Are Positive Emotions Always Good for You?



June Gruber, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado Boulder

May 2016 – Emotions are an essential ingredient of what makes us human. But surprisingly, there are still a lot of mysteries as to what emotions are and how we can harness them to improve mental health outcomes and enhance well-being. A number of age-old assumptions stand in the way of theoretical progress. The assumption we tackle in the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology Laboratory that I direct at the University of Colorado Boulder is that positive emotions are always good for you. On the contrary, across a variety of studies, and as synthesized in my forthcoming book Positive Emotion and Psychopathology (Oxford University Press), I have argued that experiencing positive emotions at particular intensities, in particular contexts, or when driven by particular types of processes can actually be detrimental.

In particular, I study the disruptive effects of positive emotions in patients diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder. Studying clinical populations not only provides a window into understanding the origin and maintenance of emotion-related disturbances, but also provides a clue into normative positive emotion functioning more generally by studying the upper boundaries or extremes of positive emotional processes. This emerging wave of research on positive emotions and psychopathology suggests that positive emotionality is also related to a range of poor health outcomes both cross-sectionally and longitudinally, particularly when the magnitude and duration of positive emotions are inappropriate to the context. Below I describe some of this work, focusing on why positive emotions are important, highlighting several key themes in the study of positive emotion disturbances, and concluding with a discussion of future directions.

Why Positive Emotions are Important

Positive emotions are commonly construed as pleasant or positively valenced states that motivate an individual to pursue goal-directed behavior in service of one’s needs or desires (e.g.., Carver, 2003; Fredrickson, 1998). It has long been assumed that positive emotionality is wholly adaptive. This view is based in part on a robust tradition of work revealing a range of cognitive, social and physical health benefits associated with positive emotions. For example, positive emotions foster greater relationship satisfaction and commitment (Gonzaga et al., 2010; Harker & Keltner; 2001; Impett et al., 2010), prosocial behavior (e.g., Isen, 1970), and have been linked to improved physical health outcomes such as increased physical immunity to stressors (for review, see Gruber & Moskowitz, 2014) and ability to undo the negative cardiovascular effects of negative emotionality (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). As a result, less attention has been devoted to understanding the ways in which positive emotions might also be a source of dysfunction.

How to Frame the Problem of Dysfunction for Positive Emotions

Recent work has began to study the ways positive emotions might not always be adaptive or good for psychological health. Our laboratory has been at the forefront of this new approach to studying positive emotion disturbances, an approach motivated in part by initial inquiries into the study of positive emotion and clinical investigations of patients with a history of mania (i.e., bipolar disorder; Gruber, 2011).

To shed light on the dynfunctional side of positive emotions it is important to study individually a variety of dimensions of variation. Specifically, we have developed a research paradigm that investigates the functional or dysfunctional aspects of: size or magnitude of positive emotion response, situation or context in which positive emotions unfold, specificity of which positive emotions are experienced, spice or diversity of positive and negative emotions represented, selfregulation of one’s positive feelings, stability or degree positive emotions dynamically change over time, and striving or the degree to which one exerts effort in pursuing or attaining positive feelings.

Understanding how each dimension of positive emotionality ranges form normal to abnormal functioning is critical for figuring out whether or not positive emotions are good for us. Our “divide and conquer’ research strategy has also allowed us to harness advances in neuroimaging and cognitive science to answer new questions. In what follows, I will highlight some of our recent results and discoveries.

Size: Is more positive emotion really better? Aristotelian definitions of emotional health argue that positive emotions are beneficial up to a moderate degree, but can incur costs when experienced too intensely. Several empirical examples illustrate that a heightened positivity may be associated with negative psychological health outcomes. For instance, people with extremely high positive emotion levels are inclined to engage in riskier behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, binge eating, and drug use. Heightened and persistent positive emotions have also been associated with psychopathology, such as a clinical diagnosis of bipolar disorder as well as self-reported risk for mania (Gruber, 2011).

