In Math and Physics, the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ are often used to indicate the opposite ends of some spectrum, whether it be positive and negative numbers or the dipoles of a magnet. Given these traditional uses of the terms positive and negative, it is understandable that people think about positive and negative emotions as opposites as well. After all, losing the big game or failing a test only feels negative with no ounce of positive left, right? And vice versa for winning the big game or falling in love? It turns out that the relationship between our good and bad feelings is actually a little more complex than that and in this blog, I outline and debunk 3 myths about this relationship.
Myth 1: Positive and negative emotions make us behave in opposite ways.
One popular way of thinking is that positive emotions promote behaviors in which we approach something we want –we feel excited about a cupcake and so we go eat it – and that negative emotions promote behaviors in which we avoid something we don’t want – we see a cockroach scurrying across the floor and we run away. You can’t both run toward and run away from something at the same time, so these emotions must be the opposite of each other, right? Turns out that this division is not as clear as you might think. There are plenty examples of negative emotions (like anger) in which we actually want to approach the thing that’s making us feel that way and examples of positive emotions (like contentment/serenity) in which we don’t really care about approaching anything in particular at all. Put simply, if I told you that I saw someone running toward someone else, you wouldn’t know if that was because they were happy to see them or about to punch them in the face.
Myth 2: You can’t feel positive and negative emotions at the same time.
Using the example above, think about being given a sweet, creamy, yummy cupcake but there’s a dead cockroach on the same plate. How would you feel? You might end up not eating it (and that’s what studies show happens generally) but in the time it takes you to decide you may be feeling both the positive anticipation of wanting to eat the cupcake and the negative revulsion at the cockroach. Here’s a better example: think about graduating from college. Does it conjure up a bittersweet emotion in which you feel both excited about starting the next chapter of your life and sad about leaving? These and other examples demonstrate that people can indeed feel positive and negative emotions at the same time and even about the same event, which leads into the next myth.
Myth 3: Most events are purely positive or purely negative.
Our graduation example shows that some events can give rise to both positive and negative emotions, but surely there are events that only give rise to one or the other, right? Of course there are! But it turns out that these events are much rarer than you might think and that people are often able to find the good (and bad) in bad (and good) situations. For example, one study showed that women who smiled when thinking about their recently deceased husband showed better adjustment later in the mourning period. The literature is filled with examples of people finding positive emotions in even the direst of circumstances such as cancer, being in a war-torn country, and immediately following a terrorist attack. Are these events bad? Yes! But often people will refuse to see them as 100% bad – allowing themselves to feel compassion, optimism, and even gratitude.
So why is it important to understand that positive and negative emotions are not necessarily the opposite? Turns out that those who adapt the best to stress and end up experiencing the highest emotional well-being know and practice this. They do not see negative events as purely negative, which allows them to feel both good and bad about them. So, next time someone offers you a metaphorical cupcake with a metaphorical cockroach next to it – it’s okay to feel conflicted, that’s the sign of someone on the road to healthy emotional well-being.
Department of Psychology