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Are Positive Emotions Always Beneficial?

The positive psychology movement has been criticized for being Pollyanna and sugar coating real issues by simply thinking positively.

Positive psychology is much more than “positive thinking,” and offers a vast array of insight and direction for how people can function more optimally. Positive psychology offers us added insight into how we can embrace change, feel positive about who we are, and enjoy healthy, responsible and fulfilled lives.

But, like anything else the application of this knowledge and information is very important. Particularly when it comes to how we apply positive emotions.

Recent research presented in the American Psychologist explains how positive emotions are not necessarily direct and distinct in the way they function and affect us.

According to these researchers, psychology is not necessarily positive or negative. Ascribing a label such as positive to emotions and states of mind like optimism, forgiveness, and kindness may be a misnomer when considering the bigger picture.

Specifically, the positive or negative effects of emotions are related to the context and situation these processes are applied in.

Just as anger and sadness can be productive emotions if applied in the appropriate context and at the right time, emotions like forgiveness and optimism can be counterproductive if utilized in a context that is unfitting and untimely.

Here are a couple implications for how context can affect whether generally positive emotions are actually beneficial.

Forgiveness: You may not want to forgive everyone

Yes forgiveness helps us overcome negativity and enhance relationships, but when it is applied to any unhealthy abusive relationship or other physically harmful interaction we may be misinterpreting it’s sustenance. There are situations that don’t call for us to make amends and forgive a transgressor, such as when we are submitting to their wrongdoing.

Optimism: Face it, not everything is going to turn out favorably

Optimism helps us manage stress and deal with life transition productively. It gives us motivation and a sense of empowerment. But what happens when we focus on a favorable outcome at the expense of facts to the contrary?

What if we decide to neglect our personal weaknesses to the extent of our detriment? Being optimistic when, say, gambling, can lead to unfortunate outcomes. We may not process risk and benefit as effectively or we might tend to make decisions based on flimsy evidence.

Kindness: Does the nice guy finish last?

Being kind and caring is certainly something to strive for. It can even enhance our happiness, though when it comes to personal well-being there are caveats to be considered. Kindness can have harmful implications when in competitive situations as well as when we are problem solving.

How kind we are may have implications on whether we get taken advantage of. Kindness doesn’t require self-sacrifice and selfless interactions.

There is a complex interaction between the emotional state we experience, behavior we elicit, and the situation that these processes unfold.

Like anything else, there is balance that must be developed between idealism and realism. Integrating the theories from positive psychology are most likely going to be best suited as complimentary to other theories and orientations related to mental health and “psychology” in general.

Engaging in a purpose, enjoying life, and connecting with others will increase our psychological well-being, but this is not without taking into account the situation we are in, our values, and the general necessities of a responsible life.

Photo credit: Noize Photography


McNulty, J. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011, July 25). Beyond Positive Psychology?: Toward a Contextual View of Psychological Processes and Well-Being. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024572

Are Positive Emotions Always Beneficial?

Joe Wilner

Joe Wilner is a life coach, licensed clinical psychotherapist (LCP), and drummer from the band Yes You Are. He is also creator of You Have a Calling, a blog and online community helping people discover and pursue their life’s work and mission. Through deep and personalized coaching, he helps ambitious, creative, and spiritually minded individuals make a greater impact, grow as leaders, and design a soulful life they are inspired by.

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APA Reference
Wilner, J. (2011). Are Positive Emotions Always Beneficial?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Oct 2011
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