June Gruber: The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion (HeadCon '13 Part II)

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June Gruber: The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion 

What I'm really interested in is the science of human emotion. In particular, what's captivated my field and my interest the most is trying to understand positive emotions. Not only the ways in which perhaps we think they're beneficial for us or confer some sort of adaptive value, but actually the ways in which they may signal dysfunction and may not actually, in all circumstances and in all intensities, be good for us.

June Gruber is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Director, Positive Emotion & Psychopatology Lab, Yale University.

It's really nice to have a conversation with everyone here today. I've met most of you, but for those of you I haven't, I'm June Gruber, and I'm a psychologist at Yale University, and I direct the Positive Emotion and Psych Pathology Lab. What I'm really interested in is the science of human emotion. In particular, what's captivated my field and my interest the most is trying to understand positive emotions. Not only the ways in which perhaps we think they're beneficial for us or confer some sort of adaptive value, but actually the ways in which they may signal dysfunction and may not actually, in all circumstances and in all intensities, be good for us.

I thought I'd first start briefly with a tale of positive emotion. It's a really interesting state because in many ways it's one of the most powerful things that evolution has built for us. If we look at early writings of Charles Darwin, he prominently features these feelings of love, admiration, laughter. So early on we see observations of them, and have some sense that they're really critical for our survival, but when you look at the subsequent scientific study of emotion, it lagged far behind. Indeed, most of the research in human emotion really began with studying negative emotions, trying to build taxonomies, understand cognitive appraisals, physiological signatures, and things like anger, and fear, and disgust. For good reason, we wanted to understand human suffering and hopefully try to ameliorate it.

When we looked at the first scientific study of positive emotion, what we really saw is a rather simplistic treatment of it. We would see people talking about positive emotions as if they were some single uni-dimensional construct that we would call happiness, whatever that was supposed to mean. Even looking at work on what are thought to be some of the most basic universal emotions cross-culturally to man, in some of Paul Ekman's early observations, five out of six of them are negative. Again, we really had just one that was truly positive—this idea of joy or happiness. But everyone here knows that there's more than just one way to feel good, right? So it seems to be that science, though, hadn't gotten there just yet.

Furthermore, when we thought about the fact that emotions are functional—we have them for some reason, they help us serve some sort of adaptive survival purpose—positive emotions, again, were relatively neglected. When we thought of what their function was, a lot of the early treatments suggested, well, really, they're there perhaps just to undo the sort of deleterious effects of negative emotions, right? We saw work by Barbara Fredrickson, Robert Levenson, and others, that showed really profoundly that when you got sympathetically charged by some kind of negative emotion, positive emotions could kick in to kind of help you recover, or come down to some resting baseline.

Although that may be some important finding related to a consequence of positive emotion, it's not the sole function in its own right. Positive emotions are not simply healers, and they're not simply there to counteract the effects of negative emotions. They have their functions of their own, and in their own right. I think only recently have we really seen these empirical tides begin to shift, and to really turn our attention towards trying to understand what exactly positive emotions are—what their functions are for us, and I think in many ways what good are they for us.

This is an exciting time in the field, but I also think, as it's grown and gained momentum, a lot of the research has focused on trying to understand what benefits positive emotions confer for us.  We know from this research there's been a robust domain of findings that have really said (not surprisingly), positive emotions seem to have some benefits for us. They help us build vital social bonds. There's even some work in the health psychology discipline suggesting they may enhance physical immunity to stressors, and some work suggesting they place some role in expansive creative thinking.

Positive emotions are not simply healers, and they're not simply there to counteract the effects of negative emotions. They have their functions of their own, and in their own right. 

When I entered this field I looked at this and I said, "Well, let's wait a second here. Is this really all there is to the story?" I think here's where I've gotten most interested in this field of positive emotion and where a lot of the most interesting insights about positive emotion have really come into being in the past couple years. So when I thought about where is this field of emotion, and positive emotion, particularly in the past couple of years, this is really where my attention turned. I think it's suggesting that how we traditionally think about positive emotion and the role it plays in our wellbeing is not at all as simple as we thought; it's far more nuanced and far more complex, especially if you think about the relationship of positive emotion to our general sense of wellbeing and how we survive and flourish—it's not some simple linear relationship.

