How can we possibly grapple with the onslaught of information about virus spread, stock market nosedives, canceled plans and uncertainty about the future? Some people wallow in the fear, anxiety and sadness, checking news sites and social media constantly. Others try to suppress it all and ignore the outside world (I’m guessing that Instagram has never seen so much traffic).
There’s a third option, though. Rather than fully immersing in the negative or ignoring it, we can do our best to experience joy alongside everything else that is sad in the world. In fact, research that I and others have conducted suggests that allowing the two different emotions to coexist may actually benefit us in the long run.
Jeff Larsen and his colleagues coined something known as the “coactivation model of mixed emotions,” and the basic idea is that we may be able to grapple with, and learn from, negative emotions like sadness if we experience them concurrently with positive emotions like joy. Here, positive emotions provide a psychological buffer, making it easier for people to deal with the things they don’t want to confront.
The comedian Mitch Hedberg proposed an analogy that captures this essence quite well, noting that it “would be cool if you could … eat a carrot with an onion ring and they would travel down to your stomach, then they would get there, and the carrot would say, ‘It’s cool, he’s with me.’” Applied to our emotional lives, we could do a better job digesting, processing and gaining insight into the negative events in our lives if we could do so alongside the positive.
Several years ago, my collaborator Jon Adler and I set out to test this exact idea. Specifically, we looked at a sample of adults who signed up for weekly mental health therapy sessions. Between each week, they reported the feelings they were having and also took a few questionnaires that were meant to assess their overall health. This design allowed us to examine how different emotional experiences would impact mental health in a longitudinal fashion, over the course of 12 weeks.
It’s worth noting first that everyone seemed to improve a bit as the weeks marched on: therapy helps and so does time. More to the point, though, mixed emotions at one time point were positively associated with improvements in psychological well-being at the next time point. The more of a mixture of, say, happiness and sadness someone experienced today, the better they’d fare next week.
However, when we looked at mixed emotions that were experienced in a given week, they weren’t associated with improved mental health in that same week. In other words, mixed emotions preceded increases in psychological well-being above and even beyond the influence of happiness and sadness, but this effect disappeared when examined at the same moment in time.
The true benefit from mixed emotions may not be instantaneous, but rather, prospective.
How to put these lessons into practice right now? Clearly, the solution isn’t about eliminating negative feelings. Nor is it about trying to just experience the positive in life. Rather, we may end up learning from the things we don’t want to face once we acknowledge that positive emotions can be felt at the same time.
David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University who conducted research on women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, told the story of one of the women in his study who expressed sadness because she felt that she couldn’t do any of the things she loved to do while she had cancer. One of her passions was opera, and she convinced herself that she couldn’t go until she had beat the cancer. When her diagnosis became terminal, however, she recognized that she might never be able to go again.
And so, she went. As she told Spiegel, “I brought my cancer with me and put it in the seat next to me. It was there, but I had a wonderful time.”