Heightened and persistent positive emotions in bipolar disorder undermine the ability to experience negative emotions in threatening or risky contexts and predict a more severe illness course, and greater relapse rates. Current longitudinal studies with young adults at high risk for the development of bipolar disorder are underway in our laboraotry to isolate whether these patterns of heightened and persistent positive emotionality are a cause or a consequence of bipolar disorder. These initial studies suggest that a greater magnitude of positive emotion is not always better, and may be associated with undesirable and unintended outcomes when it exceeds a certain threshold (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011). We have developed these insights into an evolutionary model and investigated the conditions under which positive emotionality adversely affects one’s vigilance to threats in the environment and becomes maladaptive (Gruber & Bekoff, in press).

Situation: A time and place to feel good? As humans, we are built with the capacity to experience a wide range of emotions to help us readily adapt to new circumstances, challenges, and opportunities. Anger mobilizes us to overcome challenges; fear alerts us to danger and engages our fight-or-flight coping system; and sadness signals loss of an important object, person, or place. The functions of these emotions are suited to help us meet particular needs in specific contexts. Just as we would not want every situation to make us feel angry or sad, we should not want to indiscriminately experience positive emotion in every situation. Indeed, one study found that people in a positive mood performed worse on competitive computer game task as compared to those in an angry mood (e.g., Tamir, Mitchell, & Gross, 2008).

Another study demonstrated that individuals who experience or perceive positive feelings during incongruent negative contexts – such as watching sad films, listening to a stranger share time of personal loss such as the death of a family member, or even while having an online conversation with a distressed romantic partner, were more likely to be at risk for developing mania as measured by a validated questionnaire (Devlin, Ong Zaki, & Gruber, 2016; Dutra et al., 2014; Gruber, Johnson, Oveis, & Keltner, 2008). Current work in our laboratory is investigating whether such context-inappropriate positive emotions are a cause or a consequence of mania risk. In sum, positive emotion has a proper contextual timing, and is not always suited for every situation.

Specificity: Not all positive emotions are created equal. Positive emotion is often referred to as a singular term, but in practice it is much more heterogeneous. There are a variety of different types of positive emotions that differ on dimensions of arousal or energy level, and can even reflect the degree of social connectedness or engagement (e.g., Shiota, Keltner & John, 2006). Many forms of happiness are associated with adaptive and prosocial outcomes, such as fostering connection to others, altruistic acts, and generosity.

But, importantly, not all specific types of positive emotions appear to promote beneficial outcomes. For example, pride is a self-focused pleasant state associated with achievement and elevated social rank. Although pride is adaptive in certain forms, such as winning a challenging competition or receiving a job promotion it is also associated with negative social outcomes when experienced in the absence of appropriate merits, including aggressiveness towards others, antisocial behavior, and even increased risk for the onset of mania (e.g., Gruber & Johnson, 2009). Thus certain kinds of positive emotions – such as those that are too self-focused – may at times hinder our ability to adaptively connect with other people.

Spice: Diversity of emotions is important. Much like biodiversity is critical to the healthy survival of a biological ecosystem by fostering resistance to disease and invasive species, emotional diversity (or “emodiversity”) is an equally important component for the human internal emotional ecosystem. Emodiversity refers to the variety and relative abundance of the emotions humans experience (Quoidbach, Gruber, Mikolajczak, Kogan, Kotsou, & Norton, 2014), which is constituted by both the richness and number of specific emotions an individual experiences as well as the evenness or extent to which positive and negative emotions are experienced in the same proportion.This project sampled self-reported emotions from over 37,000 adult respondents and found that a greater diversity of emotions – that is, experiencing a variety of positive and negative emotions – predicts increased positive mental health outcomes as well as decreased negative medical health issues.

Self-regulation: Unable to harness positive emotions? The ability to adaptively regulate emotion – whether it is increasing or decreasing the intensity of a positive emotion, or shaping how it is expressed — has been linked to favorable health outcomes, including greater well-being and social adjustment (Tamir, John, Srivastava, & Gross, 2007) and may sustain, or even improve, mental health outcomes (e.g., Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). Emerging work generally suggests that controllability over positive emotions – measured both as actively generating or increasing positive emotions as well as decreasing or dampening positive emotions – is associated with beneficial mental health outcomes.

