So Good It’s Bad: Positive Psychology Gone Wrong (Part I: The Difference Between Positive and Negative Emotions in the Brain)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Jefferson, 1776)

What is the Key to Happiness?

American culture is predicated on the idea that everyone has the right to be happy. Of course, what “being happy” means tends to vary a great deal from person to person, and perhaps even from moment to moment. On a typical fall morning, for example, I tend to define happiness as a scalding-hot cup of coffee, a fluffy blanket, and seeing books stacked upon books stacked upon (surprise!) yet more books. Unsurprisingly, I tend to be very unhappy when I run out of coffee, am subjected to a chilly room, and don’t get time to read.

Happiness is having baristas memorize your drink order.

Happiness is having baristas memorize your drink order.

While some things that make me happy on fall mornings make me happy 24/7/365, there is certainly a lot of variability there. During summer mornings, for instance, air conditioning tends to make me happier than a fluffy blanket, and frozen lemonade tends to make me happier than warm espresso on summer nights. On a less superficial level, having dinner with my family, going out with my friends, scaling the Colorado Rocky Mountains, wading into the warm Atlantic waters on the southeastern Florida coastline, or driving north through the exquisite expanse of New England’s fall foliage tends to make me far happier than, say, drinking a cup of coffee ever could (…okay, maybe it doesn’t make me that much happier. I really, really, really like coffee. I’m sorry).

Happiness, then, is great, however it’s achieved; or so it would seem. When you really stop and think about it, though, happiness might not always be the best goal to strive for. Let’s say that I love my job (which I do!) but don’t quite love some of the more trying tasks that come with it, like giving presentations to large groups of people. It’s unrealistic to assume that I’m going to be happy, in any sense of the word, while I’m speaking to hundreds of my respected colleagues. In fact, I might not even want to feel happy while I’m speaking. If being slightly anxious makes me more aware of my talking points, maybe my goal should be to feel slightly anxious while I’m speaking so that I ensure I’m covering all of the relevant material. Given that contextual complexities can significantly alter your emotional goals, when should you strive to experience positive emotions in the first place?

Before we can get into when positive emotions can be generally bad, how positive emotions can arise at inopportune times, and what specific types of positive emotions are bad in specific contexts, however, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the neural bases of positive emotions and their regulation relative to the neural bases of negative emotions and their regulation. We’ll get into that in our next section.

The Neural Bases of Positive and Negative Emotions

Our ability to study the brain has increased dramatically over the past couple of decades. (For a nice introduction to the different structures of the brain, play around with the BBC’s Human Brain Map at Techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission topography (PET), and more have allowed us to peer at what’s underneath the skull in incredible ways. While these techniques are fascinating first steps on our way to understanding the brain, how it works, and how it affects people’s behavior, they still have many limitations, like suboptimal spatial and temporal resolution, that give us pause and make us stop short of declaring their findings the definitive “truth” on brain functionality. Nevertheless, even a rudimentary understanding of where emotions originate in the brain and how they might be related to certain behaviors have helped scientists realize how positive and negative emotions differ from one another.

Several research inquiries have been conducted which suggest that positive emotions are uniquely situated within the brain. For instance, a recent meta-analysis of 83 PET and fMRI studies demonstrated that happiness, relative to the emotions of sadness, anger, fear, and disgust, tended to activate the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and right superior temporal gyrus (STG; Vytal & Hamman, 2010). Another study using electroencephalography (EEG) found that, when controlling for the amount of positive affect individuals typically report experiencing, greater left prefrontal cortex (PFC) activation is associated with high eudaimonic well-being (e.g., having a sense of purpose in life), but is not associated with high hedonic well-being (e.g., pleasure, “feeling good”) (Urry et al., 2004). Yet another study induced happiness in participants and then observed that their subsequent vagal tone (which, broadly, is an index of socioemotional well-being) was correlated with activation in the medial PFC, the midbrain, part of the ventral striatum, and the left midinsula (Lane et al., 2009). Taken together, these findings suggest that positive emotions are uniquely situated within the brain.

Although knowing where in the brain positive emotions exist is great in and of itself, I believe it’s even more intriguing to see where these emotions are regulated; in other words, what neural substrates contribute to making us feel less negatively (or more positively)? One study has shown that while up-regulating emotions (feeling more of either positive or negative emotions) and down-regulating emotions (feeling less of either positive or negative emotions) calls upon some related neural networks, up-regulating positive emotions seems to uniquely activate the bilateral ventral striatum, which has been implicated in the processing of rewards (Kim & Hamann, 2007). Relatedly, an fMRI study showed that there are both general and valence (positive or negative)-specific neural substrates that underlie emotion regulation, and that increased activation in both the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the insula is uniquely associated with the regulation of positive emotion (Mak et al., 2009). Thus, there seems to not only be differences in where individuals experience positive and negative emotion in the brain, but also in where they regulate them.

Where Do We Go From Here?

By now you’ve hopefully come to a basic understanding of how positive and negative emotions manifest in the brain. Now that you are aware of these differences we can spend next time covering how wanting to feel good can sometimes be bad (and, relatedly, how wanting to feel bad can sometimes be good!). In subsequent weeks we’ll get into how positive emotions can be implicated in various psychopathologies, like depression and bipolar disorder, as well as into just how much cultural variation exists in terms of positive emotion valuation and expression (spoiler alert: there’s a ton).


Jefferson, T. (1776). Declaration of Indpendence. Retrieved from National Archives

Kim, S., & Hamann, S. (2007). Neural correlates of positive and negative emotion
regulation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(5), 776-798.

Lane, R. D., McRae, K., Reiman, E. M., Chen, K., Ahern, G. L., & Thayer, J. F. (2009).
Neural correlates of heart rate variability during emotion. Neuroimage, 44(1), 213-222.

Mak, A. K., Hu, Z. G., Zhang, J. X., Xiao, Z. W., & Lee, T. (2009). Neural correlates of
regulation of positive and negative emotions: An fMRI study. Neuroscience
Letters, 457(2), 101-106.

Urry, H. L., Nitschke, J. B., Dolski, I., Jackson, D. C., Dalton, K. M., Mueller, C. J., … &
Davidson, R. J. (2004). Making a life worth living neural correlates of well-being.
Psychological Science, 15(6), 367-372.

Vytal, K., & Hamann, S. (2010). Neuroimaging support for discrete neural correlates of
basic emotions: A voxel-based meta-analysis. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(12),

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