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When Negative Emotions are Positive

written by Hein Zegers 24 August 2015

Hein Zegers has been researching well-being for more than 20 years. Nicknamed Tintin of Positive Psychology, this Belgian has been collecting evidence in 7 languages in more than 100 countries. Hein Zegers has a M.Sc. in Psychology and a M.A. in Languages. His PhD research at the UvH University in Utrecht is on well-being and meaning.

Hein's articles are here.

Positive Psychology and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are different movements within psychology. Yet they also have quite a lot in common. Contact between both has been scarce until now. In July 2015, captains of both ships met for the very first time: Barbara ‘Positivity’ Fredrickson and Steven ‘ACT’ Hayes. Here is an exclusive report of this historic meeting in Berlin, Germany.

Positive versus Negative Emotions?

Positive Psychology and Acceptance and Commitment therapy (‘ACT’ for short, pronounced as one word) both appeared at about the same time within the history of psychology. Since its inception, Positive Psychology has always held The Meaningful Life as a central pillar. Similarly, within ACT, moving towards meaningful Valued Living is a core process. What, then, are the differences between the movements?

‘Positive’ Psychology vs. ‘Dark’ ACT?

Fredrickson: “Positive Psychology, to me, is not a separate domain of psychology. It’s an emphasis, a leaning, a call within psychology to also focus on positive aspects.”

But isn’t this positive emphasis different from what ACT proclaims?

Hayes: “When ACT first got popular attention with a story in Time Magazine, the story was titled Happiness is not normal. Which is of course something we’d never said, but some reporter wrote down. Another headline of that time was ‘Hello Darkness.’ I get that (laughs). From the beginning, we’ve cared about meaning and purpose and values-based action. Constructing the sort of lives that make life worth living.” Turning towards his neighbor, he said, “Barbara has, throughout her career, really focused on the relationship between positive emotions and behavior. That is of central importance, I think, to ACT.”

Sweet Sadness

ACT consciously tries to avoid labeling emotions positive or negative. How would you define positive emotions for ACT?

Hayes: “It seems to be so contextually bound, that you can flip it. Take for instance sadness, is that negative? Clearly not. If my mother died last spring, sadness is what I would want, right? Is that a negative emotion? No, it’s not a negative emotion. In fact, are there any negative emotions that are not contextually bound? If you live them fully, and put them into your life that leads you in a values-based direction?”

Can Opener

So what negative are we talking about here?

Fredrickson: “I think that, as a field, we’ve inherited some language in terms of calling classes of emotions positive and negative, and there are so many levels at which you could define positive and negative. I think that what’s meant by it, is this: ‘If all other things were equal, would this be a wanted state? Would you want the state to continue?’”

Hayes nods in agreement when Fredrickson continues: “Negative emotions are useful if connected to context, but become negative if disconnected from context.”

When pressed for a further clarification, Fredrickson adds: “I think of it as a can opener. Positive emotions, or hedonic well-being, open people up so they can see and appreciate more meaning. Experiencing meaning more is in itself an emotional uplift too.”

In the book edited by Kashdan and Ciarrochi, Steven Hayes wrote that ACT can add something useful to Positive Psychology as it transitions into Positive Psychology 2.0, while Positive Psychology can provide many useful leads on bringing meaning-oriented values work into behavior change. If the above-mentioned book was a beginning of the conversation, this meeting was a continuation that was live, and dare we say, positive.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd edition). New York: Guilford Press.

Hayes, S. & Strosahl, K. (2004). A Practical Guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Springer Edition.

Kashdan, T. B. & Ciarrochi, J. (Eds.) (2013). Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology: The Seven Foundations of Well-Being. Context Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Happy and sad courtesy of Farrukh
Can opener courtesy of caryatidxx

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Jeanine Joy 27 August 2015 - 4:52 pm

All emotions are good because emotions are actually guidance (Peil, 2014) that encourage us toward self-realization and away from danger.

