It is usually expected that as human beings we all want to feel positive and would prefer to avoid negative feelings. There is evidence to show that in the west at least, people do tend to prefer to up-regulate positive emotions, and we also tend to do things that down-regulate negative emotions. The most common ways of doing this tend to be by the use of devices such as listening to music that makes us happy, doing nice things, being with friends, having treats, having a bath, meditation, relaxing etc to create and hold onto positive feelings and negate negative feelings. This is called hedonic emotion regulation or doing things to increase pleasure and reduce negative emotions. It makes sense and why wouldn't anyone want to do this?
Well as it turns out there are times when we actually down-regulate or dampen positive emotions and up-regulate or increase our negative emotions. for example researchers have found that people with low self-esteem tend to find themselves worrying about being too positive or happy. This can often be accompanied by thoughts such as, 'if I get too happy someone will ruin it all and i'll be even worse off'.
It is often the same when we are feeling down. We can also down-regulate emotions out of feelings of guilt, like finding yourself laughing whilst grieving for example or dampening positive emotions around someone who is depressed or grieving.
It is common for therapeutic clients to up-regulate negative emotions when they are with their therapist. I have watched clients park their car, cross the road and enter the building and wait in reception looking fine, until they see me, then suddenly drop their shoulders and start crying. Another scenario is when playing the social game 'ain't it awful' This is where two or more people do the 'did you see the news last night about x or y disaster - ain't it awful' and actively increase the negative feelings whilst engaging in this type of conversation and then snapping out of it as they walk away.
People who are trying to prove a point about how badly they have been treated frequently up-regulate the negative emotions in front of the people they blame for their misfortune. Any parent of a teenager will recognise that one.
It has also been discovered that we often down-regulate or dampen positive emotions when we are about to meet and interact with strangers, especially in group situations. So if you enter a meeting room with people you don't know too well you are quite likely to reduce 'overly' positive emotions before you do so. We also tend to reduce positive emotions just before we have to engage in any confrontational engagement.
In my next post I will have a look at how cultural differences in our beliefs about emotion significantly alters the way we go about regulating or changing our feelings and also some recent surprising findings about which cultures find it harder to learn how to regulate or change things like anxiety or low feelings.
Gross, J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271-299.
Parrott, W. (1993). Beyond hedonism: Motives for inhibiting good moods and for maintaining bad moods. In D. Wegner (Ed.), Handbook of mental control (pp. 278-305). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Tamir, M. (2009). What do people want to feel and why?: Pleasure and utility in emotion regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 101-105.
Wood, J., Heimpel, S., & Michela, J. (2003). Savoring versus dampening: Self-esteem differences in regulating positive affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 566-580.