Psychologists used to think of “positive emotion” in a very simple way: Happiness sits out at the opposite end of a continuum from unhappiness. Being on the happy side is associated with a set of (sometimes unhappy) consequences, such as thinking in oversimplified and stereotypic ways.
Source: Lani Shiota, author of “Beyond Happiness,” used with permission
But Lani Shiota and her colleagues disagree. They recently reviewed an impressive array of findings – including studies of human behavior, direct measurements of brain activity, and comparisons of hormonal activity in animals ranging from lobsters to rhesus monkeys and their human cousins. Their review, published in the American Psychologist, suggested that positive emotion is not one thing at all. Instead, it’s at least 9 completely different experiences, with sometimes very different consequences for behavior and thought.
The problem with “positive emotion”
On the classic view, if you are experiencing “positive emotion,” you will not want to think too hard. Whatever you’re doing must be working, so why overthink things? But along with Vlad Griskevicius, Shiota and Samantha Neufeld did a study in which they presented college students with weak or strong arguments about a controversial topic (whether or not they should be forced to take a series of comprehensive examinations before graduating from college). On the classic view, people in a “positive mood” should disregard the quality of the arguments and instead just focus on how many arguments they heard (so that 9 bad arguments would win over 3 good arguments). That is indeed what happened when people were feeling amused, enthusiastic, or content. But the opposite happened when people were feeling awe or nurturant love – those participants paid much more attention to the quality of the arguments (what you’d expect from people in a bad mood).
Functionally, the results made sense. When you are experiencing awe, your mind is open to new experiences. When you are experiencing nurturant love, you are likely taking care of young helpless children, so want to be careful. If you are feeling amused, on the other hand, things are going well, so why ask why?
A new tree of positive emotions
Source: Shiota and colleagues proposed “family tree” of positive emotions. Used with author’s permission
Shiota and her colleagues argue that all positive emotions stem from a common ancestor – the general “reward system” that becomes active when our ancestors (going back before the dinosaurs) were eating desirable foods. When something generally pleasant is on the horizon, there is a burst of dopamine in the brain’s mesolimbic circuits, and the general emotional state of enthusiastic anticipation – or “wanting.” When you feel that general positive activity, your attention is focused, and you are more likely to remember anyone or anything in the center of your attentional field.
The branches: The emotional subsystems
Shiota and her colleagues review evidence (some of it still tentative) that there are links between different neurotransmitters and distinct positive emotions:
Pride and serotonin: A study by Wai and Bond (2002) found that experimentally boosting serotonin levels led to more assertive and confident behavior. Jessica Tracy and her colleagues have suggested that there is a broader tendency for serotonin to be linked to dominance and display of pride across species.
Sexual desire and testosterone. Sexual desire is associated with a very different pattern of physiological activity than pride. Research across species demonstrates that testosterone is the key hormone involved in craving sexual satisfaction, and that this is true for females as well as males (it doesn’t require testes to produce testosterone, females also produce testosterone in their adrenal glands) (Dabbs & Dabbs, 2000).
Pure pleasure, attachment love, gratitude, and opioids. Besides producing hormones associated with dominance and sexual desire, our brains produce chemicals associated with pure and simple pleasure. The reason that opium and morphine may be so addictive is that they trigger the receptors that fire when we are consuming something purely pleasurable, like a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Double Chocolate Fudge ice cream. Shiota and her colleagues review evidence that these biochemicals also alleviate the distress of being rejected or separated from our loved ones. Shiota also suggests that this hormonal system is active when we are feeling gratitude.
Amusement, the basal ganglia and cannabinoids. The basal ganglia are a group of structures sitting right under your cerebral cortex, behind your forehead and between your temples. According to Shiota and her colleagues, the basal ganglia are buzzing when you’re at play, practicing some new skill like throwing a spear or swinging a golf club (outside the dangerous real-life situation of an attacking leopard, or a clumsy Mulligan shot with Phil Mickelson watching). Apparently, the basal ganglia are full of cannabinoid receptors, which are linked to the positive emotion of amusement. No, I’m not joking, and I wasn’t smoking anything when I read the article.
Contentment, nurturant love, and oxytocin. When you’ve just eaten a delicious plate of taglietele smothered in ragù Bolognese, your brain is likely to be flooded with oxytocin. The same experience can be triggered by hugging a baby or seeing your lover’s smile. It is associated with the sympathetic flight or flight system being turned to low, and the more Zen parasympathetic system taking over.
What don’t we know about the positive emotions?
Shiota and her colleagues are admirably careful in developing their case. They in fact include a lovely table laying out where there is good evidence for their model, and where their speculations are yet to be tested.
Although all the evidence is not yet in, though, some parts of the case are pretty clear. Positive emotion isn’t just one thing. What’s going on in our brains, and our bodies, when we are feeling proud, amused, content, nurturant, satisfied, sexually aroused or simply feeling fond of our love objects are different experiences, with different implications for what we’ll do next.
Shiota and her colleagues end with another set of questions yet to be answered, regarding the practical consequences of making these distinctions. Here’s one interesting question: Psychotherapists have traditionally focused on reducing different types of negative emotions, but might there be some useful treatments that focus instead on increasing different types of positive emotions, specifically tailoring a particular positive emotion to a particular psychological problem?
Douglas Kenrick is author of:
The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think and
Dabbs, J. M., & Dabbs, M. G. (2000). Heroes, rogues and lovers: Testosterone and behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Griskevicius, V., Shiota, M. N., & Neufeld, S. L. (2010). Influence of different positive emotions on persuasion processing: a functional evolutionary approach. Emotion, 10(2), 190-206.
Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., Oveis, C., Hertenstein, M., Simon-Thomas, E., & Keltner, D. (2017). Beyond happiness: Toward a science of discrete positive emotions. American Psychologist. 72, No. 7, 617–643.
Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2007). Emerging insights into the nature and function of pride. Current directions in psychological science, 16(3), 147-150.
Wai, S. T., & Bond, A. J. (2002). Serotonergic intervention affects both social dominance and affiliative behaviour. Psychopharmacology, 161(3), 324-330.