Why We Need More Science and Less Speculation on Fear, Sadness, and Happiness

One of the hardest things about being a psychological scientist is that nearly everyone has an deeply entrenched opinion about how human behavior operates. This is not the case when you conduct research as a theoretical physicist or volcanologist.

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast where the guest explained that all negative emotions are rooted in fear and the opposite of fear is trust. As an emotion researcher these kinds of comments, said with great confidence (including a loose reference to 15 years of research), are a hindrance to helping people understand their lives. Is the negative emotional state of boredom rooted in fear? To believe this, you would need to ignore research suggesting that boredom arises when a person believes that their skill set far exceeds the challenge being confronted and in response, low effort and little attention is involved. If anything, boredom evokes bodily reactions and behaviors that are the opposite of fear.

Is sadness rooted in fear? To believe this, you would have to ignore evolutionary accounts of emotions and social psychological research that suggests sadness has a purpose. Sadness tends to arise when there are signs that a person is failing at fundamental evolutionary goals. What do these failures look like? Consider a loss of resources (finances, food, shelter, etc.), loss of social status in a tribe that someone identifies with, or the termination of a friendship, romance, or family relationship. In response, a person feels sad and this emotion helps them in the long game.

The sad person is lethargic, pessimistic, submissive, socially withdrawn, excessively realistic about personal abilities, and has little initiative for new relationships or projects. The situations in which these characteristics would seem to increase fitness are not characterized by recent success or failure, but by indicators of future rewards per unit investment…It certainly would be useful for an organism to regulate its energy and social investments to make them when they will payoff especially well, instead of at times when they will be wasted.

That is, sadness motivates a person to conserve their mental, physical, and social energy for a future time period when any action is likely to lead to better dividends.

Individual emotions have specific purposes.

Boredom motivates us to explore our internal and external world for new forms of stimulation.

Sadness motivates us to conserve energy and resources, allowing us to make more efficient and effective investments in the future.

Guilt motivates us to reflect on our moral compass and behave better next time.

We need more ideas. We need to carefully attend to our surroundings to gather clues about the world, other people, and ourselves. The beauty of the scientific method is that these ideas can be tested and scrutinized, allowing for a clearer separation of nonsense from knowledge.

***read The Washington Post article linking problematic educational reform to research in my book, The Upside of Your Dark Side***

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. For more: toddkashdan.com