Bittersweet symphony: Researchers try to untangle mixed emotions

Mixed-EmotiCon - InsightsIt seems like common sense that happiness and sadness are polar opposites. When you feel one, you don’t feel the other. But a growing body of research is challenging this assumption.

New studies suggest that positive and negative emotions – happiness and sadness, love and hate, and many other emotions that seem mutually exclusive – commonly coexist at the same time. They also suggest that experiencing mixed emotions, while unsettling, may actually be good for us.

“Intuitively, we all know what mixed emotions are,” said University of Michigan (U-M) psychologist Richard Gonzalez. “We use words like ‘poignant’ or ‘bittersweet’ to describe the experience. But as scholars, there’s really no good theory, no good model, to work with that stays true to the phenomenology of a mixed emotional experience.”

Last fall, Gonzalez hosted a conference, Mixed Emoti-Con, at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) to bring together the leading researchers on these complicated feelings. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute on Aging and ISR’s BioSocial Methods Collaborative jointly sponsored the two-day event, with additional support from ISR’s Health and Retirement Study. The symposium attracted 115 registrants from around the world.

Gonzalez, who also is director of the ISR Research Center for Group Dynamics and the BioSocial Methods Collaborative, co-moderated the events with ISR psychologist Jacqui Smith and NIH program officer Lisbeth Nielsen. Many of the speakers were affiliated with ISR. In addition to Gonzalez and Smith, Phoebe Ellsworth, David Dunning, Vicki Freedman and James Jackson also presented, as did U-M’s Brenda Volling and Scott Rick.

Papers based on the conference presentations will be published in 2017 in a special issue of Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences Enquiry. Topics explored a range of technical methods, theories and applications. Researchers discussed indifference curves and axes of ambivalence, affective appraisals, and the misery index. The speakers’ comments and slideshows often reflected a personal, non-technical take on the topic, an unusual perspective at an academic conference.

“The more I get into the literature on multiple emotions, the more challenging it becomes,” said Gonzalez. “It’s not something I anticipated. I thought it would be a very simple problem to solve.”

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Social psychologist Jeff Larsen, of the University of Tennessee, has studied mixed emotions for his whole career, starting with his doctoral dissertation at The Ohio State University (OSU). This conference was his first trip to Ann Arbor. “I’m very pleased to be here,” he said, “But as you can imagine, for someone whose profile picture is Brutus Buckeye, there are also some mixed emotions.”

Larsen presented on his research grappling with an issue that preoccupied many of the conference presenters: the architecture of emotions. The structure of emotion is central to figuring out whether one actually can feel emotions like happiness and sadness at the same time, or whether what’s happening is vacillation – feeling happy, then sad, sequentially. When he started his career, Larsen was convinced it was possible to feel happy and sad simultaneously. Now he’s not so sure.

Are happiness and sadness polar opposites that are mutually exclusive, like hot and cold? Or are they related to each other in some multidimensional way, so that they can blend or co-occur at the same point in time? How are emotions related to one another, in addition to valence and intensity?

Larsen has spent the last 15 years trying to answer these questions. Sometimes, Larsen observes in an article in the January 2017 issue of Emotion Review, he feels like Diogenes of Sinope, who carried a lamp around all day, shedding light where none was really needed. “When I ask groups of undergraduates to raise their hands if they think people can feel happy and sad at the same time, a majority of hands shoot up within moments. When I mention that I have spent more than a decade trying to answer this same question, I get quizzical looks. Of course, science would still be in the dark ages if we relied upon lay people’s intuitions and haphazard measurement.”

So what does the experimental evidence collected by Larsen and others show? How common is the experience of mixed emotions?


For starters, scientists have found that the specifics of an experience have a major influence on the likelihood of mixed emotions. Larsen and his colleagues surveyed people before and after watching scenes from the film, “Life is Beautiful,” about a father’s struggle to shield his son from the full horror of life in a concentration camp. They found that before the film, just 10 percent reported having mixed feelings. Afterward, 44 percent did.

Other research has found that only about 10 percent of undergraduate students report feeling both happy and sad on a typical day of class. Given measurement errors, Larsen points out, that likely means about zero. But when moving beyond the classroom to specific events, the prevalence changes considerably.

For example, on move-out day at OSU, 54 percent of the students Larsen and colleagues surveyed said they felt both happy and sad, compared to only about 16 percent of OSU students on a typical day. And half of the students surveyed on graduation day at the University of Chicago reported feeling mixed emotions, compared to just 20 percent on a typical day.

“We know that retirement and other major life transitions provide opportunities to experience mixed emotions,” said Gonzalez. “For example, when Larry King retired, he described it as ‘The bittersweet feeling of saying goodbye.’”

In recent work, Gonzalez, Smith and colleagues have been focusing on the prevalence of mixed emotions during the kinds of activities that people do every day. To do this, they’ve adapted Nobel Prize-winning social psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s “Day Reconstruction Method” and are using it with data drawn from the 2012 and 2014 ISR Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which surveys Americans ages 50 and older.

“Instead of asking people to go through their whole day, we targeted particular activities,” said Smith. “Did you watch TV yesterday, socialize, use the computer? How much time did you spend doing each activity? And, then, how did you feel? Happy, interested, content, frustrated, sad, bored?”

In general, when HRS participants were asked how they felt yesterday overall, about 64 percent said they experienced only positive emotions, while just 4 percent said they experienced only negative emotions. One-third said they experienced mixed emotions.

Researchers again found that mixed feelings were more likely when people were doing certain activities – working on a computer and watching television, for example – than when they were doing other activities, such as socializing.

In addition, Smith reported on new data from a pilot study of 121 people about a common but seldom studied activity: puttering. “Maybe it’s what you do on a Saturday morning,” she explained. “You pick up this. Look at that. Take a cup of coffee. Hang out in bed. It’s not wasting time. It’s just … puttering around. About 60 percent of our participants said they did that yesterday.” More than half of the “putterers” reported experiencing only positive feelings, but the rest reported having some negative feelings as well.

In a way, puttering may provide a perfect opportunity for mixed feelings to emerge. As someone turns his or her attention from one thing to another, feelings may spill over rigid categories as well, mixing and melding freely.

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What we’re doing isn’t the only factor that’s been linked with the likelihood we’ll experience mixed emotions.

Age plays a big role, too. Larsen has studied children’s experience with, and understanding of, mixed emotions. In one study, he and colleagues showed children ages 5 to 12 a clip from the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid,” in which a mermaid father gets angry with his daughter for falling in love with a human, then forgives her, giving her permission to marry the prince even though it means saying goodbye to her forever. Very few of the 5- and 6-year-olds reported mixed emotions after viewing the clip, but about half of the 8- and 9-year-olds did.

According to Gonzalez and Smith, a lot of past research has established that older adults are more likely than younger adults to experience mixed emotions. Experts aren’t quite sure why this is true. But it’s another aspect of mixed emotions that makes sense, at least intuitively. Perhaps people develop a capacity for more complex emotions over time.

Similar to age, certain personality traits may also affect emotional complexity, according to Smith. “Neuroticism and openness to new experiences enhance feelings of mixed emotions,” she said. People who are open to new experiences tend to put themselves in contexts that are more challenging and difficult, and in these contexts, mixed emotions are more common.


With Ellsworth and others, University of Waterloo psychologist Igor Grossmann has been following another line of inquiry: examining the influence of culture on emotional complexity. In a 2015 article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the group reported the results of a series of studies it conducted showing that cultural differences in emotional complexity are “robust and often sizable.” These differences unfold predictably according to a country’s typical level of interdependent versus independent social orientation.

Respondents from countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, where residents typically value independence, reported the least emotional complexity, while respondents from Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines, where residents typically value social interdependence, reported the most. Respondents from Germany, India, South Africa and Russia were in between.

Since a number of studies show that the prevalence of mental health disorders are higher in Western countries than in East Asia, Grossmann and colleagues suggest that it’s possible that emotional complexity may be linked to mental health. “The relationship between interdependence and emotional complexity suggests that one path to increasing emotional complexity may be to engage with the world in a more interdependent versus independent fashion,” they wrote in the study. “Training people to do this may enhance their mental health and their overall experience of well-being.”

With colleagues from Germany and the Netherlands, Grossmann – a past winner of the U-M Daniel Katz Dissertation Fellowship in Psychology – also has found that emotional complexity varies with wisdom. So someone who makes poor decisions is more likely to feel exclusively good or bad about them. But someone who is reasoning about a situation with more thoughtfulness and complexity is more likely to experience mixed emotions about the situation.


Similarly, Smith and colleagues have found that cognitive ability matters, too. “People with higher levels of cognitive ability are much more likely to report mixed emotions,” she said, providing validation of the lines from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Another avenue of inquiry Smith has been pursuing involves the role of preoccupation, literally being of two minds. “This was an idea Kahnemann had in a meeting,” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘Well, you know, when you’re preoccupied, it’s bound to color your feelings for the whole day.’ Say something happened to a friend and you’re worried about that. So we asked people, were you preoccupied or not? And if they were, we looked at whether they were more likely to report a mix of positive and negative feelings.”

Indeed, they were. It was a small sample of 121 people, but around 75 percent of those who reported being preoccupied while they were caring for others, watching TV, working, commuting and dealing with health issues said they were experiencing both positive and negative mixed emotions. People who were preoccupied while they were puttering around were the least likely to report mixed emotions, for some reason.

Smith emphasized that this is really preliminary data and purely descriptive. She and her colleagues are working hard to solve the puzzle presented by mixed emotions, but also staying open, playing with the data and trying to figure out the best ways to look at what they’d found. “Is a wandering mind a mixed mind?” she wondered. “I’m starting to think that maybe there’s some kind of optimal mixture in the course of a day of these positive and negative emotions that somehow brings spice and variety to life. And all of us need some of that. Otherwise, it would be pretty boring.”


Bittersweet symphony: Researchers try to untangle mixed emotions