Some of the critical factors that it really depends on in understanding the role that positive emotion plays in human well-being varies as a function of the, I would say, balance of positive emotions. I'll say a little bit more about what I mean by that, the context in which they unfold, and I would say the specific aims or goals by which we go about trying to experience this thing we call positive emotion in the first place. I think that's what I'd like to talk with you about today—thinking about this really nuanced, almost delicate, interplay between this thing we call positive emotion—this thing that we sort of have some intuitive sense, "It must be good for us, right?" and to actually say, "No, it's not quite that simple. It's a far more rich and deep relationship that I think not only tells us something about emotion, but I think just says a little bit about the role that psychological states perhaps more generally play in better understanding, or human nature."

I wanted to start out with in playing out these three themes for me was a quote that I remember first seeing by Aristotle, who I often go back to and think had many of the most prescient, fascinating observations about human emotion. As psychologists we're just trying to catch up now and sort of build some empirical data to really flesh out his observations. So he has this wonderful quote, and I'll read it to you. He said, "Getting angry or sad is easy and anyone can do it, but doing it at the right amount, at the right time, and in the right way is not easy, nor can anyone do it."

Here he picked up some of these key themes right away. He talked about the amount or intensity of an emotion experience. He talked about the timing, or the particular sensitive context in which this emotion reveals itself, he also talked about the ways that we try to achieve these states in the first place.

I want to start out with this first theme, which is really about the amount of emotions we experience. When you think about positive emotion, probably most of you see things not only in scientific form but also in pop culture that suggests that what we ought to be doing is really striving to maximize these positive states or just the general term "happiness," that what we should be going out and doing is finding ways to increase the frequency, intensity, and amount of positive emotions that we experience. What I would say is that may be going about it in all the wrong way, and that what actually may be most important is to think about positive emotion as a very delicate balance, and an equilibrium that we want to constantly keep check on.

What I'm talking about here in a way is like the magnitude or intensity of any emotion state we experience, and this applies to positive emotion as well. So here, really what we're going back to is this principle of moderation, and the idea that positive emotions are no exception to that. When you look at some of the recent data that's come out in the past few years about positive emotion, it's really suggested that intensely high or great magnitudes or degrees of positive emotion don't necessarily confer these direct benefits in terms of increasing our wellbeing, or our psychological health. Some of these findings at first, when I saw them, I found them really counterintuitive.

For example, we all think that positive emotion is something that should enhance our ability to creatively think about solving problems, that it just opens our repertoire to pick from different possible ideas or strategies. We find, though, that when people actually go beyond a critical threshold—hit a peak and pass that —they actually have a harder time solving problems effectively; they become more rigid or inflexible in their behavioral repertoires. It seems to be the case that too much positive emotion, thinking especially about these high arousal states of excitement and joy, actually leads us to become less creative.

Then the piece that I love the most is thinking about what are the action tendencies associated with some of our most common positive emotions. If we think of some of them, especially excitement or enthusiasm, they motivate us importantly to seek out rewards in the environment, to try to obtain them, and once we obtain them, to go about savoring them. In many ways I think it narrows our focus on rewards, how can we find them, attain them, and keep them for as long as possible.

What we find is that individuals who experience this sort of heightened magnitude of positive emotion (this is measured in a lot of different ways, using self-report scales, and also with children, parent and teacher-rated observations) out of balance, it causes you to neglect important threats and dangers, and pieces of information in the environment around you. And so as a result we see associations with greater risk taking—engaging in reckless driving, substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices. Some people would argue that this may help explain this one finding:  looking at children who were rated in terms of their dispositional cheerfulness, and followed them longitudinally over the lifespan, and what you find is that children who were rated as more highly cheerful actually had a greater mortality risk later in life.

There could be many reasons to account for this, but I think one possibility might be, at least tentatively, that there's something about heightened positive emotion beyond a critical threshold that we need to be careful of, and think about keeping in balance. In my lab, we try to study this in the clinical context of individuals suffering from emotional disorders. One entry point that we've begun to look at is among individuals with mania that show some characteristic signs of heightened positive emotion and this appetitive system that's kind of go, go, go towards rewards, and finding (not surprisingly) that these are individuals who engage in all kinds of reckless behavior. They wipe out their bank accounts, they destroy some of the most important social bonds in their lives with their partners through lots of sexual promiscuity. They will report when you talk to them, and I interviewed a lot of these people clinically, that they just felt so good—that nothing else  could enter their mind, that it was a one mind that was really all about feeling good, and finding ways to keep that going.

