This post originated with a question I received on Quora.com which asked if surprise was a positive or negative emotion.
The question intrigued me because surprise isn’t often a topic of interest.
This post covers my answer to this question and more.
Surprise is neither positive nor negative. It is just a tool.
- But, how you experience the emotion, whether you are comfortable or uncomfortable with the emotion (it’s hedonic quality), may, however, be either p0sitive or negative.
- And, whether it “works” for you (is adaptive or maladaptive), may also be important.
The Answer Explained:
There are, in fact, three parts to this question.
The first part addresses the emotion of surprise, the second addresses a myth that there are positive and negative emotions and the third part discusses an alternative way to label an emotion.
I. Surprise: the emotion
Surprise is one of the universal emotions and arises when we encounter sudden and unexpected sounds or movements. As the briefest of the universal emotions, its function is to focus our attention on determining what is happening and whether or not it is dangerous. Paul Ekman.com
Surprise is one of 6 primary emotions that humans and some other species are born with. The other 5 are mad, sad, glad, fear and disgust.
Each emotion has a specific function of, as I noted above, alerting us to our surroundings and preparing us to engage with those surroundings.
Surprise signals something unexpected that we need to give more attention to, engage productively with, or avoid.
Other words for “surprise” include:
- startled (shocked and dismayed),
- confused (disillusioned and perplexed),
- amazed (astonished and awe) and
- excited (eager and energetic).
These words are from an article Embracing Emotions in the Workplace by the Industrial Relations Centre of Queens University (irc.queensu.ca)
NOTE: I have written about these emotions and others in previous posts. You can access all of my posts by category, title and date by clicking on the INDEX tab in the upper right hand corner of the home page. This will take you to a PDF which, when opened, will tell where you need to go in the archives to access the post you want.
II. The Myth:
It is widely believed and often repeated that there are positive and negative emotions.
As I have discussed in my Amazon bestselling book: Emotions as Tools Control your Life not your Feelings, and and other posts on this Blog, there is no such thing as positive or negative emotions.
- There are emotions that feel good and emotions that feel bad. This is the hedonic quality of the emotion and is not a descriptor of the emotion.
In other words, good vs bad refers to how you experience the emotion and does not reflect the value of the emotion.
- All emotions are just tools that you can learn to strategically deploy to improve your life and your relationships.
Emotions inform you about how you perceive your surroundings and prepare you to engage with what is happening to you.
You are familiar with many tools in your life including your TV remote, your cell phone, your car and maybe the cordless drill in your garage.
You do not think of these tools as positive or negative. They are just tools you need to learn how to use.
It is the same with emotions.
Four reasons why the myth persists:
1: How some emotions feel.
There are some emotions which are experienced as pleasant such as happy and others that are experienced as unpleasant such as sadness. This is their hedonic quality. This hedonic quality is frequently inappropriately applied to the emotion giving rise to the misconception that there are positive and negative emotions.
2: How some people behave when feeling a specific emotion.
Some people behave inappropriately when they experience some emotions. One example is the abuser who beats up his significant other and blames his anger. “If you hadn’t done XYZ, I wouldn’t have gotten angry. And, if I weren’t so angry, I wouldn’t have (abused you).” While it may be true that he wouldn’t have gotten angry had she not done XYZ and it may also be true that he wouldn’t have abused her if he weren’t angry, it definitely is FALSE that his anger made him do what he did. His behavior was his choice and his responsibility.
Anger got the blame and the bad reputation.
3: Barbara Fredrickson wrote about positive and negative emotions. She clearly noted, however, that positive emotions were those feelings which motivated people to engage with their surroundings in a satisfying way. When you are happy, you want to do more of whatever it is that elicits happiness. As I noted above, happy is a feel good emotion.
4. Many people still do not understand what emotions are, why they evolved over time and the functions they serve.
The “problem” with the myth:
The problem with labelling an emotion as “negative” or “bad” is the message these words imply when applied to an emotion.
Think about anything you have labelled as as “negative” or “bad”..
- The milk has gone “bad”.
- You received a “negative” evaluation at work.
- You got a “bad” deal.
- You have a “negative” balance” in your checkbook.
- The market is in “negative” territory.
The defining characteristic that all of these examples have in common is that they are undesirable and to be avoided if at all possible.
When we label some emotions as “negative” and others as “positive”, the implication is that there are some emotions we should keep and others that should be eliminated or avoided.
Yes, I know that this is not how the words are used in the literature. But, what we say and what others hear are often not the same thing. You, as a reader of my blog, probably would not misinterpret what emotions are.
- The author of the question on Quora lacks this sophistication.
And, because the myth is so widespread…
- I do not think it is beneficial to refer to emotions as “positive” or “negative” without providing a context.
III. Adaptive vs Maladaptive.
- This is an alternative way to label an emotion.
- The main focus here is on whether the emotion benefits you in some way or is problematic?
Have you ever heard someone say: “I hate surprises.”?
While all emotions are valid in that they are real for you in the moment and reflect how you interpret what is happening to you, some emotions may not be working for you to improve your life or your relationships because how you react to them elicits results you do not want.
- Mal: “not” or in a faulty manner
- Adaptive: helps you deal with or adjust to (the situation)
Labelling an emotion as maladaptive for you tells you that you need to examine:
- how you react to, experience and relate to the emotion when you experience it
- are the issues with the emotion, per se,
- are there issues related to a specific context in which you experience the emotion and
- what it is about the emotion that isn’t working for you.
The bottom line: until you learn how to master these emotions, they may be, for you, maladaptive.
Preview of coming attractions:
On 12/2/2020, my annual Holiday Post will revisit the emotion of surprise.
Keeping with the Holiday theme, I will suggest that you give a gift to yourself and others by deploying the emotions of surprise and anticipation this Holiday season.
Yes, I realize that this is a months out and, in today’s environment, it is often difficult to plan for tomorrow.
But, if this sounds interesting to you, I can guarantee that you can anticipate being pleasantly surprised by what you will read.
So, mark your calendar and check it out.