Happy and sad. Excited and scared. While mixed emotions are familiar to many of us, they’re still a bit of a mystery to psychologists.
Initially, many researchers believed—and some still do—that it isn’t possible to feel both positive and negative at the same time. But more and more research is suggesting that mixed emotions do exist—more often as we get older, and among women. But why would this kind of emotional experience be useful to us?
A new paper has taken some early steps to explore how mixed emotions contribute to our well-being, and it suggests that they may play a role in the search for meaning in life.
How happy-sad are you?
The paper covers two studies. In the first, researchers recruited 52 college seniors who were about to graduate. The seniors reported on the positive and negative emotions they were feeling at the moment, allowing the researchers to calculate a score for mixed emotions. Then the participants watched a short video about graduation designed to induce bittersweet feelings. To the tune of fast-paced but sad music, it said things like “You’ll miss the university and the friends you’ve made…but you’re also looking forward to the future and the exciting possibilities it holds”:
After watching the video, participants again reported how they were feeling. They also completed a questionnaire measuring their sense of purpose or meaning. If they scored high, that meant they believe they know what they’re meant to do in life.
Overall, the video did appear to elicit mixed emotions: Afterward, participants felt more happy-sad and enthusiastic-sad than beforehand. And the more their mixed feeling of enthusiasm-sadness increased, the greater their sense of purpose and meaning in life.
“Mixed emotions seem to be a relevant companion in the creation of a meaningful life,” says lead author Raul Berrios, an associate professor at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile.
How mixed emotions make meaning
Mixed emotions may be related to meaning, then, but how?
A second study Berrios and his colleagues conducted shed some light on this question. Here, over 400 students filled out surveys measuring their sense of meaning or purpose in life and if they’d recently experienced an event that provoked mixed emotions. The survey also asked if, and how much, their life goals had recently come into conflict.
The analysis suggested that these factors were all related: Participants with more conflicting goals tended to have stronger mixed emotions. The stronger their mixed emotions, the more actively they were searching for meaning in life, and (in turn) the more meaning and purpose they felt.
How can we interpret these results? Berrios seems to envision mixed emotions as a kind of red flag for conflicting goals, a signal of some discrepancy we need to resolve in order to make meaning out of our lives. In the case of the college seniors, for example, they might simultaneously want to preserve their current friendships and connect with new people outside school, or savor their last months of college but also prepare for finding a job. Being aware of these conflicts could motivate them to form a plan and craft a narrative about how to transition from one life stage to another.
“Situations involving common personal dilemmas tend to [be linked to] the experience of mixed emotions,” says Berrios. “This may be important to understand how people construe a meaningful life in the face of difficulties.”
In moments of conflict or stress—when feeling purely good may not be possible for us—mixed emotions could thus be a healthy pattern. Past research suggests that mixed emotions can help us be more resilient and cope with adversity, like when bereaved spouses still experience moments of humor.
Berrios emphasizes that these studies are preliminary, and he says we can’t assume, without further research, that mixed emotions cause us to search for meaning. And not all mixed emotions may be created equal: The disappointment-relief I feel after dropping an ice cream cone that would have blown my diet may not motivate any major soul-searching.
Still, this study suggests (yet again) that we don’t have to feel good all the time in order to live a fulfilling life—and that some bad feelings may actually be part of the process.