What are Positive and Negative Emotions and Do We Need Both?

Positive and negative emotions
Image by WorldSpectrum from Pixabay

You might think that positive psychology is all about positive emotions. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, given positive psychology’s inherent positive bent!

But the field isn’t all about positive emotions. Negative emotions are an inevitable part of life and something that we need to experience in order to have a full, rich life.

Why do we need negative emotions to complement the positive ones?

Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will not only enhance your ability to understand and regulate your emotions but will also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students or employees.

You can download the free PDF here.

 

A Look at the Psychology

People have been studying emotions for thousands of years. Given the heavy focus on feelings, it’s not surprising that we know quite a bit about them; what is surprising is the lack of understanding around the necessity of both emotions for healthy functioning.

Let’s start by defining our terms.

 

What Are Positive Emotions?

Positive emotions are emotions that we typically find pleasurable to experience. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology defines them as “pleasant or desirable situational responses… distinct from pleasurable sensation and undifferentiated positive affect” (Cohn & Fredrickson, 2009).

Basically, this definition is stating that positive emotions are pleasant responses to our environment (or our own internal dialogue) that are more complex and targeted than simple sensations.

 

What Are Negative Emotions?

On the other hand, negative emotions are those that we typically do not find pleasurable to experience. Negative emotions can be defined as “as an unpleasant or unhappy emotion which is evoked in individuals to express a negative effect towards an event or person” (Pam, 2013).

If an emotion discourages and drags you down, then it’s most likely a negative emotion.

 

17 Examples: A List of Positive and Negative Emotions

Examples of positive and negative emotions will vary based on who you ask; even the definition of an emotion can vary based on who answers the question. However you define emotion, discerning between the two is an intuitive process—we seem to “just know” which emotions are positive and which are negative.

Some common positive emotions include:

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Satisfaction
  • Contentment
  • Interest
  • Amusement
  • Happiness
  • Serenity
  • Awe

 

A few of the most commonly felt negative emotions are:

  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Sadness
  • Rage
  • Loneliness
  • Melancholy
  • Annoyance

 

Do We Need Both?

Look back over the list of sample negative emotions. Do you want to feel any of those emotions? You probably don’t, and it’s no wonder! It doesn’t feel good to experience any of those emotions.

Now, refer to the list of sample positive emotions. Have you ever felt one of these emotions and thought to yourself, “I wish I wasn’t experiencing this emotion?” Although you may have experienced this once or twice—generally at a time when we think we shouldn’t feel positive emotions—it’s easy to see that this list is full of pleasurable emotions that people tend to seek out. We know that we need positive emotions to function effectively, grow, and thrive.

So if it’s basically universally unpleasant for us to experience negative emotions and universally pleasant and desirable to experience positive emotions, do we actually need the negative ones at all?

As it turns out, yes!

 

Are Negative Emotions Necessary?

Although they are not pleasant to experience, negative emotions really are necessary for a healthy life. This is true for two big reasons:

  • Negative emotions give us a counterpoint to positive emotions; without the negative, would the positive emotions still feel as good?
  • Negative emotions serve evolutionary purposes, encouraging us to act in ways that boost our chances of survival and help us grow and develop as people.

 

As Tracy Kennedy from Lifehack.org points out, there is a good reason for each of the basic emotions, both positive and negative:

  • Anger: to fight against problems
  • Fear: to protect us from danger
  • Anticipation: to look forward and plan
  • Surprise: to focus on new situations
  • Joy: to remind us what’s important
  • Sadness: to connect us with those we love
  • Trust: to connect with people who help
  • Disgust: to reject what is unhealthy (2018)

Without fear, would you be here today? Or would you have engaged in some risky practices, putting yourself in unnecessary danger? Without disgust, would you have been able to refrain from putting any of the many, many harmful substances that you had access to as a toddler?

As unpleasant as they may be, it can’t be denied that negative emotions serve important purposes in our lives.

