Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Utility of Positive Emotion

Negative emotion serves a clear purpose. A painful back warns us to take it easy, sadness warns us we need to change something in our lives, and envy helps us perform better than others and increase our presence in the gene pool.

But what about positive emotion? Is it just a nice by-product of the accomplishments we achieve by responding to negative emotions? The book Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman has an interesting take on the role of positive emotion. Perhaps negative emotion helps us avoid and/or perform well win-loss games, while positive emotion helps pursue and perform well in win-win games.

Example, win-lose games: Teaching assessment is a win-lose game for me. I have to collect data on how our undergraduates are learning and write an assessment report. It doesn't provide me or my department with any useful information, so I lose by participating. The university wins by claiming it collects all this great data on how our students are learning to ensure quality teaching. Whenever I have to work on assessment I get aggravated and bitter that I must take time away from valuable things and use it to produce something of no value. I experience negative emotions, which discourages me from pursuing this type of win-lose game. I put forth little effort due to the negative emotion, which is actually good for me because it doesn't benefit me or my department.

Example, win-win games: Researching with my friend Jayson Lusk is win-win. We work well together, feeding off each other's thoughts in a way to generate new ideas that we never would have produced in isolation. With both win by working together, and produce much better research. Consequently, working with Jayson is one of my favorite parts of my job. I truly enjoy the work and the collaboration. I experience positive emotions, which encourages me to continue pursuing this type of win-win game. I consider our research collaborations my top priority due to the positive emotions I receive, which benefits me from the great research we produce.


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