What Good Are Positive Emotions?

Pleasure makes us feel good. So do positive emotions. So what is the difference between the two, especially when it comes to experiencing them in our romantic relationships?

To help answer that question let’s take a sneak peak for a moment at the relationships of two couples profiled in Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts.

First let’s look at “Sean” and “Rachel”:

     Sean, a talented rock musician, found fame at a relatively young age when he landed a lucrative recording contract. Thrust into the limelight, he began frequenting five-star restaurants, trendy nightclubs, and industry parties. He reveled in the fun and new friends he met including Rachel who soon became his wife. Together, they lived large. Most nights they painted the town red, and on the rare occasion they stayed in, they’d host wild parties in their home. Everyone talked about what a fun couple they were. One day Sean’s record label dropped him. The funding suddenly stopped. And so did the fun. Rachel and Sean drifted apart and their marriage ended. Everyone wondered what had happened to this fun couple?

Sean and Rachel’s marriage was predominantly based on pleasure. While they enjoyed many good times together those moments were mainly focused on fun. When the fun ended there was nothing left to keep the marriage together. (See One Question That May Determine Whether Your Love Will Last.) 

Now, let’s take a look “Sam and “Beth”:

     Sam is an incredibly cheerful and positive person. His wife Beth and his friends regularly remark what an upbeat person he is and a joy to be around. Regardless of any setbacks he encounters in his personal or professional life, he handles them with grace, wit, and a winning attitude. His positivity rubs off on everyone in his surroundings. People naturally can’t help wanting to be in his company, especially Beth. His positivity is in large part what initially attracted her to Sam. And it has inspired her to become better herself. Rather than focusing on fun, they focus on using their positivity to become better together and make a positive impact on the world. While they share many pleasurable moments together, fun is not the foundation of their marriage. Instead, shared values and positive emotions is at the core of their relationship and is what has sustained their marriage for over 25 years.

What is the difference between Sean and Rachel’s relationship that was based on pleasure, and Sam and Beth’s relationships that’s still going strong 25 years later?

Aren’t pleasure and positive emotions the same thing? After all, they both make us feel good and we actively seek to experience them individually and with our partner.

Although pleasure and positive emotions are similar they are different in significant ways and can lead to very different relational outcomes.

Positive emotions help strengthen bonds; too much pleasure often leads to their demise.

According to research by leading emotion scientist Barbara Fredrickson, pleasure tends to narrow our attention and draws us inward to our own personal desires and needs.  It results in immediate rewards that are usually short-lived.

For example, think of the pleasures of drinking a full-bodied fine red wine, eating a rich piece of velvety dark chocolate or relaxing in a soothing, warm bath. These pleasurable experiences draw our attention to the immediate physical sensations: The complex notes of the wine, the taste and texture of the chocolate, and the warmth of the water against our skin.

In contrast to pleasure, positive emotions draw us outward. They broaden our attention and open our hearts and minds to possibilities.

As we mentioned in our previous post, those who experience more positive emotions tend to be more optimistic, resilient and accepting. Positive emotions enable us to reach out and connect with others, and forge stronger bonds. When experiencing positive emotions such as curiosity, awe and gratitude, for example, we are more creative and are able to come up with solutions to problems rather than when we are solely focusing on pleasure. We can understand how this openness can help us in our relationships.

Further, positive emotions aren’t just good for us in the moment; they also have long-term effects. 

While emotional states are fleeting, Fredrickson’s groundbreaking research found positive emotions build psychological and social resources for the future. They can help us get to know the world and others in new ways.  For example, when we are feeling curious or joyful, we tend to be more playful and creative with a desire to explore the world and learn more about our loved ones. This openness to experience and the knowledge we gain is advantageous as we encounter new situations and challenges in our individual and relational lives.

In order to build more satisfying and sustainable relationships, we might try practicing building more positive emotions in our daily lives rather than just seeking the immediate (and fleeting) gratification of pure pleasure.

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This article was adapted from Suzie and James’s Psychology Today “Happy Together” blogHappy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, written by positive psychology experts and husband-and-wife team Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski, is the first book on using the principles of positive psychology to create thriving romantic relationships.

James O. Pawelski, PhD, is Professor of Practice and Director of Education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Suzann (“Suzie”) Pileggi Pawelski has a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a freelance writer and well-being consultant specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on health and relationships.