I think this first theme, and it's a new theme, needed a lot more empirical attention on it. What it's beginning to suggest is something about human nature that suggests that maybe we need to put aside these conventional notions of trying to maximize positive emotions, and that positive emotion may be in line with many psychological states that are subject to this principal of moderation. We really want to be experiencing things in balance— not too little, or not too much—and in many ways it's also consistent with biological theories, postulating optimal functioning, and moving towards a sense of homeostasis, or equilibrium.

This is important because it suggests that a realm of psychology that's getting a lot of pop culture attention really needs to be cautious, and think about, in these interventions that are being discussed, how can we keep it in line with a sense of moderation? So that's one thing that's been getting attention, in the past couple of years that is interesting.

The one thing that comes next that I find even more fascinating is the idea of context.  I've been talking about positive emotions very generally, and I haven't been talking about when they occur, what is the timing. If we think about a functional approach to emotions, the idea is that they have functions, but the functions are really tied to a specific context. Emotions are geared to help us find opportunities, solve challenges, respond to immediate threats, and inherent in that definition is that they arise in a particular context in which those goals are activated.

When we think about the function, thinking about positive emotion now, we need to consider the context in which it occurs. We can all probably readily imagine times when we're hanging out with friends, and it's a wonderful appropriate context to experience amusement, experience joy, but there's many contexts in which that would absolutely not be productive, and may lead to rupturing professional relationships—if you're laughing inappropriately, or if you're in a dangerous life-threatening situation, you don't want to be standing back content with the world around you.  For me, this is the piece of positive emotion that I've been most interested in, and I think has some of the most powerful implications, at least for affective scientists in terms of how we think about emotion, emotion regulation, and understanding.

In many ways, when you experience positive emotions in a context that doesn't match that function, here's where we're finding that difficulties arise, and that we shouldn't be trying to promote positive emotions at all times and in all situations, and for all people for that matter. 

I start with negative emotions because those are the ones that have received still, to this date, the most attention. We can think of anger, for example, it mobilizes us to overcome obstacles, or fear that alerts us to threat and danger in the environment. These are obvious functions I don't think many of us would disagree with, but when we think about the role of distinct kinds of positive emotions, what role do they serve? In general, if I talk in a general valence level of positive emotions, they're thought to, in many ways, help us pursue personal goals and facilitate cooperative behavior. You can take a more nuanced perspective and look at the discreet types or distinct flavors of positive emotion, and there you see wonderful taxonomies that are not now being developed, saying that certain emotions like gratitude, and very different functions from pride, very different functions from feelings of contentment, and awe or inspiration. So we see that not only does the family of positive emotions have some sort of broad-based function, but that each individual variety or flavor of positive emotion serves a important goal in our lives.

The important point I'm trying to make here is that positive emotions are really suited to perform a function. In many ways, when you experience positive emotions in a context that doesn't match that function, here's where we're finding that difficulties arise, and that we shouldn't be trying to promote positive emotions at all times and in all situations, and for all people for that matter. There's been a couple of interesting findings that have come out in the last couple years that I think really hit this home.

One of them is by a psychologist, Maya Tamir. She did a study looking at what kinds of affective states promote successful outcomes on competitive tasks. And so she did a task that involved a competitive computer game. Participants were experimentally induced into either a positive mood state, which was a high arousal state that many people would say is something like excitement or joy, compared to individuals in an angry mood state, which is also this sort of appetitive high arousal state. And then there was a neutral comparison condition. After that people played this competitive computer task. She found that those who performed best on this task were not the people who were induced to the highly positive arousing state, but those who were angry.  This has a lot of implications and thinking about when you're trying to overcome obstacles, and in some competitive situations, there may be something about anger that helps motivate the kinds of behaviors that could lead to successful outcomes.

