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A Surprising Secret to Happiness

How to develop and strengthen emotional reactivity.

Key points

  • The idea that negative emotions are bad for us makes some intuitive sense, but is it true?
  • Research shows that fully experiencing emotions, including negative ones, correlates with greater well-being.
  • Interventions that increase psychological flexibility include mindfulness and acceptance-based therapies.
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Researchers R. J. Klein and colleagues, in a paper in the June 2023 issue of Emotion, reached a surprising conclusion: More intense emotional responses, even negative emotions, are linked to happiness and better mental health.

Investigating Emotional Reactivity and Psychological Well-Being

Briefly, the investigations by the authors evaluated “global well-being in terms of a composite of eudaimonic [e.g., sense of purpose, meaning in life] and positive emotional components.”

Studies 1 and 2

Samples: N1 = 134 undergraduates; the average age of 19 years old; 73 percent women; 89 percent Caucasian. N2 = 139 undergraduates; the average age of 19 years old; 53 percent women; 88 percent Caucasian.

The research examined the association between well-being and emotional responses to pleasant and unpleasant images, as measured by Dynamic Affective Reactivity Task (DART).

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The hypothesis was, “Happier people would display larger peak displacements from neutrality when rating how pleasant versus unpleasant their momentary feelings were.”

Studies 3, 4, and 5

Samples: N3 = 98; mean age of 20 years old; 72 percent women; 86 percent Caucasian. N4 = 134, mean age of 19 years old; 51 percent women; 82 percent Caucasian. N5 = 128; mean age of 19 years old; 63 percent women, 88 percent Caucasian.

The third and fourth experiments aimed to further examine the functional bases of the link between stronger emotional responses and greater well-being. Specifically, the goal was to investigate “behavioral phenomena that could link higher levels of emotional flexibility to higher levels of well-being.”

The researchers’ predictions were “rooted in the idea that emotional reactions exist because they motivate solutions” to problems from our “evolutionary past.” What problems? For instance, survival in constantly changing and heterogeneous environments. To survive, people need to be properly motivated. Motivation, of course, depends on the emotional state.

“To the extent that one’s emotion generation system produces robust positive and negative emotions in response to perceived reward and threats,” one would be “better able to flexibly adjust behavior,” the authors note.

In short, one would expect happier individuals to make decisions that are more compatible with the nature of the stimuli and more sensitive to the context.

For instance, in study 4, happier people’s ratings of their feelings were expected to be a stronger predictor of their desire to review emotionally charged images.

Finally, to determine whether greater peak emotional intensity could predict well-being up to a month later, a fifth study was conducted.

Well-Being and the Intensity of Emotional Reactions

The results showed psychological well-being is linked to more intense positive and negative emotional reactions.

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This conclusion agrees with the psychological flexibility theory, which says psychological well-being and happiness are related to one’s ability to adapt to changing environments:

Happy people, compared to those with a mental illness (e.g., anxiety, depression), are better able to adapt because they experience emotional reactions that are appropriate for the stimulus—avoidance when facing unpleasant or threatening stimuli, and approach when facing pleasant or pleasurable stimuli.

This allows them to quickly avoid dangers in a high-risk situation and to approach rewarding stimuli in a low-risk situation.

Inappropriate reactions (e.g., avoidance when one should approach) would be maladaptive. Indeed, compulsive avoidance is common in mental illnesses, particularly anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Five experiments demonstrated:

  1. Higher intensity emotions “irrespective of valence” are “associated with higher levels of well-being,”
  2. Compared to less happy people, happier individuals show greater “functional approach/avoidance behavior.”

As noted earlier, these findings agree with psychological flexibility theory, which suggests fully experiencing emotions, even negative emotions (e.g., sadness, fear, anger), promotes mental health and happiness because it facilitates adaptation.

Of course, this does not mean intense negative feelings are always adaptive. Psychological well-being is associated with responses that are appropriate to the situation. Not exaggerated, inappropriate, or inflexible responses are often seen in neurotic individuals or people with mental illness.

Hence, one way of enhancing mental health and psychological well-being may be to strengthen psychological flexibility. How? Through effective interventions, be they self-help practices such as mindfulness meditation, or psychotherapy modalities such as acceptance-based interventions.

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