What Good (and Bad) are Positive Emotions?

There is a seminal article by Barbara Fredrickson titled ‘What good are positive emotions?’ which introduces the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. As per this theory, while negative emotions are associated with specific action tendencies, positive emotions broaden the thought-action repertoire available at that moment and help build physical, social and intellectual resources over the long run.

To take an example, joy is associated with creativity, and more loose associations, etc, all involving a move away from rigidity and fixedness to flexibility and fluency in thinking ;  joy is also associated with rough-and-tumble play in many species, including humans, and this play although apparently without any purpose, prepares the young ones for avoiding predators later on. Thus, being in a state of joy over time prepares/ enables one to take care of an important evolutionary problem – that of avoiding predators.

However, there is a downside to extreme continued state of joy or euphoria- Mania that is marked by energy (needed for play), paranoia (predator avoidance and suspiciousness kicking in) and other characteristics like racing thoughts and verbal diarrhea (creativity and loose associations gone haywire). Some of the features of this syndrome (like paranoia) can only be understood when one applies the evolutionary lens to the phenomena.

I have listed elsewhere the major adaptive problems faced by all humans in the EEA, and will like to use as an example the first two problems: Avoiding predators and finding food (by hunting/ gathering).

One may surmise that not being able to avoid predator and getting eaten partly or wholly is painful and distressing and that these emotions play a great part in ensuring survival in the short term.  In the long term however if one has to avoid predator one needs to rehearse in peace time to be prepared for the show when one encounters the predator next. Joy signals such a peaceful state where one can indulge in rough and tumble play and practice predator avoidance tactics and strategies.

Now how is the state of joy induced? Once the organism is not in a state of pain or in a state that can lead to more pain, it can focus on hunting/ gathering to get food and become string and heal. Eating such food leads to pleasure/joy and the cycle repeats.

….joy leads to play leads to predator avoidance leads to less or no pain leads to hunting/gathering leads to eating food leads to pleasure joy leads to ….

Thus the positive signal of Joy/pleasure moves the organism towards food (other consummatory rewards)  while the negative signal of pain/ distress makes the organism avoid predator and move away from such in danger states.

Normally, these work in perfect balance, but if pain/distress takes over one loses the drive to hint/ gather and may suffer from depression; if pleasure/ joy takes over one is too focused on avoiding (imaginary) predators that one may become manic (paranoid type).

The natural question arises, does this analysis apply to other emotions too? Below I try to list the cycles for each emotion (two emotions form a pair and work in conjunction)  along with the adaptive problems they solved in EEA.

  1. Predator Avoidance: failure of predator avoidance leads to pain/distress. When there is no pain/ distress (and one has healed) one hunts/ gathers.
  2. Hunting/ gathering food: eating food leads to pleasure/joy. Joy leads to rough and tumble play which preparers one to avoid predators in future.
  3. Nature’s fury (unpredictability/ novelty ) avoidance: failure of not being able to predict weather or encountering a new phenomenon etc lead to fear/ guilt. When there was no fear or guilt and conditions were stable one explored the world.
  4. Exploration of the world/ environment: Encountering novel phenomenon leads to interest in such phenomenon. Interests leads to learning maybe via nighttime dreams where one subconsciously elaborates the cognitive maps and explores the dark corners including nature’s fury and tries to understand them so as to avoid them in future. The main function involving fear/ interest here is learning about the good and the bad stimuli in the environment.  When fear takes over it manifests as phobias, when interest takes over it manifest as obsession and compulsion (rituals to avoid unpredictability?).
  5. Misunderstanding avoidance (theory of mind) : failure of this leads to misunderstanding among the dyad and leads to anger/ aggression etc. When there is no anger / aggression one indulges in communicating with the other and build bridges of understanding.
  6. Communicating with others: When one feels listened to and understood, one feels love and compassion for the other. Love leads to social play (say flirting) that ensures that you have a better grasp on what the other person is thinking. The love/ anger cycle is responsible for ensuring proper bonding and communication between con-specifics. When anger takes over you have antisocial/ conduct disorders; when love takes over you may have dependence/ addiction.
  7. Incest Avoidance: failure of incest avoidance led to disgust. When the ancestral human was disgust free he mastered the art of remembering faces so as to distinguish kin from non kin.
  8. Face recognition: When one recognizes a familiar face/ pattern, one is in awe or get elevated.  Being in Awe one experiments with morality and builds character which leads to incest avoidance.  this system of disgust/ Awe has been co-opted for morality. When disgust takes over you may have dissociation.
  9. Wrong mate avoidance (mate selection): Selecting the right mate is very important. Failure to do so leads to envy/jealousy. When one is free of envy/  jealousy one can take care of the marriage- by investing in kids and relatives.
  10. Helping children and kin (Parental investment):  When one is helping one’s children and kin, one feels the contentment of merely being able to serve them. Contentment leads to savoring where one enjoys the time together with the same mate; the actions you take cements the relation and leads to less chances of mate selection being bad.  This cycle is about family systems.
  11. Cheating avoiding (cheater detection): In altruistic and social beings, detecting cheaters is very important. Failure to detect them timely leads to feelings of dissatisfaction/ vengeance. When such feelings are lacking one can make new friends and alliance partners.
  12. Making new friend and alliances: When one makes new friends and alliance partners one feels gratitude towards them.  Gratitude leads to reciprocal plays like repeated prisoner’s dilemma, where you learn not to get waylaid by cheaters and can avoid them in future.

Although some of the above is speculative, I as usual am very much excited by the above framework- its makes a number of empirical predictions that can be easily tested. What disorders do you foresee from the excess of both positive and negative emotions? Do let me know via the comments!

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