Activating the best of you!

What Positive Psychologists Won’t Tell You Re:Emotions

(I wanted to share a fascinating new article by an eminent positive psychologist whose work I follow. I incorporate many of the applied research findings in positive psychology to my Great in 8 Coaching Practice.  —Joan)


by Dr. Biswas-Diener


Happiness is an easy sell to most people, and within positive psychology circles it trumps just about everything else. People want to feel pleasure and avoid pain. In fact, research from international samples shows that people highly desire happiness. They prize it as much as they do other shiny outcomes such as being rich, falling in love, and getting into heaven. My own cross-cultural research suggests that most people are mildly happy most of the time. One of the most frequently cited papers in the field-by Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues-demonstrates that feeling frequent positive emotion is associated with all sorts of health, relationship and workplace advantages. While this information is pretty standard fare for folks who are familiar with positive psychology it does little to make a place for negative emotions. A tour of web sites and blogs related to positive psychology reveals a focus on happiness and very little discussion of the “darker emotions.” So here’s a bit of information that I am guessing will be new to you:

When people choose anger: Although people generally seek happiness they appear to desire being angry when they see this latter emotion as providing long-term benefits! How could anger be beneficial? It turns out that feeling your “blood boil” helps prepare you for confrontation. In a study by Maya Tamir angry people were actually more successful at confrontational games than non-angry people. To put this in a real-life scenario imagine all those irate airline passengers you see confronting agents at the airport about delayed or missed flight connections. You and I would like to believe that a friendly smile and a wink would be more effective, but it may be that anger is associated with stronger self-advocacy and less compromise. As further evidence Tamir and her colleagues conducted follow-up research in which they found that angry people were more likely to get refunds and have others acquiesce to their demands. Rage may not be good for long term relationships, and it certainly isn’t pleasant, but it can be effective-even more effective than happiness in some situations.

When people choose fear: One factor that ought to be considered, where anger is concerned, is that fact that it can be very arousing, and this means it can actually feel good in a way. Interestingly, people sometimes opt for less arousing and less pleasant feelings such as fear. This is particularly true when people are pursuing “avoidant” rather than “approach” goals. Simply put, there are two basic kinds of goals. Approach goals are those that seek out a positive outcome as in the example of “I would like to buy some chocolate cake so that I can have a delicious dessert!” Avoidance goals are those that seek to avoid a negative outcome as in the example of “I am going to pass on the chocolate cake because I want to avoid getting fat.” In a series of studies Maya Tamir and her colleagues found clear evidence that people prefer fear when pursuing avoidant goals. Despite the unpleasantness of fear people appear to recognize that it will help them better achieve certain types of goals.

What does this mean for you? Should you abandon happiness in favor of fear and anger? Of course not. Positive emotions still have many benefits such as making people more sociable and open. But happiness is not a magic pill that solves every problem and cures every ailment. There is a place in your emotional repertoire for anger and fear as well. Anger will help you stick up for loved ones, advocate for yourself and fight against injustices. Fear will help you avoid unpleasant outcomes. In fact, learning more about the relationship between negative and positive emotions— such as which people use to pursue short and long term goals– is one of the “next big things” in positive psychology.

Keeping these thoughts in mind might also help you be more forgiving of people who are angry or fearful. Remember that guy at the airport acting like a jerk? It might be helpful to keep in mind that he could-just possibly-be terribly effective.

Happiness Down Under

In my travels I often bump up against people who are skeptical about the science of happiness. Interestingly, one of the most frequent critiques I hear is that positive psychology is too American. This is a little surprising to me given the large numbers of psychologists in places like Canada, Israel and Norway who are excellent positive psychology researchers. And, in my humble opinion, it is the Europeans who are the leaders in positive psychology applications. So let me take this opportunity to shine the spotlight on a place that is about as far away from the United States as a person can get: Australia. Australia has long been a hotbed of positivity research and application. One of the grand masters of happiness research is Deakin University professor Robert Cummins who has studied quality of life for decades. Similarly, Dr. Tim Sharp of The Happiness Institute is author of several books on the topic. My favorite of Sharp’s books is The Happiness Handbook. This slender volume acts as a nice overview to all of positive psychology with chapters on strengths, happiness, optimism and relationships. I especially like the chapter on “managing your resources.” It is too rare that happiness books directly address diet, emotion management and meditation as keys to well-being and I applaud Sharp’s efforts in this arena. Another thing I like about Tim is his appreciation of the many shades of happiness…he recognizes that happiness comes in the form of sensual pleasure, joy calmness and contentment, and many other states. 

This year, on June 16-17th, Brisbane is hosting another Happiness & Its Causes conference. This year speakers include HH Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, Mathieu Ricard, Paul Ekman, Tony Grant, Barb Fredrickson, me and many others. To find out more about this landmark event go to: 

Here is to wishing you a great new year with mostly happiness, and with only occasional bouts of anger and fear, when they are best used.


Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener
Positive Psychology Services, LLC

Recent Post