Inappropriately managed positive emotions can incur significant costs on a personal level and within broader social contexts. By contrast, individuals with depression have difficulty effectively increasing or up-regulating positive emotions and manifest a decreased ability to sustain and promote positive emotions. Current work is exploring the role positive emotion misregulation plays in the etiology and and course of depression. When positive emotions are not properly regulated – either too much or too little – the beneficial effects commonly associated with them disappear.

Stability: Positive emotions best kept stable? A complete understanding of positive emotion requires exploring not just the mean levels experienced, but also how the intensity of positive emotion fluctuates over time. For example, greater variability (as measured by intra-individual standard deviations in positive emotion intensity) has been associated with worse psychological health (Gruber, Kogan, Quoidbach, & Mauss, 2013), including lower well-being and life satisfaction and greater depression and anxiety. These findings are consistent with ancient Buddhist texts that underscore the importance of attaining greater emotional stability as part of overall well-being. Specifically, too much variability and not enough stability in one’s positive feelings can be a harbinger of poor mental health outcomes.

Striving: Seeking positive emotions may lead to decreased well-being. By striving, we refer to the meta-cognitive value or premium placed on experiencing and attaining positive emotional experiences. Work has recently supported the paradoxical finding that striving for positive emotions may actually cause more harm than good (e.g., Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011). Specifically work by Mauss and colleagues reports that individuals who self-report striving for, and highly valuing, happiness are more likely to report less self-reported happiness when watching happy films for example. These findings suggest that the pursuit of happiness may lead to maladaptive outcomes because it sets people up for disappointment. Recent work with our colleagues links problematic clinical health outcomes with increased pursuit of happiness, which has also been associated with greater depressive symptoms in a healthy adult sample as well as greater levels among adults with a clinical history of depression and bipolar disorder compared to a healthy non-psychiatric control group (Ford, Shallcross, Mauss, Floerke, & Gruber, 2014; Ford, Mauss & Gruber, 2015). Such findings hint at the possibility that the more people pursue happiness, the less likely they are able to obtain it.

Where Do We Go Next?

Our next step is asking why positive emotion disturbance occurs. For example, research is needed to identify mechanisms associated with the generation and maintenance of positive emotion, and in particular, overly heightened and persistent positive mood states that lead to risk-taking, substance abuse and severe psychopathology such as bipolar disorder. One example we have recently focused on is the role of attentional biases in giving rise to positive emotional experiences. Indeed we know that emotions filter how we visually see the world, literally shaping how we attend to information (i.e., attentional biases). Some of our work suggests that trait levels of happiness shape attention towards positive stimuli in healthy adults (e.g., Raila, Scholl & Gruber, 2015). Work is now underway to extend this finding to an examination of whether there are distinct patterns of attentional bias towards positive stimuli (and perhaps away from negative stimuli) that may give rise to the heightened positive emotionality observed in adults at risk for mania.

We are also unpacking neural mechanisms of sustained positive affectivity among adults with bipolar disorder in response to rewards as well as standardized emotional images. We believe it to be critical to further unpack neurophysiological mechanisms underlying heightened positive affectiity focused on activation within, and connectivity between, reward relevant striatal regions in both healthy and bipolar adults (e.g., Dutra, Kober, Cunningham & Gruber, 2015), psychophysiological assessments of positive affectivity including cardiac vagal tone (e.g., Kogan et al., 2014), and psychoneuroendocrine assays of theoretically relevant hormone profiles such as increased testosterone and decreased cortisol (e.g., Welker, Gruber, & Mehta, 2015).

The overarching goal of this work is not only to identify cognitive and neural processes underlying positive emotionality, but also to muster convincing evidence that they play an important role in the vulnerability to clinical health outcomes. Ultimately these scientific efforts are aimed towards unpacking the landscape of positive emotion disturbances to better understand what function our emotions serve, but also to develop protocols for early detection and effective treatment of those for whom positive emotions are not always good.

Check out below June’s popular Experts in Emotion Series!