The health benefits (physical, mental, and behavioral) of positive emotions cannot be emphasized enough. The literature is clear that immune, cognitive, digestive and central nervous system functions are better when we are positively focused. Our pro-health behaviors are better (Boehm, 2012). Undesired outcomes (i.e. crime, violence, teen pregnancy, addictions, etc.) are all fueled by negative emotions from individuals who have not been taught how to (and did not manage to somehow stumble into) ways of being psychologically adaptable. Then there is the contribution positive emotions have to success in all areas of life. (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005)

But there are different ways of looking at things. In the example in the article about “…wouldn’t sadness be appropriate if my Mom had died last spring?” There are many families and cultures where this would be the expectation. However, if Mom was aware that sadness was negatively impacting your immune, digestive, cognitive, and central nervous system function I’m pretty sure she would not want you to be sad. When my time comes I don’t want my children to be sad more than a few minutes. I want them to focus on the life I lived, the love I gave and received, and other wonderful things that my life has encompassed. Will they miss me? Of course, and that may make them sad in that moment, but I don’t want them to dwell there. They have the ability to create neuropathways that will become automatic over time that when they think of the death of my body they can automatically appreciate that my life was so good, and by turning the focus onto the positive, their emotional state will improve. They can appreciate that I lived in an era when an illness that would have killed me when I was four in an earlier age was curable. They can appreciate that I lived in an era when the molar pregnancy I had when I was 28 was both discoverable and curable, so that I could live to have them and raise them. There will be far more to appreciate than to be sad about when I leave this body and that is where I want those who remember me to dwell when their thoughts turn to me.

I’m not saying that everyone should or must make a similar choice, but I do think everyone should KNOW how to make that choice so they actually have the ability to make a conscious choice and I think the effect of negative emotions on our ability to function should be taught as well. Psychological flexibility is important to resilience and to maintaining good mental health.

Works Cited
Boehm, J. K., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2012, July). The heart’s content: The association between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular health. Psychological Bulletin, Epub April 2012, 138(4):655-91. doi:DOI: 10.1037/a0027448.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855. doi:DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803
Peil, K. T. (2014). Emotion: The Self-regulatory Sense. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 80-108.

Astrid Johnson 27 August 2015 - 10:44 pm

Very interesting meeting between Positive Psychology and ACT, thank you! I think the first comment on this article may actually illustrate what Hayes and Fredrickson are sort of warning against. A warning against a kind of ‘clinging’ to positive emotions. A clinging that, as e.g. research on grief processes has repeatedly shown, may be detrimental to psychological and physical well-being.

Jeanine Joy 28 August 2015 - 9:08 am


If grief is suppressed it can lead to all sorts of problems. However, the following from the APA website demonstrates that focusing on the negative is not achieving the best results:

A new approach to complicated grief
Better assessments and treatments lead to a brighter outlook for people with severe grief, according to a report from an APA group.

“Instead of gaining closure or trying to say goodbye, the goal of grief counseling should be to foster a constructive continuing bond with a deceased person, he says. This can be accomplished through remembering the good times, setting up an internal dialogue with a lost loved one, continuing to think of that person on a regular basis and imagining the person’s reactions to current life events and problems, he says.
In the immediate aftermath of the death, the bereaved struggling with grief-related symptoms may benefit from coaching in symptom-management techniques, such as relaxation skills and thought-stopping, according to research by psychologist Donald Meichenbaum, PhD, of the University of Waterloo in Canada.
However, Neimeyer cautions against an exclusive focus on negative emotion because research by psychologists like George Bonanno, PhD, of Columbia University, and Camille Wortman, PhD, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, suggests that signs of resourcefulness, such as the expression of positive emotion and the ability to find meaning in the loss, may be better predictors of long-term outcome.
“There’s a great deal of good that can come from finding the silver lining in loss and from fully experiencing the process” of grieving, says Neimeyer. “The bereaved can be far more empowered than we’ve previously believed.”
With that in mind, contemporary grief research is focusing on the subset of grievers who show remarkable resilience even after losing a spouse, Neimeyer adds.
“Understanding how it is that these people are successful in coping with loss and developing constructive methods for continuing their lives will help psychologists guide those who are more likely to struggle.”

Pasted from
A new approach to complicated grief
Better assessments and treatments lead to a brighter outlook for people with severe grief, according to a report from an APA group.

Astrid Johnson 28 August 2015 - 10:47 am

Dear Joy,

In your first post, you were talking about not wanting your children to be sad for more than a few minutes if you passed away. In your last post, you’re defending your point with a research that cautions against an exclusive focus on negative emotions in cases of severe grief.

Thank you for illustrating what I mean by ‘clinging to positive emotions’.

Jeanine Joy 28 August 2015 - 1:09 pm

Not “if”, when. It is a certainty that it will occur.

Also, I am not defending my point. I am providing information that expands on what I said in an effort to expand the knowledge of the readers.