Now, that doesn't mean that we should be angry all the time when we're competing, but it suggests that, depending on what your goal is, and if your goal is to win in some competitive situation, we know that highly arousing positive states may not be the best affective state or path that's going to get you there.

We've also looked at the context of experiencing positive emotions and everyday social interactions with romantic partners. What we did is we brought couples into the lab who had been in long-term relationships. These are, perhaps, our most highly valued social relationships in our entire life, and highly ecologically valid in the context of trying to understand emotional dynamics between two people. What we asked people to do was to think of a time in their life where they experienced great suffering or personal loss, and to share that with their partner. And then we had the partner report the kinds of emotions that they experienced after hearing their partner tell of this time of suffering or loss.

Now, many of you might imagine that if you could list an array of emotions that would be appropriate in that circumstance, both to accurately interpret the significance of what your partner is saying, and be connected to them empathically, they might range from things like sadness, frustration, to compassion, which is an interesting emotion that has elements of both positive and negative feelings. What we found, though, is that in this particular sample, and this had both healthy community adults and individuals on a spectrum of clinical symptoms of mania, is that the higher people were on the spectrum of having symptoms of mania, the more they reported feeling positive during this interaction. And by positive, these were feelings of joy, amusement, and even contentment. What we were finding is that not only our signatures of emotional dysfunction we associated with experiencing positive emotions and inappropriate contexts, but that this is not surprisingly predictive of decreased relationship satisfaction. So it just tells us something about the importance of context when experiencing positive emotions.

This may seem really obvious and in some ways trivial, but every time I see some book that tells you how to maximize happiness, to think of three great things every day, and just constantly try to use this facial feedback monitoring, to put a smile on your face, what I don't see in it is under what context is that appropriate.  So I always worry that what we need to be stressing more of is that emotions really only serve their function best in the particular context in which they are suited for.

For me, this says something important about positive emotion, but also our emotional states as human beings, in general, and insofar as it suggests that any kind of emotional state is only adapted for us insofar as it has a particular fit with the environmental demands or needs in that situation. In many ways, there are no absolute value judgments we can place on emotions to call them adaptive or maladaptive—good or bad—and this goes for emotion regulation as well as a field where we no longer can call certain kinds of strategies like reappraisal adaptive, or behavioral suppression, where we don't show expressivity in our face maladaptive, that this just isn't the way that these emotional states work. Nothing is inherently adaptive or maladaptive.

So that's a second theme that I think has been getting a lot of attention, what people will call context, or the context sensitivity of our emotional states, behaviors, and associated regulation strategies.

The third theme, and this is the one that I find perhaps the most important when we think about ourselves in our everyday lives, is thinking about how do we set goals that will make us feel more positive.  There's a lot of strategies out there about how to maximize feelings of positivity. There's ideas that there are certain ratios we should try to obtain, or certain kinds of frequencies in which we should experience positive emotions.

When I think about this, to one, it's suggesting that we care a lot about, (as human beings) experiencing pleasant feelings, maximizing them, and trying to make them last as long as possible. Especially in the U.S. this seems ingrained in the way we think about what our rights are. We have this notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that this is sort of a culturally embedded value, and positive emotions are at the forefront. They're hypercognized, so you have a lot of words for them, and we put a lot of emphasis on them.

But I think the bottom line in all of this, and I'll tell you some really interesting studies by Iris Mauss at U.C. Berkeley, is that we spend a lot of time trying to find ways to make ourselves feel positive. People call this feeling happy, often colloquially, and I think recent science suggests that we're going about it all in the wrong way.

And, in fact, research is finding that the more people (1) spend time and effort trying to increase how positive they feel, and (2) the more they set as the end goal point feeling more positive, that they actually somewhat paradoxically set themselves to feel less of that very state. There has been work looking at individuals in laboratory studies, where people are told, for example, try to make yourself feel as happy as possible while listening to a piece of music, and those people that are told to do that, not surprisingly, report feeling less positive, right?

