Tag Archives: happiness

Positive emotions increase with old age; while negative emotions decline


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As per a new study reported in PNAS, positive emotions and hedonic well being, like happiness and enjoyment, increase past the age of 50 (after reaching a nadir at that age)  , while negative emotions , like stress, worry and anger decline with age throughout.

This is the conclusion that Stone et al reached after analyzing response to a telephonic survey of 3,40,000 individuals resident in the US. Only one measure of global Well being was used and hedonic well being was evaluated by the self reported affect experienced on the previous day.

It was found that Global well being , which to my mind is more of a cognitive construct, showed a U shaped relationship with age with global well being dipping around the age of 50. Happiness and enjoyment , the positive hedonic well being measures exhibited a similar curve .  It thus appears that positive affect is more cognitively mediated and that may be the reason for the similarity.

Negative affects on the other hand showed a distinctly different curve, thus bolstering my claim that negative and positive emotions are two different things and should not be seen as opposites of each other on a single dimension. The underlying mechanisms and rationale of negative and positive emotions may be vastly different. While negative emotions lead to specific action tendencies, positive emotions lead to broaden-and-build effects of enhancing resources of all type.

To me the above bodes well. I’ll like to quote on how the authors interpret the results (and with which I agree).

The overall WB-age pattern calls out for explanation. Why are older people, on average, happier and less stressed than younger people? The results are generally consistent with Baltes’ (12) theory of increased “wisdom” and emotional intelligence with age (at least through middle age), wherein decreased negative affective states could be a result of increasing wisdom, and with Carstensen et al.’s (13) socioemotional selectivity theory, wherein older people have an increased ability to self-regulate their emotions and view their situations positively. They are also in accord with a “positivity effect,” wherein older people recall fewer negative memories than younger adults (14), and with the possibility that older people are more effective at regulating their emotions than younger adults (15).

I would like to stress that cognitive abilities(especially the ability to interpret the same situation in a positive/adaptive light) increases with age and that may be the reason that despite negative experiences and lack of positive experiences, the old people are still able to appraise the situations differently and derive more positivity overall. I wont be surprised if it became apparent that emotions become more and more cognitive in nature as one moves up in age and less and less as a hardwired instinctual reaction to a given situation.

Stone, A., Schwartz, J., Broderick, J., & Deaton, A. (2010). A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (22), 9985-9990 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003744107

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The ABCD of Psychology and Happiness

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I’ve recently latched onto the ABCD model of psychological entities, where any psychological aspect is defined by following four features/dimensions: Affect( how does it subjectively feel) , Behavior (what are the manifest effects resulting in overt behavioral changes) , Cognition (how is it cognitively appraised) and Desire/Drive(what are the underlying motivations).

I was prompted on this journey by the evolutionary theory of personality (see here) by Theodore Millon, where he identifies four different evolutionarily salient domains and fields of adaptation: Existence (pain/pleasure) mapped to Affect in my model, Adaptation(active/passive) mapped to Behavior in my model, Replication(Self-other) mapped to Desire/drive in my model and finally Abstraction (broad-narrow) mapped to Cognition in my model.

Thus personality clearly is a dynamic between these four ABCD factors. What we habitually feel, how we habitually act, what usually drives us and how we habitually make sense of our situations clearly defines a personality.

I have also covered how emotions can be similarly considered as belonging to these four domains and having four ABCD dimensionsaffective in nature, lead to action tendencies, differential appraisal and cognitive underpinnings and different motivational states-whether the motivation to be in control or to nurture the other.

As it happens I am also keenly into this new ‘positive psychology’ stuff and keep reading the practitioners in this field; thus while reading ‘Happier’ I came across the happiness definition (as per Seligman) as anything that is pleasurable, meaningful and engaging, then I could immediately see the relationship to ABCD model by extending the concept of Drive (or intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation) to the mix and thus came up with this ABCD definition of happiness on twitter:

ABCD of happiness: find work that has pleasure(Affect), meaning (Cognition) and is engaging(Behavior) and intrinsically motivating(Desire)less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

The above to me perfectly sums up the Happiness formula and is very easy to remember too!
I also serendipitously came across this amazing video based on Dan Pink‘s ‘Drive’

That made me think further of how the same ABCD formula applied to work incentives.

The ABCD of incentives – Offer Money (Affective), Mastery (Behavior:skilled) , Purpose (cognition:meaningful) and Autonomy (Drive:intrinsic)less than a minute ago via web

That to me is further proof of the simplicity and power of this simple ABCD formula. So are you ready to apply the ABCD of happiness and work incentives to your life?

