June Gruber is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology (PEP) Labratory. Her research focuses on a paradox that confuse, or even scare most listeners: the negative effects of postive emotion. Dr. Gruber is the author of myriad articles and chapters, and has edited a volume of research in her field, Dark and Light Sides of Positive Emotion. This week the Herald sat down with her to learn more about her lab here at Yale and the glum fallout of feeling happy.
YH: When did it first occur to you that happiness might not entirely be a good thing?
JG: It seems a bit counter-intuitive that someone would spend their life studying why positive emotions such as happiness might not always be a good thing, right? What got me first interested in this question was working directly with people, particularly [those] with a history of bipolar disorder or mania. I volunteered as an undergrad at an inpatient unit at the psychiatry department at Stanford, following a psychiatrist as she visited patients in their rooms. I remember listening to one particular patient, a woman with bipolar disorder, talk about what had happened that got her in the hospital in this incredibly ecstatic tone. She seemed to be feeling on top of the world, as if nothing could go wrong. Although this was an extreme case, it opened my eyes to the fact that whenever we feel incredibly good or happy, it might not always be in our best interest. We might take bigger risks; we may even do things that are adverse to our health, making short-term decisions to maximize pleasure without considering the long-term costs.
I couldn’t get into studying the dark side of positive emotion until the end of graduate school—these two worlds, the world of happiness and the world of clinical psychology needed to marry, or intersect with one another. And I’ve really loved Yale as an environment to get into that question ever since.
YH: Other than the original patient you saw at Stanford, what were some of the earliest cases you dealt with that supported your theory that happiness may not be entirely good?
JG: I think one of the early findings that made me believe this notion came from perhaps one of the most memorable studies I did in graduate school. We brought people into the lab and had them watch a series of really provocative film clips that were intended to make you feel some emotion. People watched films ranging from a young boy crying over the death of his father, to a man digging through this feces covered toilet, or a woman expressing ecstasy when she won the gold medal. We really put people on an emotional roller coaster. And most people would have the types of responses you might think—sadness watching the young boy, or disgust watching this guy digging through the toilet. But there was a group of people I noticed who didn’t respond the way you would expect. These people would report feeling happy, excited, and even sometime in amazement or wonder at even the most negative films you could show them. When it was someone dying, they would say that it was such an amazing example of human life and comment on the beauty of it all. Or in the disgusting film, I’d hear stories about how beautiful the cinematography was, just what fantastic courage the person had. It was really as if these people were looking at the world through a different, rosier lens. It was these same people who were at greater risk for developing mood symptoms, depression, mania. They were at higher risk for making impulsive decisions, or had more troubled social interactions and relationships. They would feel good and not be able to flexibly shift those positive emotions when you changed the settings in front of them, almost as if they were stuck in this positive emotion overdrive. And it led to serious costs for them: not being fearful when there’s a risky situation, not tuning down their positive emotions when another person is in distress. It was identifying this special group of people that really made me think there was something unique here, that there might be certain times when people feel too much positive emotion and are not able to flexibly turn it off when they need to feel fear or sadness. It was this idea of people hooked on a good feeling that propelled the rest of the studies that I’ve been trying to do ever since.
YH: Can you describe the interdisciplinary approach of your research? What does each component contribute?
JG: One of the coolest things about studying emotions is that you’re not limited to one particular way to study it. Emotions are phenomena that we experience in our bodies, that we display in our face, that we have a qualitative experience of, so we really try to capitalize on that in my lab. We’re able to probe into a person’s subjective experience, comparing what he or she feels to what, ideally, he or she wants to feel by using questionnaire methods.
How do we express emotions in our posture, in our intonation, and even in our face, by coding subtle contractions of facial muscles? Do people transmit their emotions to others? How different is that from what internally they say they feel? And how does that map onto more biologically based measures of emotions?
We measure people’s heart rate, respiration, skin temperature, galvanic skin response, which was traditionally used as a lie detector to test how much you sweat in your palms. We want to see how much does your body physiologically tune up or tune down when you’re feeling more or less of a given emotion. How well does your subjective experience of emotion cohere with what’s going on in the rest of your body? We’ve also been getting into some really interesting tools in neuroscience, like fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, where we can look at brain activity and some reward related regions of the brain, like the ventral striatum that govern our experience of pleasure. We look at emotion from all kinds of levels and put all these tools, or puzzle pieces, together, and ask the questions that they raise. How happy is a person, and how healthy does that really make them?
YH: Does a person’s biological data tend to match his or her own subjective understanding of his or her emotions?
JG: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Some people show really good coherence, or alignment, between what they say they’re feeling and how quickly their heart rate is shifting in response to an emotional stimulus. And other people do a much poorer job than that. And what we’ve found is there are some important psychological factors that contribute to that match between the body and the mind. When these things don’t match up, they give you an important clue into psychopathology. We see that in individuals with schizophrenia, their internal experience doesn’t match their outward behavior. For a long time people thought that adults with schizophrenia didn’t’ experience as much emotion as those without schizophrenia because they simply weren’t showing it in their facial expressions. But what you find is they’re experiencing just as much emotion; they’re just not displaying it in their face, which tells us something really important as to where emotions might be going awry [in those patients]. They’re not expressing it as much as they’re feeling it. There’s great coherence between these channels, but I think at times where there’s not, or there’s variability, it gives you really important clues into different individuals’ emotional profile.
YH: What is the largest milestone you’ve accomplished since beginning this work?
JG: One of the interesting things that we’ve found is that it’s important to be flexible in how happy you feel. It may be less about feeling higher levels of happiness, and more about maintaining a steady emotional profile. In large samples of individuals, those individuals who fared better, who have lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms and greater general functioning, were not those who had higher levels of self-reported happiness in every day life but rather those who had a more stable profile, who fluctuated around less. So there may be something important in the stability of our positive emotions, as opposed to just trying to achieve some optimal level, or high peak, of positive emotions.
YH: Where do you see your research going in the near future, and what are some of the biggest questions that you’re going to be trying to address?
JG: There’s two main areas going forward, one is theoretical and the other is more clinical.
Theoretically, we are trying to develop an integrated model for how we can understand the fact that positive emotions can not only benefit us socially, cognitively, and physically, but also, in other instances, can hurt us in these respects, as well as hinder creativity, leave us apt to make careless errors, and sometimes even put us at risk of a greater mortality rate. How can we develop a comprehensive understanding of what positive emotions are that incorporates the darker sides as well as the better-known lighter sides of positive emotions?
The clinically relevant question is translating some of our laboratory findings to the real world, developing targeted psychological interventions that will optimize positive emotion levels. I’m currently working with a psychologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder to develop and test psychological interventions that will help increase as well as decrease different types of positive emotions, among healthy adults as well as those who suffer from difficulty regulating positive emotions with depression and bipolar disorder. Taking some of the findings from the lab and learning how we can translate them to promote change in individuals’ every day emotional health is something I’m really excited about.