If you look at people who report these kind of tendencies in daily life, endorsing items such as:  I spent a lot of time trying to feel happy, or I go out of my way to select activities that I think are going to bring me pleasure, that I think are going to make me feel good, If you bring these people into the laboratory and put them in contexts that are ostensibly positive, like you're watching a positive film, or reading a positive sort of vignette, that it's in those circumstances that they feel or self report less positive affect, you see it even more pronounced than compared to a negative film or some neutral film. The idea that researchers have tried to explain these paradoxical findings is going back to basic theories on human goal pursuit—that the goals people value determine what standards they're going to set for achieving those goals.

In many ways, you can think of, for example, someone who highly values academic achievement—they place a lot of value on that goal, it's likely they're going to subsequently set a very high standard for achieving that goal. So in many ways the more we seem to value experiencing positive emotion, whether it is excitement, or pride, or love, or contentment, the more we set that as our emotional value system, inadvertently, probably the higher we're going to set a threshold for achieving it, and subsequently set up ourselves for disappointment.

We've seen research translating this to the clinical science realm recently, finding that people who highly value the experience of positive emotion, and who put behavioral energy towards obtaining it, they're at great risk for depression, and they subsequently report at baseline, cross-sectionally too, a greater incidence of clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder.

We really see that this is telling us something profound about just the kinds of goals we set for ourselves. For me, this is an important thing to translate to human nature, because it suggests that the amount of our positive emotion is really affected by the effort we put into it. It's almost this ironic effect. I mean we know that the more we try not to think about white bears, we think about white bears, and in many cases the more we try not to be unhappy, the more unhappy we seem to be. So it suggests that in many ways this is this paradoxical backfiring, and in many ways that if we want to have affective or psychological goals for ourselves, then we ought not to make that the end focal point in itself, but perhaps to be focusing on other things from which those emotions might emerge.

So I mean just in closing, thinking about what positive emotion can tell us, not just about positive emotion, but more general about human nature, I think is that the relationship between our feelings, and perhaps this goes for our thoughts and behaviors as well, is way more complicated than we ever thought, way more complicated. I think we have a lot more work ahead of ourselves, and that it really depends on things like intensity of a given psychological state, the context in which it occurs, and just the way we approach trying to achieve it in the first place.

So in other words, I think balance, intensity, context, and timing are important, and as psychologists, I mean, I always go back and think how much we can learn from philosophy as we try to move forward in understanding human nature, too. So that's what has happened in the past couple years, and I hope that we continue to move forward in realizing just how much more complicated human emotions are than we ever thought possible.


CUSHMAN:  I felt as if, in a way, there's a struggle in the remarks that you made between two visions of what a theory of emotion should deliver on. One vision is that what it should deliver on is:  tell us whether it's good or bad, right? Then another theory is that it should tell us what its function is, and what role it plays in a psychological system. If you thought of other kinds of psychological systems, like vision, it would never occur to you to ask the question like the visual system, good or bad? The questions would be:  what is it's functional role? How does it enable behavior? I wonder whether, in a way, it's kind of been a poison pill for research in positive psychology that it's the kind of thing that it seems like one would want to have a lot of, but that sets up a question which is really a red herring.

In thinking about what the function of positive psychology was, the other thing that struck me about your remarks is this asymmetry—lots of bad emotions seems like just one good emotion. You were saying we could draw some distinctions, but just at a broad level it did feel like there's disgust, there's fear, there's anger, and then there's this happiness. So I guess I was just curious why? I mean can you think of a reason, at a functional level, why we ought to have many different flavors and varieties of negative emotion, but why, if you were going to design a good psychological system, it would actually be best just to have one kind of generic goodness.

GRUBER:  The answer is no, I can't. I try to think why did this start in the first place, and perhaps when we think of our early categorization systems of emotion, a lot of it came from facial expressions, right? That they were thought to be these automatic universal signals of emotion. At least when it comes to different kinds of positive emotions, they're not all readily apparent in the face. We have this Duchenne smile that's supposed to signal some kind of joy. But then there's a lot more that goes on when we think about the way that our body—through nonverbal behaviors, touch, vocal intonations—that help differentiate, at the behavioral level, positive emotion.

So I think perhaps one reason it began is because when we were looking at cultural universal displays of emotion, at least in the beginning there seems to be one that …

CUSHMAN:  That's one of the tests.