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Am Manic, will focus; Am sad, will drift


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Attention can be focused or it can be diffused. Attentional focus has been shown to be affected by mood or affect; with positive affect leading to a broadening of attentional focus;  and negative affect, in general been shown to be associated with a narrowing of focus.

However, Gable and Harmon-Jones argue that emotion or affect is not a uni-dimensional construct, but has at least two dimensions: affective valence- i.e. whether it is felt as pleasurable or dis-pleasurable; and motivational  direction- i.e. the action tendency to approach or avoid in pursuit of a preventive/promotional goal.

Much work on emotions has emphasized that they have a number of underlying dimensions. Two dimensions that have received considerable attention are affective valence, the felt pleasure or displeasure, and motivational direction, the action tendency associated with a particular emotional state—approach or withdrawal. Approach motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to go toward an object, whereas withdrawal motivation refers to an urge or action tendency to move away from an object.

They also argue that much of the extant literature on emotion-attention linkage has focused on emotional valence alone, with just one type of motivational direction, and thus has not clarified the (in)dependent role of valence and motivational direction as regards to attention.

Thus, for e.g., the finding that positive emotions lead to  broadening of attention is focused on such research as emotions of joy, contentment etc that are low in approach motivation and are emotions felt after the goal has been reached.

Similarly, the research that has found that negative emotions lead to narrowing of focus have relied on emotions such as fear, anger etc that are high in withdrawal motivation and are pre-goal.

I believe, it is important to step back a little here and go back to our conception of happiness-ennui (mental well-being) continuum and sadness-mania (mental illness) continuum. Another way to conceptualize them is to see sadness having negative valence and low withdrawal motivation – it is passive; mania as having positive valence and high approach motivation- mania is characterized by immense desire for a goal and is pre -goal. Happiness is post goal emotion and is characterized by positive valence and low approach motivation- you have already reached the goal and do not need to exert much efforts in goal directed activity; ennui/boredom/listlessness is negative in valence and has high withdrawal motivation- it is pre-goal- a search for a worthwhile goal.

Another way to make the difference stark is employ the terminology of Berridge et al: happiness is related to liking and the opioid system; while mania is related to wanting and the dopamine system.  Depression/sadness  is related to disliking /feeling pain while ennui/boredom is related to dreading the outcome/feeling anxious (nothing to do and hence life is useless/meaningless!..anxiety but existential anxiety). Berridghe et al have shown that wanting/liking and dreading/disliking differ and have different neural and neurochemichal correlates.

To become a little philosophical, the wanting/disliking  mental illness continuum leading to mania or depression in extremes is to be avoided (thus the dictum of all religions to shun desire/ be stoic) while the happiness-ennui/boredom/existential anxiety system is more preferable where you focus on liking positive outcomes and dreading negative/neutral ones. While the former, to paraphrase Freud,  is the hysterical misery at worst, the latter is common unhappiness at worst.

But anyway that was long detour. Lets get back to the studies by Gable et al.

In the first study, the authors showed that motivational direction was relevant and was the reason behind the positivity-broadening of attentional focus effect. they showed that positive emotions lead to broadening of attention only in low approach motivation condition; but when the positive emotion had high approach motivation (emotions like desire. engagement etc), the positive affect lead to narrowing of focus.

Now a brief detour into methodology: the attentional focus is usually measured using local-global tasks whereby it is determined whether one is paying attention to global features or local features of an ambiguous/mixed stimuli. For eg, the most popular of these consists of a global big H made up of smaller (say 5 in number) F’s and then determining whether the subject notices the global H or the local F. Details can be seen in the Gable papers which are open access.

Now the authors found robust support for their hypothesis that it is the motivational direction and not affective valence that determines the attentional focus. They also relate it to adaptivity.

Positive affects, particularly those low in approach motivation, suggest a comfortable, stable environment and allow for a broadening of attention and cognition, which may serve adaptive functions (Carver, 2003; Fredrickson, 2001). However, broadening does not occur when positive affects are high in approach motivation. Such positive affects often encourage specific action tendencies, such as tenacious goal pursuit, and an associated reduction in attentional breadth. This reduced attentional breadth may prove adaptive, as it assists in obtaining goals.

