Editor’s note: We are happy to announce that Bridget Grenville-Cleave has a new book out, Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide, that we will be reviewing soon.
The topic of positive emotions is central to any serious discussion of positive psychology. This morning my MAPP colleague Andy Roberts called me about a piece of work he’s doing on creativity and entrepreneurship. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas and concluded that positive emotions should take a starring role in his project. I’m lecturing on positive psychology and leadership to Business Psychology students at London Metropolitan University next month, and yes, positive emotions will feature there too.Where Do Positive Emotions Fit In?
Positive emotions are a vital part of well-being. Most positive psychologists aren’t willing to state that any one specific route to well-being is more important than another. Instead the message we give those seeking to increase well-being is that there are different routes. In fact, there are a different number of routes, depending which well-being model you favor. Seligman’s PERMA model has five factors, Ryff’s Psychological Well-being model has six, and so on. The most we can say for the time being is that it’s an individual thing. What works for your well-being may be different from what works for mine.
Nevertheless, despite Barbara Fredrickson’s decades of research into the evolutionary purpose of positive emotions, I think the topic often gets a rough ride. Positive emotions remain a poor relation in the well-being family, tending to have less gravitas than other factors.One reason may be that positive emotions are often equated with hedonic pleasure. Whether we agree or not, the factors linked to eudaimonic well-being tend to be taken more seriously than those linked to hedonic well-being.
Take Seligman’s earlier Authentic Happiness model. There is an implied hierarchy: living a Meaningful Life is better than living a Good Life which is better than living a Pleasant Life, and living all three together (the Full Life) is best of all. It’s not surprising that positive emotions are often seen as fluffy.
Different Kinds of Pleasure
So it was with great curiosity that I stumbled across a philosophical approach to pleasure that suggests that there is more to the hedonic life than initially meets the eye. Epicurus distinguished between two types of pleasures:
- Kinetic pleasures are those which initially give you positive emotion, but eventually, if you continue to pursue them, lead to negative emotion somewhere down the line. They start by feeling good, but they eventually destabilize and unsettle you. These are what Dr Will Buckingham of De Montfort University, Leicester, describes as the ‘sex, drugs and rock n roll’ of pleasure. When we say “You can have too much of a good thing,” it’s kinetic pleasure that we’re talking about.
- Static pleasures (or to give them their correct term, katastematic pleasures), which Buckingham says do not have a destabilizing effect. In fact they encourage calm and tranquility. He suggests watching the setting sun, enjoying another’s friendship, or eating simple food are static pleasures. You can never have too much of them. They continue to give you positive emotion.
This distinction between kinetic and static pleasures suggests that in the well-being stakes, not all positive emotions are equal. Perhaps we should limit our exposure to the former, while encouraging more of the latter.
Diener and colleagues suggest that it’s not the intensity of positive emotion that is important for well-being, but the frequency. Thus experiencing frequent but low-level positive emotion is better for well-being than going for the Occasional Big One. In other words, it appears that it’s better to aim for rather modest contentment than all-out bliss! This seems to fit with Buckingham’s description of the effects of kinetic and static pleasures.What is Your Mix?
Do you know which of your favorite pleasures are kinetic or static, for example, or whether you lean more towards one type of pleasure over the other?
This weekend, I asked a group of friends to list the things they do for pleasure. Most started by listing obvious kinetic pleasures. Variants of ‘shopping, sun, sangria’ appeared with remarkable frequency. It took much more prompting and reflection to come up with a list of static pleasures, including doing the church flowers, walking the dog on the beach, and making and eating home-baked cakes. It was almost as if they didn’t want to own up to such simple pleasures. I think it’s fair to say that most of them underestimated the well-being benefits they could gain from them.
Writing a list of all the pleasures you enjoy, then reflecting on which ones are kinetic and which static might give useful insight into your true sources of well-being, and perhaps suggest pathways to longer-lasting positive emotion. On my return home, I immediately got out my version of Frisch’s playlist (i.e. all the things I do for pure fun, relaxation, and pleasure) and labeled each item kinetic or static. I won’t tell you which came out tops!
Buckingham, W. (2012). Introducing Happiness: A Practical Guide. London: Icon Books. New York: Totem Books.
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(119–139). Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press. Reprint request.
Frisch, M. B. (2006) Quality of Life Therapy: Applying a Life Satisfaction Approach to Positive Psychology and Cognitive Therapy. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.
Ryff, C. D. & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719-727.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.