I recall from our MAPP lecture on emotions that Diener and colleagues believe it’s the frequency rather than the intensity of emotion which is important to well-being.Ignoring for the moment Nozick’s assumption that, infrequent or not, we’d rather not feel any negative emotion if we could help it, the frequency over intensity theory suggests that creating conditions which give rise to bucket loads of smiling, laughing and generally feeling chipper would be better for our psychological health than seeking out more powerful hedonic experiences once in a while – be that dining out on haute cuisine, watching our favorite team win the league this season or, dare I suggest it, having truly mind-blowing sex. Whether the occasional humdinger of a disagreement with your partner is less damaging to your well-being than constant low-level griping and bickering, I’m not sure. But at least after a decent row you get the chance to kiss and make up!
Bad is stronger than good…
I also recall from our MAPP lectures that we (in the Western world at least) pay more attention to negative emotions than we do to positive ones – the so-called negativity bias described by Baumeister and colleagues. This means that if today we experience one negative event and one positive event of the same intensity, the negative one will have a greater and longer impact on our well-being than the positive one.
[I’m beginning to see this as one of those algebraic brain-teasers: “If a positive emotion with intensity of X and frequency of Y has twice as much positive impact on your well-being than a negative emotion with intensity of ⅔X and frequency of 3Y, is a positive emotion with intensity of X² and frequency of ⅓Y better or worse?” You get my drift.]
Emotions as Information
The third piece of the puzzle is the argument that our feelings, rather than our actual experiences, influence how we judge our life satisfaction. In other words we (in the Western world at least) seem to treat our emotions as intelligence – we believe that they’re giving us correct information about how we feel about what is going on in our lives. Of course you say, that’s why it’s called Subjective Well-being.
So let’s just consider that for a moment. Is it possible for our emotions to give us incorrect information? If we go back to Ellis’s ABCDE model (the cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, as well as many resilience interventions), we can see that thoughts and emotions drive behaviour, which then reinforces those same thoughts and emotions. So if our thoughts are in some way “faulty”, the resulting emotions (and behaviour) could also be wrong.
Shedding new light on the experience of emotion
Given the whole “-10 to +10” argument on which Positive Psychology is based (as well as the “nature abhors a vacuum” principle), it’s not surprising that recent research (Kuppens, Realo & Diener, 2008) concludes that experiencing positive emotions is more strongly related to life satisfaction than not experiencing negative ones. But what is curious is that different nations put a different spin on the same emotions:
- In individualist nations (e.g. America or Australia) negative emotions are more negatively related to life satisfaction than in collectivist nations (e.g. India or China)
- In nations that value self-expression (i.e. those high on economic and physical security – most of the developed world) positive emotions are more positively related to life satisfaction than in nations that value survival (those countries low on economic and physical security e.g. in the undeveloped world).
This suggests that the same emotions (positive or negative) are not experienced in the same way (and thus allocated the same importance) the world over, in other words, people living in collectivist and/or undeveloped nations don’t put as much store by feeling bad as do people living in the West. Kuppens and colleagues explain this in terms of the hierarchy of needs – if basic physical safety and survival needs aren’t met, you’re far less likely to be focused on whether or not you feel good. Once survival values are no longer top priority, however, feeling good and avoiding feeling bad become much more important.
It seems then that the relationship between emotions and well-being isn’t as straightforward as we might think. The frequency versus intensity theory seems to oversimplify the issue: context is one of the most important criteria in understanding the impact of emotion (positive or negative) on ones assessment of life satisfaction. Perhaps the ‘answer’ for people looking for positive psychology interventions to create a happier life isn’t so much about finding more and more opportunities to maximize positive experiences and minimize negative ones. Maybe it’s more about perspective, about finding ways to gain greater insight and awareness into all emotional experiences, whether the earth moves or not!
Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C. & Vohs, K. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.
Diener, E., Sandvik, E. & Pavot, W. G. (1990). Happiness is the frequency, not intensity, of positive versus negative affect. In F. Strack, M. Argyle, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Subjective Well-Being: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (International Series in Social Psychology) (119–139). Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.
Kuppens, P., Realo, A. & Diener, E. (2008). The role of positive and negative emotions in life satisfaction judgment across nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 66-75.
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York. Basic Books.