They also extend these finding to negative affects and depression etc and I can easily relate them to earlier work I have covered regarding the danger or safety of environment and promotional/ preventive focus:

Together with past research, the present research supports the idea that low- and high-approach-motivated positive affect produce opposite effects on attentional breadth. It is possible that the intensity of withdrawal motivation exerts similar attentional effects; that is, low-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause broadening, whereas high-withdrawal-motivated negative affect may cause reduction in breadth. Indeed, such an interpretation would fit with past research. For example, individuals with depression, a low-intensity motivation, are more creative than nondepressed individuals (Andreasen, 1987) and show broadening of attention and memory (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005). In the case of low-motivated negative affects such as sadness and depression, “a more open, unfocused, unselective, low-effort mode of attention would prove not deficient but, on the contrary, beneficial” (von Hecker & Meiser, 2005, p. 456), as one disengages from a terminally blocked goal and becomes open to new possibilities (Klinger, 1975). The past research that found negative affect caused decreased attentional breadth may have evoked negative affective states that were high in withdrawal motivation (e.g., fear; Gasper & Clore, 2002).

This brings me to their current paper , aptly titled , The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows, that found exactly the effect hypothesized above that sadness/depressive mood was related to broadening of attention, while disgust, a negative emotion with high withdrawal motivation was related to narrowing of focus. they also found that the effect of negative emotion was mediated by arousal which could stand as a proxy for motivational direction.

These two experiments revealed that the relationship between negative affect and attentional precedence is more complex than commonly thought. In line with past theory and evidence, Experiment 2 demonstrated that negative affect caused a narrowing of attention. However, this narrowing occurred only when negative affect was high in motivational intensity. When negative affect was low in motivational intensity, in Experiment 1, it caused a broadening of attention. These results are consistent with the idea that the effect of emotion on local/global precedence is not due to negative versus positive affect, but is instead due to motivational intensity. Positive and negative affects of low motivational intensity broaden attention, whereas positive and negative affects of high motivational intensity narrow attention.

To me this is sufficient, clinching and converging proof of the theories I have been trying to develop with regards to emotions (specifically mania, depression, happiness and despair) and make clear that there are at least two dimensions to happiness/sadness and mental well being/illness constructs. Perhaps if we start liking what we have and stop coveting or wanting more, we have a philosophical, religious, as well as now a psychological, blueprint for how to lead the good life and how to avoid a living hell.

Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2010). The Blues Broaden, but the Nasty Narrows: Attentional Consequences of Negative Affects Low and High in Motivational Intensity Psychological Science, 21 (2), 211-215 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609359622
Gable, P., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2008). Approach-Motivated Positive Affect Reduces Breadth of Attention Psychological Science, 19 (5), 476-482 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02112.x

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Am happy, will be paranoid/ gullible; am sad, will be realistic


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Happiness may lead to mood-congruent effects of increasing trust(a positive emotion itself) in interpersonal situations;  an alternative theory is that happiness leads to top-down processing , thus relying more on activated schema , stereotypes etc and thus leading to more trust when trust schema or cues are salient and distrust when untrustworthy schema / cues are active.

As per the mood-congruent theory of effect of happiness, surmised that happy people would be more trusting and there would be a main effect of happiness manipulation on trust in experimental settings.  As per the assimilation-accommodation theory, viz that happiness leads to assimilation or use of existing constructs (stereotype./ schema etc) while sadness leads to accommodation or bottom-up processing whereby new constructs may be created, the conjecture is that happy people will show trust in trust situations and distrust in distrust situations and thus there would be an interaction effect in 2 (happiness/ neutral mood) x 2 (trust/distrust situation, stereotype or cue) study design.

These above two are competing hypothesis that make measurable and clearly different and distinguishable predictions and can be easily experimentally verified.

Robert Lount, Jr. set out to investigate precisely this piece of puzzle and his data supported the thesis that there is an interaction effect of mood on trust cues and thus happy people are more gullible  when trust cues/stereotypes are active; and also more paranoid or distrusting when distrust cues/ schema are active.

He performed a total of 5 different experiments to cement his thesis.

  • The first experiment relied on film clips to induce mood and dictator game to measure trust. Trustworthiness of the other party was manipulated by interpersonal vs inter group situation. As per a theoretical framework, by default in interpersonal interactions (say  trust games)  the other individuals believed to be trustworthy. In contrast in an inter-group interaction, in-group vs out-group psychology comes into play and the other group as a whole is believed to be inherently untrustworthy.  thus, in the first experiment they used interpersonal or inter-group conditions to manipulate trustworthiness cues and found the interaction effect of happiness and trust cues as hypothesized.
  • The second experiment was carried out to ascertain that it is indeed distrust in inter-group condition that is in play and leads to happy people showing distrust in distrust salient conditions. The paradigm used was modified prisoners dilemma in this case.
  • The third experiment did not use ingroup-outgroup factors but instead provided explicit information about the trustworthiness of a person and then measured the effect of mood on trust using the dictator game and found the same interaction effect of mood and trust cues as opposed to a direct main effect of affect on trust.