GRUBER:  Yes. But I think any functional account of emotion would suggest now that perhaps there may even be a wider variety of positive emotions and negative emotions; it's fascinating. there's these taxonomies that have been developed that show distinct cognitive appraisals that uniquely differentiate … you know, you can look at classes of self versus other oriented positive emotions, and then you can also get emotions that take us outside of ourselves completely and give us a perspective on the broader world—things like awe and inspiration. They're incredibly important for us, and there's recent work suggesting we have different vocalizations, and that even these positive emotions can be distinctly and reliably communicated through physical touch.

For whatever reason, this negative bias we had on emotions because we thought that in many ways they were causes of suffering that led us astray, these made us these irrational beings. Now we're catching up and seeing just how important they are for us, and the more we take a profiled approach to look at distinct varieties of positive emotion, the more we're going to better understand the different psychological functions they have and bear on our everyday lives.

But I think you're exactly right. It's an interesting thing about why there was this value system placed on emotion, but not on vision science, per se, and I think it gets even more complicated when you talk about value systems, and we think of cross-cultural value systems. Much of the positive psychology movement is driven by westernized U.S. notions of positive emotions, so as a result it's focused on high arousal positive states, as opposed to if it had emerged in more collectivistic cultures, it might have focused on more low arousal positive emotion states. So we seem to care a lot about emotions and have value systems, and I think that has clouded our scientific judgment, and operationalization of where to begin and what these are. So I'm with you.

MULLAINATHAN:  I have one question, which is you mentioned on the last thing that you were talking about two things that might be related, I'm struggling to understand. Are emotions the end goal state themselves, or are emotions merely the signal of some goal state? In other words, take a totally different analogy. Say my goal is to be rich, but the signal could be, oh, people drive BMWs who are rich. So I could say, "I'm going go get a BMW," it's not going to make me rich. So I'm just trying to understand is the emotion. I guess I mean just both normatively, so that could be one way you could be giving bad advice, to say, "Think positive, be happy, think positive." You're looking for those things that generate it, but I also am trying to understand this positively, that is, when we understand the decisions people make, how do they think about what they're trying to accomplish? Are they mistaken to be chasing this? Do they understand?

That's related to my second question, in what you talked about, you were taking these reports of emotions, and maybe there's much more literature, so I'd love to just hear more about that. When I think of my own emotional state, it's almost like an illusion in my mind that I can report it. It feels like as I gain maturity, one thing I learn is that actually my emotional state is not as accessible to me as I thought it was. And how do we think about those things? You know what I'm saying?

GRUBER:  I know exactly what you're saying. To start with the first point, it's interesting because when we look at some of the most basic accounts of what emotions are in terms of are they the goal themselves, or are they simply a pathway to get to the goal? In many ways what we think of emotions doing is eliciting a certain set of actions, tendencies or behaviors that are going to help get us towards a goal. So an emotion is a signal to us; it's a source of information, and that information is going to guide us to decide do I approach or avoid that particular person. But it's not the emotion itself that's the goal. It's the emotion that gives you information to set you off on behaviors that are going to get you to your goal.  So I would say many emotion theorists would not think of emotion as the goal in and of itself.

That being said, if you ask for people's everyday intuitions about emotions, and you ask them about their goals in life, well, it's to be happy. "My goal is to be happy. My goal is to feel less sad and less anxious." And even from a clinical psychology perspective, working with patients who come into therapy, their goals are often very emotionally defined. They want to minimize negative emotion intensity usually, generally speaking, and maximize positive emotion intensity. I think what we need to do is use this information and leverage it in an educational way to say, "Well, emotions are certainly important facets of our lives, they give us information, and they signal to us something, but they're not the goal itself." And so I think that's the confusion, I think, that many people have this desire to want to move towards emotion as the goal, when it's anything but that. It's what are the behaviors that happen after the emotion is elicited, and do they take you towards or away from where you want to be going.

PIZARRO:  Just a quick clarification on this, because it strikes me that we talk, and I think it's an American thing to be honest, this focus on happiness as the goal. But even you, when you're talking about your goals, you frame it as if, well, if we just stop focusing on being happy, it will make us more happy. So it's even an end goal in your talk.

