe New large events that do not fit with current schemas Panoramic Views

 

Participants completed a baseline and experimental trial for each emotion.  In experimental trials, a neutral emotion or one of the five positive emotions was elicited (displayed in Figure 14). During all trials, physiological measures were taken, and participants were videotaped.  To acquire baseline measures, participants were shown an X for 60 seconds and told to clear their mind – while baseline measures were taken.  Then, in the neutral trial, participants were shown slides of neutral household objects – while baseline measures were taken.  In the emotion trials, participants were shown slides of the corresponding elicitors.  At the end of the trial, participants self-reported their subjective feelings using 10 emotions: amusement, anger, awe, contentment, disgust, enthusiasm, excitement, fear, love/attachment, sadness, and tenderness/compassion.

 

Figure 14

Pictorial Display of Procedures from Shiota et al. (2011)

An image showing procedures via a pictoral display for a neutral trial and for an experimental trial.
Neutral Trial: Baseline – 60 seconds. “Clear your mind of thoughts, feelings, memories” (X). “Watch the slides carefully. Some slides might elicit positive, negative, or no emotions.” Self reported Emotion. Experimental Trial: X, Emotional Photo, Self-reported emotion. A long right arrow is present in between the two trials that is labeled “Physiological Measures and Videotaping” .

 

In the next few paragraphs, I will explain the findings for each of the psychological measures.  For a good overview of the findings for each positive emotion, please skip down to Table 23.

Figure 15 shows the changes in SNS activity for measures that provide pure measures of SNS activity.  For skin conductance (SCR), anticipatory enthusiasm showed the greatest increase from baseline compared to the other emotions.  Amusement’s increase from baseline was greater than awe but not greater than neutral condition.

For cardiac PEP, remember that lengthening of PEP indicates withdrawal of SNS while shortening of PEP indicates SNS activation (for a review, go here).  Awe resulted in a lengthening of PEP and this lengthening was significantly greater than the five other emotion states.  Nurturant love showed lengthening of PEP that was shorter than awe, but did not differ from other conditions.

 

Figure 15

Results for Pure Measures of SNS Activity

An image of two bar graphs. One is labeled Skin Conductance (left), and the other is labeled Cardiac Pre-Ejection Period (right).
Cardiac Pre-ejection Period Graph – Has Neutral, Enthusiasm, Attachment Love, Nurturant Love, Amusement, and Awe listed on the X axis. The Y axis is labeled SCR (number during trial) and starts at 0.00 and goes up in increments of 1.00. Neutral is graphed at 1.75. Enthusiasm is graphed at 3.75. Attachment Love is graphed at 1.95. Nurturant Love is graphed at 1.45. Amusement is graphed at 1.99. Awe is graphed at 1.25.Skin Conductance Graph – Has Neutral, Enthusiasm, Attachment Love, Nurturant Love, Amusement, and Awe listed on the X axis. The Y axis is labeled Change in PEP (ms), and starts at -1.50, andd goes up in increments of .50.Neutral is graphed at 0.40. Enthusiasm is graphed at -.45. Attachment Love is graphed at -.05. Nurturant Love is graphed at .55. Amusement is graphed at -.20. Awe is graphed at 1.40.

Reproduced from “Feeling good: Autonomic nervous system responding in five positive emotions” by M.N. Shiota, S.L. Neufeld, W.H. Yeung, S.E. Moser, and E.F. Perea, 2011, Emotion, 11(6), p. 1375 (https://doi.org/ 10.1037/a0024278) Copyright 2011 American Psychological Association.

 

Figure 16 shows the changes from baseline for RSA and cardiac interbeat interval (IBI). RSA is a pure measure of PNS activity.  In general, all emotion states caused a decrease in RSA from baseline except for the neutral and amusement conditions which showed zero change from baseline. Overall, these findings suggest that for positive emotions the PNS system was not activated.  Except for neutral and amusement condition, all other emotion states demonstrated a decrease in RSA, which indicates the PNS system was not activated.  Enthusiasm showed a decrease in RSA from baseline and this decrease was significantly different from amusement and neutral condition.  Awe, Attachment Love, and nurturant love each caused a decrease in RSA that was significantly different from the neutral condition, but not different from the four other positive emotion states.

Cardiac Interbeat Interval (IBI) is not a pure measure of PNS activity.  IBI is inversely correlated with SNS and IBI has a positive relationship with PNS influence.  For attachment love, IBI decreased from baseline and this decrease was significantly greater than the neutral, amusement, and awe conditions.  Nurturant love also decreased significantly from baseline and this decrease was greater than the neutral condition. Taken together, these findings suggest that attachment and nurturant love caused withdrawal of PNS and activation of SNS.  Amusement and awe showed an increase in IBI from baseline and this increase was greater than attachment love, but was not different from the neutral condition.  These findings suggest that the neutral, amusement, and awe conditions might have caused an increase in PNS activation and SNS withdrawal.