  • The fourth experiment used subtle implicit measures of trustworthiness/ untrustworthiness by utilizing computer generated facial features and used explicit measures of trust like rating the person as trustworthy when subjects mood had been manipulated. Again the interaction effect was observed.
  • The fifth and final experiment was performed to clarify that it is indeed the underlying activation of schema/ stereotype that is in play when happy people become gullible/ paranoid in presence of cues; and this was done by showing that normal people too , under cognitive load conditions, when they are known to rely on stereotypes/ schema, show the same interaction effects on trust.

Here are the conclusions from the study:

The results in this article are consistent with work demonstrating that a positive mood increases reliance upon stereotypes (Bless, Schwarz, & Wieland, 1996; Bodenhausen et al., 1994; Park & Banaji, 2000) and scripts in interdependent situations (Hertel et al., 2000). More pointedly, the findings from all five experiments supported the predictions of the accommodation–assimilation model (see Bless & Fiedler, 2006; Fiedler, 2001b, for reviews) over mood-congruency models. This leads to a fairly strong conclusion that the relationship between positive mood and trust depends, in large part, on available schemas, cues, and stereotypes.

To me the evidence is as good as it needs to be. It also fits in my broader context of seeing good/happy mood  as a precursor to mania whereby happiness leads to use of stereotypes/schema , leads to becoming more gullible/ paranoid / leading to psychoses.  although the present study did not had anything to say about sad mood (the contrast was with neutral mood) it is not unreasonable to extrapolate and claim that sad people are more realistic and depend on behavior of the other party rather than stereotypes to ascertain in whom to place their trust. this too fits in the broader scheme of things where sad mood is  a precursor to depression which has been shown to make people more realistic. If there is an upside to depression, the only one may be that it makes us more realistic/ rational.

Lount, R. (2010). The impact of positive mood on trust in interpersonal and intergroup interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (3), 420-433 DOI: 10.1037/a0017344

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Am Happy, will talk more and deep; am Sad, will make small talk


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Happiness and sadness have different effects on verbal behavior. Happiness may either lead to shallow happy-go-lucky, small talk moments or more profound and deep interactions that are meaningful and fulfilling. Sadness similarly may facilitate deep philosophical ruminations and conversations or lead to shallow and trivial small talk. Which of these is the actual scenario is not intuitive, but new research by Mehl et al has come to our rescue and provides a definitive answer.

Meh et al used the Electronically activated recorder (EAR) which is a device that unobtrusively records 30 s snippets of conversation at random times of the day as the subjects as they go about their daily life. As such it is a better measure than experience sampling method (ESM) which is intrusive and relies on self reports.

The coders than analyzed and coded the snippets of conversations as captured using EAR into small talk versus substantive conversations. Also the number of time spent in conversations and socially versus time spent alone was also calculated for the subjects.

The subjects filled self-report satisfaction with life survey as well as other happiness measures which were used to calculate the well being/happiness index for the subjects.

The results were clear. Happy people spent more time talking to others in social settings versus spending time alone. further, happy people spent much more time in substantive conversations than in making samll talk. this was revers in the case of sad people.

However, the authors caution, and I believe it is a reasonable rider. that this study is correlational and does not elucidate the direction of causality. It may be the case that happy people have more substantive conversations to make or t may be the case that just as self-disclosure leads to intimacy having deep and meaningful conversations leads to happiness.

The full text is available for free online and is written in a very lucid manner and I recommend reading it in full. I am including a snippet to whet the appetite.

Together, the present findings demonstrate that the happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial. What makes these findings especially compelling is the lack of method overlap between the well-being measures (self- and informant reports) and the interaction measures (direct observation). Also, the replication of findings across measures of well-being and across weekday and weekend behavior is encouraging.
Naturally, our correlational findings are causally ambiguous. On the one hand, well-being may be causally antecedent to having substantive interactions; happy people may be “social attractors” who facilitate deep social encounters (Lucas & Dyrenforth, 2006). On the other hand, deep conversations may actually make people happier. Just as self-disclosure can instill a sense of intimacy in a relationship, deep conversations may instill a sense of meaning in the interaction partners. Therefore, our results raise the interesting possibility that happiness can be increased by facilitating substantive conversations (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Future research should examine this possibility experimentally.
Remarking on Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Dennett (1984) wrote, “The overly examined life is nothing to write home about either” (p. 87). Although we hesitate to enter such delicate philosophical disputes, our findings suggest that people find their lives more worth living when examined?at least when examined together.

Indeed, a life examined together and being more social/ loquacious and deep
is definitely more happy and worth living.

Mehl, M., Vazire, S., Holleran, S., & Clark, C. (2010). Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610362675

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