 

Is it True that an Individual Will Only Feel Stress in Negative Situations?

Although you may think of stress as a solidly negative emotion or response to a situation, it’s actually quite common for people to experience stress in neutral and positive situations as well.

In fact, many experiences commonly thought of as positive can contribute huge amounts of stress to our lives.

Here are just a few examples of positive experiences that can bring us stress:

  • Planning for an upcoming wedding
  • Preparing to move to somewhere you are excited to live
  • The holidays—especially with family!
  • Having a baby
  • Starting an exciting new job

It’s perfectly natural to feel stress in all of these situations, even though you would probably classify them as happy and positive. It’s yet another example of the interplay between positive and negative that gives our lives balance.

 

Positive vs. Negative Emotions: A Look at the Differences

As we now know, positive and negative emotions are both vital for a healthy, well-rounded life. Let’s take a look at how emotions in both categories impact us.

How Do They Affect the Brain?

Positive and negative emotions both have important roles to play when it comes to the brain, but they are generally separate roles.

For example, positive emotions have been shown to impact the brain in the following ways:

  • They can increase our performance on a cognitive task by lifting our spirits without distracting us like negative emotions do (Iordan & Dolcos, 2017).
  • Positive emotions can trigger the reward pathways in the brain, contributing to lower levels of a stress hormone and greater well-being (Ricard, Lutz, & Davidson, 2014).
  • Positive emotions may help us broaden our horizons and widen our brain’s scope of focus (Fredrickson, 2001).

 

Meanwhile, negative emotions are known to affect the brain in the following ways:

  • Facilitating emotional conflict processing, helping us to make sense of incongruent or conflicting emotional information; in other words, negative emotions can help us figure tough emotional problems (Zinchenko et al., 2015).
  • Facilitating cognitive conflict processing, aiding us in comprehending incongruent or conflicting cognitive information; in other words, negative emotions can also help us make sense when we receive confusing signals (Kanske & Kotz, 2010; 2011).
  • Reducing the experience of empathy, which can help protect us from getting too involved with others and stay focused on our goals (Qiao-Tasserit, Corradi-Dell’Acqua, & Vuilleumier, 2017).

Both have impactful roles to play in our brain, and these roles are complementary rather than competitive.

 

The Role of Both in Positive Psychology

Given the impact of positive and negative emotions on our thoughts and behaviors, it’s easy to see why positive psychology keeps a close eye on negative emotions in addition to the positive. As vital as it is for us to learn how to boost our positive emotions and take advantage of the opportunities they bring, it’s just as vital to learn how to adapt from negative emotions and cope with them effectively.

When we are able to accept, embrace, and exploit both our positive and our negative emotions, we give ourselves the best chance to live a balanced, meaningful life. This is why the field of positive psychology is hesitant to focus too much on positive emotions alone—it is just as important to understand how to turn negative emotions into a positive experience as it is to capitalize on our positive emotions.

 

How Can We Best Track Our Emotions?

Now we know about the importance of accepting and managing our emotions—both positive and negative—the next question is how we actually do this.

The first step to effectively managing our emotions is to identify, understand, and find the patterns in our emotional experiences.

Positive and Negative Emotions Chart (PDF)

If you need help identifying positive vs. negative emotions or tracking your own emotions, there are several charts that can help.

Check out the examples below, or make your own if you’re feeling creative.

