If you’ve ever been unhappy, you would have benefited from a mood-repair tool kit. It could have helped you analyze why you were feeling miserable, for example, and helped you assess with that after-the-fact clarity we seem to have how you could avoid that emotion in the future. Guess what? You already have one.
Many people believe that emotion results in or even directly causes behavior. The widely held image is that of the fight or flight response. Anger supposedly results in fight responses whereas fear, for example, would result in flight. In other words we often believe that we are trapped by our immediate reactivity to the emotions that drive us.
• Fear . . . . . . . . . . . escape
• Anger . . . . . . . . . . attack
• Disgust . . . . . . . . . expel
• Guilt . . . . . . . . . . . make amends
• Shame . . . . . . . . . disappear
• Sadness . . . . . . . . withdraw
Feel Better Faster
In a new meta-study, though, Roy Baumeister and colleagues dispute commonly held ideas connecting emotion and immediate response behavior and instead show how behavior is the way we repair bad moods and help ourselves to feel better, and learn more effectively for the next time. Here’s a bit of background on the subject.
According to Baumeister, et al, while emotions may have evolved to influence behavior directly, we are capable of complex cognitions that can and do analyze emotions before knee-jerk behavior takes place. Related views on this are Jonathan Haidt (the rider and the elephant), and Daniel Kahneman (System One and System Two).
Let’s imagine an undesirable event. (Yes, even on a positive website.) You have just received your performance review from your boss and it was not full of glowing praise. At first you are disappointed, but quickly you begin to blame the boss for not noticing your many valuable attributes and contributions, and you become furious that you have been passed over for a promotion, and now you have moved from anger into anxiety, catastrophizing about the impending foreclosure on your mortgage, repossession of your car, and life in a cardboard box with a shopping cart for transportation. It all happened in microseconds and you have not done a thing. Yet.
Instead…You begin “counterfactual thinking” or reflecting on how your past behaviors might have resulted in different outcomes if only…If only. Is it too late to do anything about the performance review? Can you prevent this in the future? If so, how will you behave? It is this reflective process whereby your emotions—your feedback system, in Baumeister’s words—can help you profit from your experience. If this is a situation which occurred in the past and that you did not handle in a way that improved your mood, you will now have a chance to make things better. If instead you handled it well in the past, you will be able to rely on your memory and learning as a result of that occurrence. At this point you are still thinking, though, not acting.
The first example was one resulting in negative emotion. What if you had an experience resulting in positive emotion? You received an unexpected raise, along with your boss’s accolades for your contributions to the organization. According to Barbara Fredrickson, pleasant emotions are not viewed as resulting in an immediate behavior. Instead, they are theorized to broaden your “thought-action repertoire.”
Instead of repairing your mood, you will act to reinforce it. You might capitalize (share good news) with a friend to build your positive mood.
So either way, whether the emotion is negative or positive, the emotions are a feedback system that make it possible for you to reflect and choose behavior that can build or repair your mood.
Learn More Effectively
What does this have to do with learning? Emotions benefit and strengthen learning. The emotional feedback system can help you reflect on what did not go as well as expected so that you can identify and use a different approach, or if things went well, it can help you repeat the scope and/or sequence of behaviors next time if you want a similar (good) outcome. Let emotion be your guide, help prompt your more thoughtful reflection, and result in a positive rational/moral/or practical adjustment.
Neurobiology confirms this. PET scans and fMRIs show increased memory for events that stir the emotions. The emotions, interestingly, are only stirred for things that matter to us. Work on making these emotion-thinking-behavior patterns positive so that the “affective residue” (emotional left-overs) can guide a future positive response. Take advantage of positive emotions such as interest to focus attention and stimulate the cognitive processes that are broadened by it. If you are a teacher, notice this in your students and let the students dig into areas that result in their positive emotion.
Learning that generates an emotional response is more likely to be retained. According to Baumeister, et al, emotion facilitates learning by focusing thoughts on what has just occurred to cause the emotion. It also stimulates the thoughts. Have you just made a great connection to a character in a book? Did you figure out how to solve a math problem a new way? Have you come up with a way to build a set for the school play with a limited budget? Those emotions will lead you to think about how your behaviors led to your successes. When things don’t go as you wish, realize that your emotions preceded the thoughts that you are having, and your thinking and self-reflection can perk you up by planning and anticipating a better next time.
Put more tools in your Mood-repair Tool Kit by using some Positive Psychology approaches.
- Broaden and build positive emotion.
- Develop SMART Goals.
- Use your self-regulation muscle.
- Become more self-determined.
- Practice resilience-building by learning your ABC’s.
- Discover and use your strengths in new ways.
- Connect strong (positive) emotion with things you want to learn.
- Let your success-emotion loop build self-efficacy.
- Practice 🙂
Editor’s note: The first book in the Positive Psychology News series, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves, contains many descriptions of tools for your toolkit. The other two books below reinforce the impact of positive emotions and of focusing on strengths.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.
Maymin, S. & Britton, K. (2009). Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves. Positive Psychology News.