Giuseppe Iandolo & Gustavo González Cuevas
Department of Psychology - School of Biomedical Sciences - European University of Madrid
What are emotions?
Emotions are psychophysiological responses to either internal stimuli (e.g., a memory, a thought, an image, a word, etc.) or external stimuli (e.g., a situation, a conversation, etc.). These emotions generate a willingness to action (flight or approach with respect to the stimulus) associated with a transient physiological state, whose main function is to allow our adaptation to past, present, or future experiences (LeDoux 2000; Cacioppo 2007).
Emotions can occur in three individual response systems (Lang 1968, 1978):
- experiential-subjective (or cognitive)
- behavioral-expressive (or motor)
Dodge (Dodge, 1991; Garber & Dodge, 1991) believes that information development processes and behavioral regulation are based on emotion. In that sense, emotion is the energy that directs, organizes, amplifies, and modulates cognitive activity.
To Kalat and Shiota (2006) primary or basic emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise) provide a response to a specific event of everyday life, and appear in very early stages of development in all cultures (Ekman 1992). Each basic emotion prepares the individual in a direction that, in the course of evolution, has been the most adaptive to the human species among other responses or solutions to environment’s demands.
According to dimensional models of emotions (Lang 1968, 1978), emotions may be better defined by a smaller number of psychophysiological dimensions, where we could locate primary and secondary emotional states (love, friendship, shame, etc.). These models provide three bipolar affective dimensions in the structure: emotional valence (pleasant - unpleasant), arousal (excitement - calm) and dominance (ability to manage and contain the emotion).
Besides being a tool for our adaptation, emotions also have a social and motivational function and they can help us to achieve our goals (Grolnick et al., 1999). Each emotion has a specific role to allow adaptation to the environment (Plutchik, 1980). For example, fear serves to stay away from situations that can be dangerous, while the surprise serves to predispose us to explore the environment (see Table 1).
The adaptive value of emotions can be generally more easily recognizable in the case of negative emotions (fear, sadness, disgust, anger) than in the case of positive emotions such as joy or altruism. We find it much easier to identify the function of fear as generating an escape response (Ekman, 1989, Izard, 1993; Malatesta et al, 1988) than finding an adaptive sense to the approach response generated by emotions like joy or the feeling of friendship.
Positive emotions as a protection against future adversities
In recent decades, promotion of positive emotions has become an important therapeutic resource and a tool in the developing of more satisfactory people’s everyday lives.
Positive emotional states are related to individual’s active participation to achieve personal objectives, seeing the environment as a warmer place where we can experience (Luborminsky et al., 2005):
- Confidence, optimism and self-efficacy;
- Sympathy and positive conceptualization of others;
- Sociability, activity and energy;
- Prosocial behavior;
- Physical well-being;
- Effective coping with stress and challenges;
- Originality and flexibility.
According to Fredrickson’s theory (1998, 2001), positive emotions like joy, satisfaction or pride, share the characteristic of expanding the repertoires of thought and action, building reserves resources for future crises.
From this perspective, experiencing positive emotions not only produces a pleasant short-term effect but also a long term effect, as it prepares the person for other most difficult life moments. Thus, while negative emotions allow us to solve immediate adaptation problems (Malatesta et al., 1988), positive emotions are related to personal and social development, strengthening resistance to adversity and psychological resilience (Aspinwal, 2001; Lazarus, 1993; Lubomirsky et al, 2005).
Several studies had supported this theory, by indicating a relationship between positive affective states, cognitive flexibility and information integration (Derryberry et al., 1994; Isen, 1987, 1990, 2000). All of them encourage creative thinking in problem solving and decision making (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
On the one hand, negative emotions can lead to a pessimistic style and redundant thought, introducing the person into an anxiety spiral and depressive symptoms (Peterson and Seligman, 1984). This pessimistic spiral of negative affects is based on a bias related to an attentional narrowed field (Easterbrook, 1959) leading the person to solely focus on "seeing the glass half empty".
On the other hand, positive emotions can lead to a more open and flexible thinking, based on a wider attentional field (Basso et al., 1996; Derryberry et al., 1994). Thus positive emotions facilitate coping with stress, adversity (Aspinwall, 1998) and increase the comfort level at present moment and in the future (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson et al., 2002).
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