My parents, being the immigrants that they are, always would tell me it's weird to say I'm doing it to make myself happy, and many times I opt to do things that will make me very unhappy, knowing so, because I have a goal. And sure, like at some ultimate level, I want to achieve all my goals, and presumably happiness is the signal that I've achieved the goals, but I don't ever feel directly motivated by an attempt at happiness.

GRUBER:  That's a good thing!

PIZARRO:  I think it is. I think it is. And I think that it's weird to make happiness the goal, because then let's just pop ecstasy, you know.

MULLAINATHAN:  All right. Let's do it.

PIZARRO:  Yes. Well, I already did.

GRUBER:  No. I think you're right. It's funny because you totally caught me, and that's exactly it. So just don't try to be happy, right?

PIZARRO:  And then you'll be happy.

GRUBER:  And then you'll be happy, right? I think a lot of what people are focusing on now, especially in the past five or so years, is this idea of mindful acceptance, of not focusing on any one particular emotion that you ought to feel or ought not to feel, but simply being present with whatever emotions you have.  And that takes the spotlight away from emotions as a goal, but more focuses on being and experiencing whatever emotions you have, and using them as pieces of information to tell you something important about the environment and about yourself. So that's one approach, and there's many different kinds of approaches out there. But I think they're all important insofar as they're telling us to get away from looking at emotion as the end goal.

BROCKMAN:  To what extent is the whole construct of happiness cultural? I noticed just the word drove Dr. Kahneman from the table. And I've never framed my life in terms of happy.

GRUBER:  No. I mean to be …

BROCKMAN:  And I wonder like how much of this is driven by Prozac.

GRUBER:  It's a scary time right now. The word "happiness," what does it even mean is one thing, and I think people are really, this has been an age-old question of what does happiness mean, but I think the problem right now is that it's used in incredibly vague and interchangeable ways to mean all kinds of things. When this then gets disseminated to the public it becomes really tricky, because people just have this word of "happiness." Maybe it's about a bigger sense of subjective well-being, or maybe it's just sensory pleasure in the moment, but they just know that that's something that they ought to have.  So we see a host of prescription rates skyrocketing, and you could hope that maybe it's just more accurate detection and diagnosis of depression in this day and age, but you have to wonder if it's more something else and being driven by this zest to minimize negative and maximize positive.

It worries me in this age of happiness, because what it also does, and I think this is especially an American problem, is pushes us away from just simply experiencing negative emotions, too, that are incredibly rich sources of information for us, and incredibly important components of what gives us rich and meaningful lives.

BROCKMAN:  I mean what's the science here? You have a lab, but what does an experiment consist of?

GRUBER:  In studying emotion, what does it look like?


GRUBER:  Just on a general level?

BROCKMAN:  Well, on a particular level.

GRUBER:  Let me think of a good experiment in our lab. One of the studies that we've done has been to try to look at emotional responses—Laurie will remember this task—emotional responses that are self-referential. So what we do when we study emotion is we take a multi-componential approach. In one study we were trying to look at the experience of self-conscious emotions, so we had people come into the lab, they sit in front of the computer screen, and what we're doing with them are three things we are measuring simultaneously. We're measuring their subjective or self-reported emotion. That's one piece of emotion responding. It may not be the absolute truth, but it's an important component. Second, we are videotaping participants and coding their expressive signatures of emotion in their face, coding them using many different standardized systems, such as FACS or the Facial Action Coding System that look at features of emotion in the face. And then we look at their physiological signatures.What we think is that you can't say anything about emotion from any one single channel. It's going to lead you down the wrong path. In studies like this we'll have people sing along to a karaoke task, and unbeknownst to them, they have to watch the video of themselves.

What we're doing here is we're really trying to quantify when a person has an emotional response, which component is most centrally featured.  Is it something about their subjective representation? Is what they're signaling or communicating to others? Is it shifts in their body? Their heart rate, their skin conductance, their temperature, their breathing. And then we also do some studies taking people into the scanner, and trying to understand their own mechanisms at that level. And I think when you study emotion, what you really need to do is at every single moment be looking at it simultaneously across multiple levels of analysis.

BROCKMAN: Your last comment that we need to bring this together with philosophy is coincidental with the recent publication of Leon Wieseltier's attack on science, saying that philosophy tells us about happiness, not science. What do you have to say about her comment?

