“A Sad Kind Of Happiness”: The Role Of Mixed Emotions In Our Lives

By Emma Young

Sometimes, our emotions are one-dimensional. This morning, for example, when both my kids and my dog jumped into bed, I felt happy. During the Halloween party that my husband and I organised for our boys, though, happiness at their pleasure was definitely tinged with anxiety/stress at managing a houseful of rampaging kids. And here we get into murkier emotional territory. While so much research has been done on individual, “basic” emotions, more complex emotional experiences have been neglected. But recent studies have revealed some surprising and special roles for mixed emotions in our lives.

What do we feel?

One of the most impressive explorations of our everyday feeling experiences was published in 2017 in Emotion Review. The US participants wore a beeper that sounded at random moments. Whenever it went off, they jotted down what, if anything, had just been present in their inner experience. Christopher Heavey at the University of Nevada and colleagues found that most of the time, the participants weren’t feeling anything in particular. When they were, it was usually a single feeling — such as happiness or anxiety. But they did sometimes report experiencing multiple distinct feelings simultaneously, which could involve a negative plus a positive emotion. Sometimes, they also reported single, “blended”, feelings with both positive and negative facets — a “sad kind of happiness”, for example. Of course we already have a term for this: poignancy. But new studies are revealing other emotion combinations.

“The curious case of threat-awe”

This is the title of a new paper in Emotion from researchers at the University of New South Wales. “Curious”, because although “threatening awe” at the sight of an approaching thunderstorm, say, has been viewed as a negative, fearful sub-aspect of awe, this is not what the team found.

Awe and fear are well-defined, both in terms of how they feel and the kinds of thoughts and behaviours associated with them. Srinwanti Chaudhury and colleagues found that threat-awe has some fear-related aspects and some awe-related aspects, and an overall feeling/behaviours profile that differentiates it from either. So, for example, people experiencing threat-awe were, like people feeling fear, less willing to take risks than those feeling straight awe, but threat-awe felt significantly more pleasant than fear. When participants were simply asked to indicate on a matrix what threat-awe felt like, they reported both negative and positive feelings. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first research to empirically demonstrate that threat-awe should be regarded as a mixed emotion rather than a negative variant of awe,” the team concludes. They also speculate about the function of threat-awe. Perhaps, they write, it helps us to see “beauty in adversity”, which might build resilience in the face of stressful or even traumatic situations.

Mixed emotions and meaning in life

Hedonistic wellbeing — often called happiness — involves feeling plenty of positive emotions, such as joy and excitement. But work led by Raul Berrios at the University of Santiago in Chile suggests that mixed positive/negative emotions contribute to psychological wellbeing. However, they boost not happiness but eudaimonia — the important feeling that one’s life has meaning. The team ran two studies to explore this. One surveyed participants who recalled a recent challenge to their life goals or values. In the other, students watched a video about graduating from university, which focused on the poignancy of this event. Across both studies, participants who then reported feeling stronger mixed emotions also rated their lives as being more meaningful. This work suggests that mixed emotions don’t just help people to cope with stress but have broader impacts on wellbeing. And a 2021 study goes further…

Mixed emotions make for smarter thinking

Vincent Oh and Eddie Tong at the National University of Singapore ran four studies on 1,419 people in Singapore and the US during March and April 2020, a peak period for Covid-19 infections and deaths. They report that more frequent mixed emotions — but not levels of positive or negative emotions — were linked to greater eudaimonic wellbeing and also more self-reported infection-prevention behaviours, such as using hand sanitiser frequently and avoiding sharing food. These findings sit well with some other recent studies suggesting that mixed emotions make it easier for us to integrate information from multiple perspectives, supporting more complex thought, and wellbeing.

Interestingly, relatively high levels of positive or negative emotions predicted “unsupported and atypical virus-prevention behaviours”, such as eating more honey, or even using detergent as a mouthwash. This is “consistent with findings that positive emotions may promote gullibility and negative emotions may promote maladaptive coping,” the team writes.

So the next time you feel conflicting emotions, don’t worry — the lesson from all this recent work seems to be: it’s good for you.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest