When feeling good feels better than good: the Benefits of Emotional Contrasting

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

But what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?” And that is how things may well be.


Mental ContrastingOne of my most important teachers while training to become a coach regularly used a metaphor in order to convey the idea that, while there are a lot of people out there that feel good about their lives, there may be separate groups of individuals that may feel equally good, but still radiate a disparate ‘energetic signature’. Using the concept of rebirth (without necessarily believing in it), he told us that, because of their karma, some people are entitled to what could be described as a ‘recreational incarnation’. After a lot of suffering in former incarnations, they now get to live a pleasant and happy life without too much pain, loss, and other turbulences – resulting in an affable, joyful, but (potentially) also slightly shallow character. On the other hand, there are people that know the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ from their own experience earlier in the current life. While they can be just as happy and agreeable as the aforementioned group, they tend to be somewhat graver or deeper.*

In this paper, I want to take a look at this distinction. At a less arcane level, the question could be: When two people display the same value on a measure that is supposed to quantify happiness – do they really feel the same when one person has been at that level for (more or less) her whole life, while the other has experienced longer periods of considerably unhappier emotional states?

Positive emotions play a central role in positive psychology (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson, 2009). Because of the particular emphasis on positive affect especially during the early period of the field, some scholars criticized positive psychologists for excluding the negative side of human emotions from their inquiries (e.g., Tennen & Affleck, 2003). It is important to say that this is, in fact, not the case (Seligman & Pawelski, 2003; Peterson, 2006). Rather, positive psychology asserts that negative emotions do exist and are just as ‘natural’ as positive emotions. It´s just that the focus of researchers and practitioners, for the first 100 years of psychology as a science, has been firmly on the negative dimension of human experience, which now warrants a shift towards the opposite direction (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

For example, one branch of research in (positive) psychology focuses on bouncing back from negative experiences (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004), coping with unfortunate events (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000), psychological resilience in the face of adversity (Masten, 2001), and, particularly, post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996; Linley & Joseph, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). By way of example, there is considerable evidence that a person cannot only recover and get back to normal after a severely stressful event such as a potential life-threatening illness, but can actually attain a higher level of well-being and satisfaction, e.g., via finding a deeper meaning or a more profound sense of purpose in life (Helgeson, Reynolds, & Tomich, 2006; Lyubomirsky, 2008). So while, by and large, it seems difficult to sustainably alter a person´s general level of happiness (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996), there is reason to believe that overcoming extremely stressful events may result in such a shift.

But there may be other mechanisms that can explain how we can benefit psychologically from having gone through troubled times. Even if a person may not be happier than a fellow human being with regard to objective measurement, the aforementioned may still perceive his or her state as being more favorable than the latter person. For a thought experiment, let´s consider two people of similar age and other characteristics that both display scores around the 80th percentile on a measure that captures happiness or a similar variable of psychological well-being. The difference is: the first person has by and large been on that level for his previous life, while the other person has suffered from recurring episodes of depression – but has now recovered for good. Will being equally happy actually feel the same for both? I argue that this is not the case. Rather, I contend the second person will be happier on the subjective level (qualia). She will feel happier about being happy because she can still remember how it felt to be severely unhappy. Why should that be the case?

One of the earliest objects of investigation in psychological science has been human perception, e.g., our ability to discern contrasts (Heidelberger, 2004). While scholars mostly focused on contrasts as perceived on the sensory level (light intensity, loudness, weight etc.), some scientists early on investigated contrasts pertaining to the emotional sphere (Bacon, Rood, & Washburn, 1914). For instance, Manstead, Wagner, and MacDonald (1983) have shown that we tend to find humorous film content to be funnier when we were previously exposed to a horror movie (and vice versa). Obviously, the fear that is elicited by the horror movie makes the enjoyment of the comedy more intense.

While the aforementioned emotional contrast is perceived when the stimuli are presented in close temporal connection, it seems likely that this process also works for stimuli that are being felt at different points in time. It is perfectly possible to contrast a current emotional state to that of past events via voluntarily accessing episodic memory. When we compare feeling good in the present to feeling considerably worse in the past, the current emotional condition can subjectively be enhanced by a kind of meta-emotion (“It really feels good feeling so much better than how I felt back in the days…”).

So while it is common sense that ‘feeling good just feels good’, we should not forget about having felt worse in the past. It just might give us that little extra kick.

* Often, he also used to contrast this ‘species’ with the mythological character of Chiron, the ‘wounded healer’.


Bacon, M. M., Rood, E. A., & Washburn, M. F. (1914). A study of affective contrast. The American Journal of Psychology. 25(2), 290-293.
Folkman, S., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2000). Positive affect and the other side of coping. American Psychologist, 55(6), 647-654.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life. New York: Crown Publishing.
Heidelberger, M. (2004). Nature from within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his psychophysical worldview. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
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Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: an introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
Seligman, M. E., & Pawelski, J. O. (2003). Positive psychology: FAQS. Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 159-163.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The posttraumatic growth inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455-471.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.
Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (2003). While accentuating the positive, don’t eliminate the negative or Mr. In-Between. Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 163-169.
Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320-333.

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