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Distinctions and Similarities Among Positive Emotions

A study published in 2013 (Belinda Campos et al., “What Is Shared, What Is Different? Core Relational Themes and Expressive Displays of Eight Positive Emotions,” Cognition and Emotion 27, no. 1 (2013): 37-52) sought to determine which aspects of eight positive emotions (amusement, awe, contentment, gratitude, interest, joy, love, and pride).

There were actually two separate studies. The first study asked the undergraduates (for course credit) to describe one of the eight positive emotions

in a short narrative. The students were also given a series of prompt questions. The information was then encoded for content. The goal was to determine what aspects of these various positive emotions remained common among all the eight, and which aspects differed.

They found things such as love and gratitude tended to go together. That positive emotions came more readily when one experienced safety or reward. Contentment was the least distinct.

Those who described awe also correlated this with the feeling of smallness, which was a trait not shared with other positive emotions. Although not part of the study, I imagine that “smallness” is likely associated also with certain negative emotions, because a feeling of vulnerability could lead on to feel unsafe.

A second study sought to correlate facial expressions with positive emotions.  It was already understood that negative emotions presented significant distinct elements. The question for the researchers was whether positive emotions would display unique elements.

I especially appreciated the quite formal description of a smile:

The Duchenne smile, which involves the simultaneous lifting of the lip corners and contractions of the orbicularis oculi muscles around the eyes, is regarded as the key marker of ‘happiness,’ the global term for displayed positive emotions.

While I appreciate the need for exactitude when discussing a subject, I did have to smile in response to this description of smiling while happy.

What was discovered was that most positive emotions were coupled with common facial displays, except for gratitude.

In the end, positive emotions are not an undifferentiated blog, but rather there are distinct elements of the emotions. Some emotions have a relationship to other positive emotions; some do not. Emotions – at least among the undergraduates studied – tend to show distinct physical expression.

The study leaves one the extent to which these findings apply to anyone beyond undergraduates at American universities.