Your first comment presumes to know what Dr. Fredrickson and Dr. Zegers mean. I’m not sure if you’ve read Dr. Fredrickson’s book, Positivity. In that book, she addressed this subject and discusses the emotional agility that is a key component of resilience. The recent focus on happiness has received some backlash from some researchers. One common criticism of positivity is the belief that negative emotions are being repressed. This is not based on empirical evidence. In fact, in Positivity, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D. states, “On the contrary, resilience is marked by exquisite emotional agility.”

“Clinging” implies a sense of insecurity with something else. When the child clings to his mother he is showing distress at his perception of the stimulus that makes him cling (separation, an unfamiliar person, or something else). I am not referring to clinging to positive emotions in a fearful way, out of fear of feeling negative ones. Quite the opposite, knowing how to feel better using emotional agility supported by cognitive changes in focus and reappraisal, gives one confidence that even when feeling devastated emotionally by some experience, that it is temporary and one possesses the skills and knowledge to return to more positive feelings. This return is not through suppression or failure to recognize and acknowledge the negative emotions. It acknowledges that from a specific perspective, one feels very sad about the event while recognizing the ability to deliberately find a different perspective that elicits better feeling emotions.

There is a disconnect in a world where 86% of the population believes life does not end with the death of the body yet grief is expected to manifest as if death is the end. Even for those who do not believe in any sort of afterlife, death often ends suffering. The stages of grief were not developed based on grief, but on terminal illness diagnoses, according to two recent books. The stages of grief do not match the bereavement research.

“By far the most common response we see in our research is a pattern we call “resilience.” We see this pattern in between one third and two thirds of bereaved people. It looks like the term suggests. People who show a resilient outcome struggle initially with the pain of loss, as almost everyone does, but they manage to deal with the sadness and distress with equanimity. Their pain is acute, usually lasting most pointedly for a few days to a few weeks but then begins to subside. It is not that they don’t grieve, or that they didn’t care; far from it. Rather, they are able to put the pain aside when they need to and they continue to meet the demands of their life. They work, they take are of loved ones. They even laugh and experience moments of joy. They accept the loss, readjust their sense of what is, and move on.” George A Bonanno Ph.D.(The Other Side of Sadness, http://amzn.to/1JqLEz6)

“The five stages of grief are so deeply imbedded in our culture that no American can escape them. Every time we experience loss—a personal or national one—we hear them recited: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The stages are invoked to explain everything from how we will recover from the death of a loved one to a sudden environmental catastrophe or to the trading away of a basketball star. But the stunning fact is that there is no validity to the stages that were proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross more than forty years ago.” Ruth Davis Konigsberg (The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, (http://amzn.to/1PXmmuC
I understand that it is difficult for individuals who do not deliberately and routinely use cognitive reframing and other skills to change their emotional state to recognize how a change of perspective changes everything to imagine the benefits of the outcome that is attainable or how it increases resilience. It’s something that must be experienced to be understood, much like James Allen said so many years ago in As a Man Thinketh “Such is the conscious master, and man can only thus become by discovering within himself the laws of thought; which discovery is totally a matter of application, self-analysis, and experience.”

Expecting someone to remain sad months after a loss is not the norm, based on the research Dr. Bonanno cites. It may be the experience of some, but it is not a mandate or a requirement for moving forward in a healthy manner. If that is someone’s experience, that is okay, but setting it up as the expected experience can cause problems for those who are more resilient. Just as setting up the expectation about the five stages of grief has sometimes done to those whose grief did not match the societal expectation.

As far as how long I expect my children to be sad, that is a personal matter. There are many factors involved. One of which is permission not to mourn any longer than necessary, not to fake sadness, and encouragement to appreciate what was. My children have learned the skills to use cognitive reappraisal and have learned to set expectations of their reaction to losses in resilient ways. I am not proposing that everyone should do this–without the skills and belief system in place before the loss it would not be possible or even encouraged. But it is possible to achieve. It can be done in arrears, just as posttraumatic growth can occur much later if the trauma is reframed. But it is far better, IMO, to develop resilience in advance and avoid the pitfalls that can waylay someone who lacks resilience.

Hein Zegers 29 August 2015 - 3:01 am

Thank you for this great discussion! Barbara Fredrickson’s licence plate sums up her team’s decades of research. It also summarizes, I think, this meeting between two professors. Her licence plate reads: ‘Be Open’.

It does not say ‘Be Positive’. It does not say ‘Be Happy’.

It reads: ‘Be Open’.


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