Positive and Negative Emoji Chart:

Positive and negative emotions emojis
Image via Dreamstime.com – ID 78015426

Simple List of Positive and Negative Emotions:

Negative Positive
Grief

Sorrow

Heartache

Sadness

Unhappiness

Depression

Hatred

Blame

Regret

Misery

Resentment

Threatening

Antagonism

Anger

Fury

Hostility

Hate

Shame

Insecurity

Self-consciousness

Bravado

Embarrassment

Worry

Panic

Frustration

Pessimistic

Cynicism

Jealousy

Weariness

Pain

Anxiety

Fright

Fear

Interest

Inspiration

Enthusiasm

Laughter

Amusement

Empathy

Curiosity

Cheer

Contentment

Calmness

Serenity

Peace

Trust

Bliss

Delight

Happiness

Pleasure

Joy

Carefree

Ease

Satisfaction

Fulfillment

Hopeful

Confidence

Optimism

Passion

Harmony

Excitement

Gratitude

Kindness

Affection

Love

 

Emotion Wheel:

Emotion Pinwheel

 

 

A Brief Look at Neutral Emotions

While positive and negative emotions have received substantial attention from researchers and psychology practitioners, there’s another category of emotions that have been all but ignored in many circles: neutral emotions.

You won’t hear much about these middle ground feelings from psychologists, but they are a much-discussed topic in some Buddhism circles. These emotions are referred to as adukkhamasukha, which can translate to “not painful not pleasant” (Anālayo, 2017). They refer to “a range in the middle part of the spectrum of felt experience… between pain and pleasure… relatively bland and neither distinctly painful nor clearly pleasant” (Anālayo, 2017).

Since neutral feelings are such a mundane topic for most of us, we rarely give them much thought; however, they may be the emotional category where we spend most of our time! Think about your day: how much of it was spent in joy and contentment? How much in anger and sadness? The answer to those questions is likely to be far less time than you had in the day. The emotions you felt the rest of the time were likely neutral.

Although neutral feelings do not have a valence—positive or negative—some say that neutral feelings can be counted as positive feelings, since they are characterized by the absence of pain and suffering.

Whatever you believe about negative emotions, keep them in mind as an important, if oft-forgotten, piece of your emotional experience. Here is more reading about the Buddhist perspective on neutral emotions.

 

5 PowerPoints on Positive and Negative Emotions

For more information on positive and negative emotions, give these five positive psychology PowerPoint presentations a look:

 

A Take-Home Message

As always, I hope you leave this piece with a little more knowledge than when you began reading. Identifying, accepting, and managing our emotions—both positive and negative—is such an important task for living a healthy and happy life. Use what you have learned here to enhance your understanding of your own feelings and the feelings of others, and commit to greater awareness and management of your own emotional state. You won’t regret it!

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you think negative emotions are necessary, or do you think we could do away with them without any adverse effects? What sort of balance do you aim for? Let us know in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our 3 Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

If you wish to learn more, our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© is a 6-module emotional intelligence training package for practitioners which contains all the materials you’ll need to become an emotional intelligence expert, helping your clients harness their emotions and cultivate emotional connection in their lives.

  • Anālayo, B. (2017). What about neutral feelings? Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Retrieved from https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/what-about-neutral-feelings/
  • Cohn, M. A., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positive emotions. In S. J. Lopez and C. R. Snyder (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2nd ed.). https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195187243.013.0003
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The roles of positive emotions in positive psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.218
  • Iordan, A. D., & Dolcos, F. (2017). Brain activity and network interactions linked to valence-related differences in the impact of emotional distraction. Cerebral Cortex, 27, 731-749. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhv242
  • Kanske, P., & Kotz, S. A. (2010). Modulation of early conflict processing: N200 responses to emotional words in a flanker task. Neuropsychologia, 48, 3661-3664. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.07.021
  • Kanske, P., & Kotz, S. A. (2011). Emotion triggers executive attention: Anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala responses to emotional words in a conflict task. Human Brain Mapping, 32, 198-208. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.21012
  • Kennedy, T. (2018). Why negative emotions aren’t that bad (and how to handle them). Lifehack. Retrieved from https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/how-handle-negative-emotions.html
  • Pam, M. S. (2013). Negative emotion. Psychology Dictionary. Retrieved from: https://psychologydictionary.org/negative-emotion/
  • Qiao-Tasserit, E., Corradi-Dell’Acqua, C., & Vuilleumier, P. (2017). The good, the bad, and the suffering. Transient emotional episodes modulate the neural circuits of pain and empathy. Neuropsychologia, 116, 99-116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.12.027
  • Ricard, M., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Mind of the meditator. Scientific American. Retrieved from
    https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/3918-mind-of-the-meditatorpdf
  • Zinchenko, A., Kanske, P., Obermeier, C., Schröger, E., & Kotz, S. A. (2015). Emotion and goal-directed behavior: ERP evidence on cognitive and emotional conflict. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10, 1577-1587. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsv050
  • Zinchenko, A., Obermeier, C., Kanske, P., Schröger, E., Villringer, A., & Kotz, S. A. (2017). The influence of negative emotion on cognitive and emotional control remains intact in aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 9, 349. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00349