DENNETT: I don't want to say anything about Leon Wieseltier.

BROCKMAN: I know, but do a final comment. I mean what is that philosophy?

DENNETT: You mentioned in passing a study which showed that cheerful kids had a higher mortality, risk of mortality, and I thought, no that doesn't surprise me in a way, because I remember when my children were young, I remember talking to a wise older colleague and saying, "You know, I really worry about my kids, because they're having this sort of ideal upbringing. It's a very nurturing house, and they've got books, and music, and everything is perfect."

DENNETT: "And I'm just afraid they're going to be as soft as grapes, and be completely vulnerable when they get out in the real world. They won't have been tested at all, emotionally tested." And he had a very wise response. He said, "Don't worry. They'll make their own trouble." And he was right. And recovered from it, of course, and learned a great deal from it. But there is this question of whether we're making a big mistake in trying to cocoon our children in a world of positive emotions, and shield them from ever really experiencing fear, or loneliness, or boredom, and I wonder has there been research on this.

GRUBER:  Your intuition is absolutely right, and there's been some work on this. We've been doing some with a colleague of ours, Michael Norton, that many of you know, looking at this concept of emotional diversity. If you think about it just within a broader sense of ecosystems, diversity is really important for health and survival of that particular system. We started taking this looking at the inner psychological system and what is most important for well-being. And when we talk about well-being, we're talking about not only psychological function, but actually physical health functioning, so we have these large medical reports from people. What we're finding is that it's the diversity of emotional experiences that both cross-sectionally and longitudinally are predicting some of our best outcomes.

You want a mixture of things. It's fine to have some joy, but you also want sadness; you want the experience of guilt; you want the experience of loss. All of these things are really important in building a psychological strength to know how to experience these emotions, to know how to cope with them, and to get information from the world around you, too.

In terms of how does this relate to raising children, I think as much as you can expose them to different kinds of emotions, and not let any one kind predominate. I think that's what's going to be most critical, the diversity of experiences at the affective level.

CHRISTAKIS: I was just going to ask what your thoughts are on the functional kind of emotions that includes not only their internal function, but also their interpersonal function. And the thing that's interesting to me about emotions is not what you feel inside, but the fact that I display the emotion, and then not only do you read it, but you copy it, that there's kind of an emotional contagion, which is a very fundamental feature, to my eye, of emotion, so people who are depressed, you become depressed, or anxious, or happy.  I'm very curious about your thoughts on  this interpersonal account of emotions, not just the intrapersonal account.

GRUBER:  I teach this course on emotion, and when I ask students to provide an example of a time they remember experiencing some memorable emotion, they always talk about it in a social context. Usually, it's about people, but often it's with people. And many people would say that our emotions are inherently relational and interdependent, and that the function of our emotions is not to keep us as individuals, navigating the world, but it's to connect us to other people, and to interrelate to them.

CHRISTAKIS:  I would say in a way, your account, the use of information, I would say emotions might not be about the acquisition of information from the environment, but the delivery of information to the environment.

SANTOS:  A conspicuous signal of mental health.

CHRISTAKIS:  Of a variety of things.

GRUBER:  Yes. There's been some fascinating studies looking at exactly what you're talking about, which is this mimic or contagion of emotion, and finding, for example, in married couples, that those who had the best marital quality, in terms of self-reporting satisfaction, were those who played this dance. They had this mimicry, not only at the subjective level, looking at continuous rating dials of emotion as they were interacting with each other, but even looking at physiological signatures that have been thought to co-vary with the experience of positive emotion, they were in sync with one another, at one person's level, looking at cardiac vagal tone as it shifted, and so did the others.

So it seems to be what's most important in this case is not what emotions you're experiencing with a partner, but that you're in sync with one another, and there's a sense of almost coherence between partners, not just within an individual.



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Further Reading

Paperback [ 2011 ]
James Fowler
Hardcover [ 2013 ]
Daniel C. Dennett
Hardcover [ 2013 ]
Joshua D. Greene
Hardcover [ 2011 ]
Daniel Kahneman
Hardcover [ 2011 ]
Robert Kurzban
Hardcover [ 2013 ]
Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir

Conversations at Edge