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Is emotional journey taking you to the wrong place?

25 May 2021


Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD :

The pursuit of happiness can come at a high emotional cost. Taking a measure of your own emotional journey can help you tell whether you're working too hard at being happy. When it comes to emotions, the end state may not be as important as the path you took to get there.
Think about your typical day and the emotions you tend to experience. Do you wake up in a great mood only to have it dissolve into disappointment? Or do you start your day feeling reasonably good and stay that way until it's time to go to sleep?
Perhaps you don't even think at all about your happiness or lack thereof. You're too focused on your day's responsibilities to pause and examine your mood. Someone greets you with the typical "How are you?" And you automatically respond, "Fine," or even "Great," without pondering how you actually are feeling.
According to University of Georgia's Emma Frank and colleagues, the scientific, self-care, and even business worlds have become overly focused on the Thomas Jefferson idea that life is about the "pursuit of happiness." As the authors note, "Research today aligns with views dating back to the 1700s: Positive emotions are to be pursued" (p. 1). In their view, it's time to take a critical look at the over-selling of happiness as a state you must achieve to be fulfilled.
 Now, go back and think about the way you organize your days in terms of emotions. If you've swallowed the happiness Kool-Aid that Frank et al. talk about, feeling good will be a key part of your agenda. Should you feel bad, you immediately seek to shake off your negative emotions so that you can go back to that idyllic state of joy. However, what if you are the even-keeled individual who doesn't give happiness a second thought? If the people around you seem determined to boost your mood, do you resent their interference? Why can't you feel the way you feel without having to force yourself to be happy?
The University of Georgia research team's view that happiness isn't the be-all and end-all of an individual's sense of fulfillment led them to propose the idea of "emotional journeys," changes in emotions that drive you toward pleasure and away from pain. Your journey also includes the "distance" between those high and lows.
An emotional journey, in their words, takes you from "an emotional origin to an emotional end point" (p. 7).
As with any journey, that of the emotional type can lead you to feel exhausted if it occurs at a frenzied pace. Think about the difference between ambling along backroads to explore a new destination and bolting down the highway, feeling pressured to arrive on time to check-in at the hotel. With an emotional journey, similarly, you can ruin your day if you're too focused on "getting there" to find your happy place as quickly and for as long as possible.
It's not only the pace that can create the feeling of exhaustion but the rate at which you go up and down from unhappy to happy in your emotional journey. Thus, you might think of the kind of emotional journey the authors describe as more of a ride on a roller coaster, one that you're trying to guide yourself, and that's what can lead you to feel so drained.
With this background in mind, you can tap into your own emotional journey by rating yourself on the measures of daily emotions the Georgia researchers administered to their sample of 162 participants (average age of 41, and 68 percent female). These participants, alumni who were employed in a variety of paid positions, completed surveys interspersed throughout the day for each of 10 workdays. The researchers administered their key measure three times a day, allowing them to track the rise and fall of each person's emotional journey along with the costs in terms of feeling drained and unproductive associated with each type of pathway.
Your emotional journey score, using this framework would take the form of a trajectory as you trace your movement in terms of activation and valence around the emotions in this circumplex. Perhaps you're at a -1, -1. How long do you stay there and do you feel that you've got to snap out of it and get to that +1, +1 state? If so, what would you need to do to move up to that positive section of the circumplex?
Your final rating at the end of the day would be to rate yourself on statements such as "I feel drained." You can also determine how much effort you needed to change your emotions by asking yourself whether your emotions came naturally or whether they required energy by rating yourself on this item: "I focused/concentrated on the emotions I wanted to last and not on the emotions I did not want." You might also ask yourself, as Marks and her colleagues did with their employee sample, whether your day was productive or not.
If you've gone through the exercise, even just once, you can get an appreciation for the concept that an emotional journey can take you from highs to lows, can take effort to regulate, and can leave you feeling potentially worn out and drained.
The findings from this component of the study showed that, as the authors predicted, people whose journeys involved steep upward trajectories of positive, activated emotions (moving rapidly up to "peppy, excited, elated," e.g.) and steep rapid movement away from the negative ones were most likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion. They also engaged in more counterproductive work behaviors, and their work performance suffered.
You can now appreciate the paradox that by running toward the positive and away from the negative you become less, not more, happy when all is said and done. In the words of the authors, "undergoing an emotional journey toward hedonic goals may effectively 'cancel out' the supposed benefits of a positive end-state, making those in this condition no different from their more negative counterparts" (p. 17). People who arrived at a negative end-state without going through the extreme vacillation of that high to low affect trajectory were, therefore, in better shape since they hadn't had to push themselves out of whatever bad mood they were in at a given moment.
Being able to relieve yourself of the worry that you're not "happy enough," then, can allow you to experience whatever emotion you're feeling, for whatever reason, without having to shove it out of your consciousness. Equal emotion end-states, Mark et al. maintain, are not always " created equal. " In their concluding sentence, the University of Georgia authors explain that "To truly judge any emotional state as worthy of "the chase," then, we must also consider the extent of regulation needed to catch it" (p. 19).
To sum up , this new approach to understanding the "chase" for happiness can help you take a more sanguine and relaxed attitude toward your own daily emotional journeys. You may not want to spend every waking moment in a negative state of activation, but allowing your mood to evolve through a natural, organic process, can give you the emotional energy to foster your ultimate feelings of fulfillment.

(Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her latest book is The Search for Fulfillment).

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