About the Author

Courtney Ackerman, MSc., is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working as a researcher for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, well-being in the workplace, and compassion.

Comments

  1. Mathew Puthumana

    Very good article about positive and negative emotions. Happy to get new information about neutral emotions. Congratulations.

    Reply
  2. Rowena Bach

    Hi, this was helpful, I really like the breadth in the emotion wheel but am surprised to see BAD in the green section. Anyone have any insight into why they chose BAD for this section or what you’re supposed to do with that feeling if you land in that section?

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Rowena,
      I suspect ‘Bad’ is a broad, high-level way to classify the more specific emotions falling under this label. Several of these emotions strike me as being about having insufficient personal resources (e.g., being sleepy, overwhelmed — not having what you need internally to feel comfortable in a situation).
      Maybe that helps!
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  3. alexa

    stating that emotions are negative are perpetuating the stigma against feeling those emotions. No one emotion is inherently positive or negative.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Alexa,
      Fair point — and certainly not our intention to stigmatize! But when the author referred to emotions as positive or negative, my guess is that they may have been referring to the distinction in scholarly work between positive and negative affect, which is more abut an emotion’s hedonic tone. That is, the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in this context are synonymous with ‘pleasantness’ vs. ‘unpleasantness’. You can read more about this idea in our post about the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS).
      Thanks for reading.
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  4. Gerald

    I found the article to be useful as I was asked to write down positive and negative emotions from a seminar that I am taking. I think the charts will be useful as I struggle to see what emotions I have had and how crucial they are in life in solving problems. Thank you

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Gerald,
      Sometimes it’s difficult to find the right words for what we are feeling, so it’s great that the charts were able to prompt your thinking. If you’d like more exercises to develop your emotional competency, we have a free emotional intelligence tool available for download here if you are interested.
      All the best.
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  5. Zeb Waturucha

    I like your articulation and commitment to provide this material for us all. Thanks a lot. It is very meaningful and quite comprehensive. I wished you talked little more or the justification for classifying Demure as negative emotion since it shows up in the form of timidity, shyness or reservedness. Else the article is simply superb.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Zeb,
      Thanks for reading. We’re glad you enjoyed the article. You make a great point about whether or not ‘demure‘ is a negative emotion. I’m not an emotions expert, but here’s my take: Demure is similar to shy, and shy implies self-consciousness (which is negative). It’s also defined as “affectedly modest, reserved, or serious”. I think reservedness and seriousness trend more toward the negative side of emotionality than positive.
      … but of course it’s a fine line! Emotions aren’t black and white 🙂
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  6. Srirang

    Super article, helped to understand and learn about emotions. Thanks a lot 🙂

    Reply
  7. Rae

    Demure is not a negative emotion. It means modest , shy, or reserved. In belongs in the category of civilized (as opposed to uncivilized or negative) behaviors. I disagree with your chart.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Rae,
      Totally understand your disagreement about ‘demure’ being a negative emotion. I mention this above in response to another comment, but here’s my take: Demure is similar to shy, and shy implies self-consciousness (which is negative). It’s also defined as “affectedly modest, reserved, or serious”. I think reservedness and seriousness trend more toward the negative side of emotionality than positive.
      (… but again, I’m not an emotions expert!)
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  8. Matthias Washington

    I hope u people know that i feel all the negetive emotions every morning. its like a rushing river i can get rid of. some times its so overwhelming that it sometimes tries to push me off the edge of a waterfall.