A list of video lectures can be found here:


Barlow, D. H., Allen, L. B., & Choate, M. L. (2004). Toward a unified treatment for emotional disorders. Behavior Therapy, 35, 205-230. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80036-4

Carver, C. S., Sinclair, S., & Johnson, S. L. (2010). Authentic and hubristic pride: Differential relations to aspects of goal regulation, affect, and self-control. Journal of Research in Personality, 44(6), 698-703. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.09.004

Cyders, M. A., & Smith, G. T. (2008). Emotion-based dispositions to rash action: Positive and negative urgency. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 807-828. doi: 10.1037/a0013341

Dutra, S. J., Cunningham, W. A., Kober, H., & Gruber, J. (in press). Elevated striatal reactivity across monetary and social rewards in bipolar I disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Folkman, S., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2000). Positive affect and the other side of coping.

American Psychologist, 55, 647–654. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.6.647

Ford, B., Mauss, I. B, & Gruber, J. (2015). Extreme valuing of happiness is associated with risk for and diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Emotion, 15(2), 211-222.

Ford, B., Shallcross, A. J., Mauss, I. B., Floerke, V. A., & Gruber, J. (2014). If you seek it, it won’t come: Pursuing happiness is associated with depressive symptoms and diagnosis of depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 33, 890-905.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.2.3.300

Grant, A. M., & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted-U. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 61-76. doi: 10.1177/1745691610393523

Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271-299. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.2.3.271

Gruber, J. (2011). When feeling good can be bad: Positive emotion persistence (PEP) in bipolar disorder. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 217-221. doi: 10.1177/0963721411414632

Gruber, J. & Bekoff, M. (in press). A cross-species comparative approach to positive emotion disturbance. Emotion Review.

Gruber, J.  & Purcell, J. (2015). The tides are changing: Unpacking the nature of positive emotion disturbance. In Scott, R. A. & Kosslyn, S. M. (Eds.), Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Gruber, J., Dutra, S. J., Hay, A. C., & Devlin, H. C. (2014). Positive emotion and reward dysregulation across disorders. In Shiota, M. N., Tugade, M., & Kirby, L. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. , New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Gruber, J. & Johnson, S. L. (2009). Positive emotional traits and ambitious goals among people at risk for mania: The need for specificity. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 2, 179-190. doi: 10.1521/ijct.2009.2.2.176

Gruber, J., Johnson, S. L., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2008). Risk for mania and positive emotional responding: too much of a good thing?. Emotion, 8, 23. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.8.1.23

Gruber, J., Kogan, A., Quoidbach, J., & Mauss, I. B. (2013). Happiness is best kept stable: Positive emotion variability is associated with poorer psychological health. Emotion, 13, 1. doi: 10.1037/a0030262

Gruber, J., Mauss, I.B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 222-233. doi: 10.1177/1745691611406927

Johnson, S. L. (2005). Mania and dysregulation in goal pursuit. Clinical Psychology Review, 25, 241-262. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2004.11.002

Kogan, A., Oveis, C., Carr, E. W., Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., Shallcross, A. J., Impett, E., van der Lowe, I., Hui, B., Hui, B., Cheng, C, & Keltner, D. (in press). Vagal activity is quadratically related to prosocial traits, prosocial emotions, and observer perceptions of prosociality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11,         807-815. doi: 10.1037/a0022010

Raila, H., Scholl, B. J., & Gruber, J. (in press). Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses: People who are happy and satisfied with life preferentially attend to positive stimuli. Emotion.

Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & John, O. P. (2006). Positive emotion dispositions differentially associated with Big Five personality and attachment style. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 61-71. doi: 10.1080/17439760500510833

Tamir, M., John, O.P., Srivastava, S., & Gross, J.J. (2007).  Implicit theories of emotion:

Affective and social outcomes across a major life transition.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 731–744. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.731

Welker, K. M., Gruber, J., & Mehta, P. H. (2015). A Positive Affective Neuroendocrinology (PANE) approach to reward and behavioral dysregulation. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 6(93), 1-13.




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