Anger versus Joy: which most often describes your life at work (and what are the consequences)

Street portrait of young beautiful woman acting thrilled, wearing stylish knitted clothes. Model expressing joy and excitement with hands and face. Festive garland lights. Snowfall effect. Close up.

What functions do both negative and positive emotions serve?  Believe it or not, they are more than simple expressions of feeling.  They fulfill discrete purposes designed to help us navigate our daily life.

            As a general rule, negative emotions allow us to cope and endure in the face of perceived threats.  In fact, they are old evolutionary survival mechanisms that, to this day, serve to protect us from danger.  Essentially, the presence of negative emotions indicates an immediate problem and a need for action.  Let’s take a hypothetical situation:  You are walking down the street and see a large group shouting, pushing and beginning to scuffle.  Instinctively, your cardiovascular system has started redirecting blood to your large muscles.  Your adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol to mobilize your bloodstream.   You are now on full alert, and if the situation deteriorates further, you are ready to run quickly from the scene.  Indeed, in a split second, your body has prepared you for flight.  Similarly, from a psychological standpoint, negative emotions serve as a self-preservation mechanism that mobilizes our mindset to act in ways that will protect ourselves.

            Take a look at some of these negative emotions in action.  The emotion of anger inclines us to attack.  When we feel threatened in the office by a new coworker, we may feel intimidated or indignant.  As a result, we may lash back by calling attention to their shoddy work during a meeting.  This is just the playing out of a primitive survival instinct.  We feel threatened…our anger is the reflection of an old impulse to counterattack.  How often has this happened to you?  Or how often have you been on the receiving end of someone else’s anger?

            Shame, on the other hand, makes us want to hide or disappear in the face of a perceived punishment.  Imagine being in a meeting and being called out for missing a deadline.  You may feel the urge to sneak out the side door.  We see how shame is just another self-preservation mechanism.  It’s the feeling of wanting to avoid “facing the music.”

            Similarly, the emotion of sadness causes us to withdraw.  Think about something you might have said or done in the past which you now regret (like the argument I had with my sister last week) .  Sadness prompts us to be careful not to endure further pain and loss.  When we are sad, we are more likely to be cautious and to retreat into a shell.

            In sum, although these negative emotions in the short term serve an important purpose, in the long run, they have the suboptimal effect of narrowing our mindset.  They do not ultimately foster growth and expand possibilities.  They are mostly focused on getting you through today or the immediate situation…not through the next year.  Not the best situation for thriving at work.

            Positive emotions, on the other hand, are rarely associated with the need for snap decisions or decisive actions.  When we feel content, for instance, we don’t feel compelled to take quick action – if anything, positive emotions indicate that a current situation is safe and acceptable.

            So, if we don’t need positive emotions to escape from burning buildings, what purposes do they serve?

            Psychologist and Professor Barbara Fredrickson is one of the preeminent authorities on positive emotions.  She explains that positive emotions actually have the invaluable effect of expanding our mindset to allow for more creativity and big-picture thinking.  While negative emotions narrow our focus, positive emotions broaden our focus.  When we feel happy and safe, our minds can relax and use their higher capacities to create and innovate. On the other hand, when we are under stress, creative thinking and brainstorming are considerably more difficult.  The old “danger” hardwiring hijacks the circuitry, and mental energy is diverted towards “self-preservation mode.”

            Frederickson’s work illustrates that positive emotions do a great deal more than simply expanding the quality of our present thinking capacity.  They actually enable us to build new intellectual, social, and psychological resources that we can draw upon going forward.  For example, emotions like awe and interest encourage us to explore the world around us, developing our powers of intellect in the process.  Positive emotions like joy and gratitude deepen our connections with others with whom we interact.  These emotions become investments in the development of our social resources.  And emotions like contentment foster a state of inner peace that helps us to break out of negative thinking cycles…in the process, recovering valuable mental energy that was being drained by emotions such as fear and anxiety.  When we’re able to truly relax, we can optimize the psychological resources available to us in the moment.

From her work, Dr. Fredrickson has formulated a list of the 10 most influential positive emotions:  joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, humor, inspiration, awe and love.

How many of these do you experience in your day to day work life?

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