 

Figure 16

RSA and IBI Activity

 

An image of two bar graphs. The left graph is labeled "Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia", and the graph on the right is labeled "Cardiac Interbeat Interval (IBI)".
The Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia graph (left) has the following listed for the x axis: Neutral, Enthusiasm, Attachment Love, Nuturant Love, Amusement, and Awe. The Y axis is labeled as “Change in RSA (ms squared)” and starts at -1.00, and increases in incremends of .20.Neutral is graphed at .80. Enthusiasm is graphed at -0.425. Attachment Love is graphed at -.30. Nurturant Love is graphed at -0.20. Amusement is graphed at 0.02. Awe is graphed at -0.40.The Cardiac Interbeat Interval (IBI) graph (right) has the same listings as the RSA graph for the x axis. The Y axis is labeled “Change in IBI (ms)”, which starts at -10.00 and increases in increments of 5.00.Neutral is graphed at 17.25. Enthusiasm is graphedd at 0.00. Attachment Love is graphed at -4.95. Nurturant Love is graphed at -0.50. Amusement is graphed at 14.50. Awe is graphedd at 14.50.

Reproduced from “Feeling good: Autonomic nervous system responding in five positive emotions” by M.N. Shiota, S.L. Neufeld, W.H. Yeung, S.E. Moser, and E.F. Perea, 2011, Emotion, 11(6), p. 1375 (https://doi.org/ 10.1037/a0024278) Copyright 2011 American Psychological Association

 

Figure 17 displays the results for respiration rate and mean arterial pressure (MAP).  Both measures typically increase with SNS activity, but are less conclusive because they are not pure measures of SNS activity.

 

Figure 17

Respiration Rate and MAP

An image of two bar graphs. One is labeled "Respiration Rate" (left), and the other is labeled "Mean Arterial Pressure (MAP) (left).
The Respiration Rate Graph (left) has the following emotions listed on the x axis: Neautral, Enthusiasm, Attachment Love, Nurturant Love, Amusement, and Awe. The Y Axis is labeled “Change in Respiration Rate (Breaths per minute), and starts at 0.00, andd increases up the y axis in increments of 0.50.Neutral is graphedd at 0.20.Enthusiasm is graphed at 1.45. Attachment Love is graphed at 1.05.Nurturant Love is graphed at 1.60.Amusement is graphed at 1.90. Awe is graphed at 1.60.The Mean Arterial Pressure (MAP) (right) has the same emotions listed on the x axis. the y axis is labeledd “Change in MAP (mmHg)” which starts at -2.75 and increases in increments of 0.50.Neutral is graphedd at -0.60.Enthusiasm is graphed at 1.00.Attachment Love is graphed at -1.50. Nurturant Love is graphed at 0.45. Amusement is graphed at -1.55.Awe is graphed at -0.60.

Reproduced from “Feeling good: Autonomic nervous system responding in five positive emotions” by M.N. Shiota, S.L. Neufeld, W.H. Yeung, S.E. Moser, and E.F. Perea, 2011, Emotion, 11(6), p. 1375 (https://doi.org/ 10.1037/a0024278) Copyright 2011 American Psychological Association.

 

Table 23 provides a good summary of how the PNS and SNS systems changed for each emotion. Keep in mind that this is one study and that more research is needed to confirm these changes.  As you review the below table, think about possible limitations to this study (Hint: think about the ways in which the researchers elicited each emotion in the laboratory).

 

Table 23
Summary of SNS and PNS Findings for Each Positive Emotion

A table showing a positive emotion, what it is elicited by, the elicitor used in a lab setting, SNS, and PNS effects.
Positive Emotion Elicited by Elicitor used in Lab SNS PNS
Anticipatory Enthusiasm Anticipation of rewards Slides with dollar amount; dollar amount increased with each slide SNS Activation

Increase in SCR; Shortening PEP

PNS Withdrawal

Decrease in RSA

Attachment Love Attachment Figure Childhood characters such as Big Bird and Pap Smurf SNS Activation

Decrease in IBI; No change in MAP or PEP

PSN Withdrawal

Decrease in RSA, and Decrease in IBI

Nurturant Love Caring for Young Baby Animals SNS Activation

Decrease in IBI; Increase in Resp. Rate, No change in for MAP

PNS Withdrawal

Decrease in RSA, and Decrease in IBI

Amusement Physical / Cognitive Play; Humor Far Side Cartoons Not Clear

Increased Resp. Rate and Increase IBI suggests SNS withdrawal activation

Not Clear

Increase in IBI suggests PNS Activation

Awe New large events that do not fit with current schemas Panoramic Views SNS Withdrawal

Lengthening PEP; Increase in IBI; Decrease in RSA

PNS Withdrawal, Decrease in RSA, OR PNS activation, Increase in IBI

Adapted from “Feeling good: Autonomic nervous system responding in five positive emotions” by M.N. Shiota, S.L. Neufeld, W.H. Yeung, S.E. Moser, and E.F. Perea, 2011, Emotion, 11(6), p. 1371, 1373-1376 (https://doi.org/ 10.1037/a0024278) Copyright 2011 American Psychological Association.

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Psychology of Human Emotion. by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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