    Reply
    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Matthias,
      I’m sorry you’re struggling with negative emotions in the morning. If you find that you’re regular experiencing a sense of dread when you wake up, I’d suggest having a chat with a psychological professional to see if you can’t pin down a potential cause, or if there is something else going on.
      I hope you find a brighter future ahead.
      – Nicole | Community Manager

      Reply
  9. John magee

    Everyone so far off the mark about emotions its untrue. Have just done the most scientifically proven research on happiness and emotions ever. Will seriously reduce suicide and anxiety. 100x times better than mindfulness and cbt put together. Not joking and please dont mistake my confidence for arrogance. Nevertheless your article was helpful in further substantiating the scientific and moral truth about happiness. Thanks and gratitude. John magee

    Reply
  10. Julia

    A comprehensive article that help me to do my own research about happiness. I particularly think that neutral emotions are those feelings we can control by practicing them. But, however, absent from positive and negative emotions may lead us into apathy. The best we could do is to be mindful of what emotion we are experiencing and control it.
    Thanks again for your share.

    Reply
  11. sumit

    Nice description of positive and negative emotions and their sub-categories. It’s knowledgeable to know the important role of both kind of emotions in our life.

    Reply
  12. Jobin

    It’s a great article. I really love it. I actually was searching in the Internet and books for something like this. Thanks for the article

    Reply
  13. D Prabhakar Rao

    Very useful

    Reply
  14. D Prabhakar Rao

    A great material to understand and learn . Thus , can benefit my fellow beings through the knowledge acquired.

    Reply
  15. Prathap

    Very informative. I’m confident that it will change my life positively.
    I found, however, it could have been better if you had concluded by saying something like “Both negative and positive emotions are inevitable, and necessary for a healthy life.”
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Matthias Washington

      Dont always expect things to go that way. you might have the blue flu.I’m not leads to suicidal death sometimes. no offense

      Reply
      • Matthias Washington

        that was a typodon’t expect things to go that way. you might have the blue flu.which leads to suicidal death sometimes.

        Reply
  16. Judy Carran

    Very well done article. Much appreciated.

    Reply
  17. Dr.Sarwat Malik

    it was very informative. I believe identification of negative emotions make us able to change them.

    Reply
  18. Louise

    How can someone be helped if their negative emotions overpower their whole life? That person is so stuck in negative emotions that they can’t function properly.

    Reply
    • sarwat malik

      psychotherapy will make him able to bounce back from negativity.

      Reply
  19. Katalinn

    I’m glad there is such informative site about emotional balancing. What occured to me when reading through is that I think it depends on what mindset is behind the emotion. The same emotion might be a warning sign if the mindset behind it is clear and neutral, but it might be a reactive emotion coming from a subconscious mindset.

    Reply
  20. Anneli

    Negative emotions are always a counterpart of positive emotions. If we refuse to accept them, we should stop being human beings.

    Reply
  21. Ximena C.

    Very interesting and clear article, thanks! I think it’s certainly important to be aware of our positive, neutral and negative emotions. Personally, it was useful to me to think about my neutral emotions. On the other hand, I find very useful all the different ways you present to check out our emotions.

    Reply
  22. Soulful

    Informative plus interesting ,
    Your posts alaways give us AtoZ information.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  23. Hanan

    Nice to see negative emotions being given the importance they deserve and that too on a positive psychology website! I also like how you show the full range of emotions using emojis and emotion wheel.

    Reply
  24. Dr Santhi K

    It is really useful message in this time since I am on the process to understand myself and also doing a course on psychology…Thanks a lot.

    Reply

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