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Positive emotions and happiness?

Gratitude, joy, contentment, pride, schadenfreude, hope, relief….is happiness just a general word we use for all these specific emotions?  And what are these positive emotions  there for, anyway?

I’m blogging my psychology of happiness course.  I have four topics to blog about from before our midterm.  Tonight I start to catch up with the post midterm topics.

What is an emotion, anyway?  A short while ago I had a piece of pumpkin pie sitting in front of me and I felt joy.  I wanted it, I wanted then to eat it.  If you unpack that you’ll see an appraisal (“This pie will meet my need to satisfy my hunger!  And I’m pretty darned confident that I can eat it!”)  There’s an action tendency (“I want to pick up my fork and start shoveling this quickly into my mouth!).  And there’s a feeling (joy).  That describes the essence of the appraisal theory view of what emotion is.  We are constantly, in some way, assessing/thinking about/processing our situations, and those assessments give rise both to feelings and to the tendency toward some action.  As humans we can choose not to engage in that action. (I really could have chosen not to go that pie with the fork.  I didn’t.  But I could have!)  Emotions then serve to help us interact with our worlds.  Without much effort we can take in that which is important to us and prepare to act on it while having the flexibility to act in some way other than that which we feel most strongly compelled to do.

There are many of those positive emotions.  I mentioned some of them at the beginning of this post.  As our appraisals change, we change our feelings and action tendencies.  If I “focus” on the fact that I worked long and hard to get a doctorate so I could, in fact, gain employment and thereby pay for the pie I feel pride and want to boast about my goodness.  If I then “focus” on (or “appraise”) the folks who built River Road so I could drive on it to get to the Whole Foods from which I bought the pie I feel grateful and want to go to their houses to tell them how wonderful they are.  When I focused on the fact that my hunger was about to be relieved I felt, well, relief.  When I focused on the fact that Whole Foods was closing very shortly so I really needed to step up my game to make it on time I felt challenge and I committed myself to working hard to get there on time. When I focus on the fact that I wanted blueberry pie but they didn’t have any small ones, I feel sad and I just want to sit here.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Maybe, then, when we say we’re happy we mean we are proud or grateful or tranquil or challenged or….some other specific positive emotion. We’re just not looking at it very clearly to discern which flavor of happiness we are experiencing.  Does this matter?  Maybe we needn’t be aware of which sort of happiness we are feeling.  We can find our way to thanking, boasting, relaxing, working hard, etc. even without understanding the emotion system.  But if we look more closely perhaps we can understand better how we are relating to our world, for instance, whether we are focused on our own self as the cause of good things, or on the contributions of others.  Or if we’re focused on what we need to do, or how uncertain it is that good things will happen.  Or that they have happened and we need not work any more.

Perhaps that way of understanding our emotions can help us understand more our hearts’ desires and feed the emotions we wish.  And perhaps we can understand better the actions we find ourselves seemingly compelled to do, that dance of our desires and our worlds. And dance a different jig.

In the next couple blog posts I’ll dive into two particular emotions to more clearly examine this appraisal idea.  First will be gratitude, then an emotion the social psychologist Jon Haidt labelled “elevation.”


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