The myth of positive and negative emotions

You may have seen or heard of emotions being referred to as positive or negative. However, I feel that this might not be a very helpful approach to take. Rather than emotions being labelled as “Positive” or “Negative” a more helpful and mindful approach would be to simply acknowledge and accept they are as they are – a response and expression of how we are feeling.

This approach requires us to pay more attention to our emotions. We can do this through the wide-angle lens of expansive, the zoom lens of constrictive, or the bare attention of mindful reflection. By doing this we have the choice to let go of or reflect (which could include savouring and gratitude) upon our emotions, but still acknowledge and accept they are as they are, but with greater reflection and understanding of the context in which they occur.

Instead of focusing on the emotion and labelling it as positive or negative, what might be more helpful would be to consider the Intensity at which the emotion is experienced. We can see the rationale for this by drawing upon an old finding from psychology, the Yerkes–Dodson law [1].

The Yerkes–Dodson law is represented by an inverted U shape and states that our performance on any task – including our ability to manage our wellbeing and happiness and regulate our emotions – is related to the intensity of what we are experiencing (physiological or mental arousal). Evidence shows that when levels of intensity are too low or too high, our performance is impaired [2].

We can use the example of FEAR to illustrate how this applies to our emotions.

Ask yourself “Is fear a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ emotion?

The answer is of course neither, it can be both. We can show that in the following example.

If we never felt any fear and did dangerous and silly things as a result, it would be quite unhelpful. Alternatively, if we felt so much fear that we never left the house by ourselves because we were too frightened, again it would be quite unhelpful.

However, what if we felt just enough fear to stop us from walking down a dark alleyway at night, this would be helpful.

It is possible to do this with all emotions and so we can see, it is not the emotion that is “positive” or “negative” but how intensely the emotion is felt and if the intensity is appropriate and proportionate to what is happening (i.e., the context of the emotion).

What is essential, is getting the balance right and this can only be achieved by taking into account the context in which the emotion is felt and how it is expressed. Additionally, by using the terms helpful and unhelpful, instead of positive or negative, we are reframing our experiences in a less pejorative, more functional, constructive and self-compassionate way[3].

Within our nervous system we have two systems linked to our Limbic system (the sympathetic and the parasympathetic), that work in harmony to maintain homeostasis and create balance to ensure our survival and optimal functioning.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls our response to danger and threat (fight-flight-freeze-appease) and when activated, we may notice that our breathing becomes quicker, our heart beats faster and we get knots in our stomach as our bodies prepare for action. Fortunately, we have the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) to balance the SNS and soothe and relax us.

My feeling is that intensity is therefore a better “operational definition” than positive or negative, as it can be linked to our limbic system’s activation (i.e., low intensity = low activation / high intensity = greater activation) and the role of the SNS and PSNS in ensuring balance and an optimal level of intensity/arousal. This can not be achieved with the definition of positive and negative.

Finally, I suggest that to label an emotion as positive or negative, without considering its Function – as defined by what it is pushing us away from, or pulling us towards – also ignores the evolutionary processes that have enabled us to experience emotions in all their diversity and richness. Evolution does not define things in terms of positive or negative, only in terms of what is helpful and unhelpful, or functional and adaptive to our survival.


What is important to think about when we consider our emotions is not if they are positive or negative, but instead their Intensity and Function (i.e., if this intensity is appropriate and proportionate to what is happening around us or what has occurred, as well as if acting or not acting upon them is safe to ourselves and others, and in line with our long term goals).

This is part of our ability to self-regulate our emotions and requires an understanding of the context in which they occur, something which, I feel, is lost by a simple definition of positive or negative which directs the attention towards the emotion, and away from the context in which it is occurring.