Chapter 13: Positive Emotions

The Dark Side of Positive Emotion

June Gruber, Iris Mauss, and their colleagues have done extensive work on the consequences of experiencing positive emotions. (Below, in the Yale Expert in Emotion video Gruber interviewed Mauss about happiness).   This section is based on their article “A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good” (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011), which is a great and interesting read about this topic.


Also, in 2011 Gruber did a TEDxCambridge talk called The Dark Side of Happiness: June Gruber at TEDxCambridge 2011

In Gruber and colleagues’ (2011) review article on this topic article, they define happiness as the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions.


Their first argument is that the outcomes of high happiness are not greater than experiencing moderate happiness.  So, just because someone is extremely happy all the time doesn’t mean they will acquire more friends, more social support, more work success, etc., than someone who experiences moderate happiness.  Further, they state that high happiness, as defined by lots of positive emotions and few to zero negative emotions, could be life threatening.  Negative emotions protect our survival and someone who only experiences positive emotions might engage in more risk-taking behaviors.  Gruber and colleagues (2011) even suggest that experiencing too many positive emotions and not enough negative emotions are hallmarks of mania and antisocial personality disorder.


Their second argument is that happiness is only appropriate and advantageous for certain contexts or eliciting events.  Although happiness causes success in a variety of domains, it is most likely happiness causes success in environments that are safe and not threatening.  In threatening situations, it would be more beneficial to experience a negative emotion that increases adrenaline and arousal.  For instance, if you are playing an important lacrosse game, being happy is less likely to help you win the game than being angry.  The beneficial outcome of happiness depends on the context.  Similar to the Hunsinger et al., (2012)  study we discussed above, Gruber and colleagues point out that happy people rely on their accessible thoughts to make a decision – so if they are currently thinking about a stereotype, they would be more likely made judgements based on stereotypes. Finally, Gruber and colleagues point out that positive emotions do elicit more social support and improve relationships, but only to a point.  If we are constantly happy, then close others may not know when we are in need of help (often conveyed by sadness), and we may miss important opportunities to increase our status and resources (often caused by anger).


Their third argument is that people incorrectly pursue higher levels of happiness.  Gruber et al., (2011) summarize a few studies that suggest when we seek higher levels of happiness and place emphasis on achieving happiness we experience fewer positive emotions, reduced well-being, and an increase in mental health symptoms.  What a conundrum!  In our attempts to become happier, we actually make ourselves less happy!  Related to this argument, Gruber and colleagues question whether happiness is achieved when people should seek to reduce their negative emotions or when people simply accept their negative emotions!  In one recent study (Shallcross et al., 2010), people who were more likely to accept negative emotions reported fewer depressive symptoms three months later.  What do these findings reminds you of?  Maybe mixed emotions? From what we know now, it seems like the Eastern view of comfort with mixed emotions of happiness and sadness might increase our happiness more so than the Westernized view of increasing positive emotions and reducing negative emotions.

In the below Yale Expert in Emotion Video, Iris Mauss discussed how people who strongly value happiness experience more disappointment and less happiness when they are not happy.

Start the video around 11:15 and stop around 20:50.


In her fourth and final argument, Gruber and colleagues consider whether the presence of certain positive emotions and the absence of negative emotions may simply be detrimental to our own and others’ well-being.  As we discussed earlier, hubristic pride causes negative outcomes such as aggression, stereotyping, and shame (review chapter here).  Interestingly, they also identify the absence of guilt, embarrassment and shame as detrimental to well-being and social connections.  If we cannot experience shame and guilt, then will we know we did something wrong? If we do not apologize for our wrongdoings, how will this impact our close relationships? In this same argument, Gruber and colleagues suggest that when we experience positive/negative emotions that contradict our cultural norms, then we might experience consequences instead of favorable outcomes.  Gruber and colleagues identify three cultural differences in the way Easterners and Westerns are expected to experience emotions.  I’ve added a fourth that we have discussed – which is valence! We have covered these earlier in the semester, so let’s test your knowledge here !


Drag and drop the word into the correct drop zone for each emotional experience for both easterners value and westerners value.

Incorrect answers will result in a point deduction.


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