Why getting in touch with your mixed feelings can lead to a better outcome

Sometimes it’s better to not know where you stand.

Sometimes it’s better to not know where you stand

(Credit: Chester Wade/unsplash.com)

Mixed feelings are not highly valued in our society. The ideal, usually, is a person who knows how they feel and what they want, and who goes for it with clear eyes and determination — an arrow with a single arc. Love ought to be complete and unqualified, sadness profound. That's why it feels weird to laugh at a funeral. To have mixed feelings is not generally praised. Mixed feelings are associated with ambivalence, indecision, an uncomfortable perch on a metaphorical fence.

But mixed emotions are good for us in many ways. One of the great upsides about feeling both positively and negatively at once is that it prompts reflection. And though it doesn't always feel great, recent research shows that mixed emotions are associated with greater self-control, and a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life.

The first thing you need to know is that experiencing mixed feelings doesn't mean that you're "wishy-washy". In an article published this summer in the journal Motivation and Emotion, a team of psychologists led by Raul Berrios found that experiencing mixed emotions is correlated with better self-control. In psychological terms, self-control dilemmas arise when our long-term goals come into conflict with short-term goals. We'd like to be in great shape by summer, but we'd also like another slice of the pizza sitting in front of us. They studied 73 subjects over the course of ten days, measuring how often they experienced mixed emotions, noticed goal conflicts, and how often they made efforts at self-control. Berrios found that these three factors were all related. People who experienced mixed emotions were more likely to experience conflict between different goals and to make efforts to resist temptation. Why? Because feeling both positively and negatively about something motivates to reflect on how our different goals fit together and how best to pursue them. According to Berrios, "neither positive emotions or negative emotions alone are enough when facing temptations, but instead it is the combination of both valences in the form of mixed emotions that helps individuals to balance the trade-offs of competing goals." Experiencing mixed emotions can help people weigh the different options available to them and promotes self-control more than simply positive or negative emotions.

Greater self-control is not the only positive benefit of this interaction between conflicting goals and mixed emotions. In a paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Berrios and his team examined the relationship between mixed emotions and "eudaimonic well-being", which he defines as "a person's sense that his or her life has purpose or meaning." This is understood in contrast to "hedonic well-being" which is simply the presence of positive emotion and the absence of negative. In this study,  Berrios and his colleagues asked 400 students to respond to surveys which measured whether they had recently experienced mixed emotions, whether their life goals had recently come into conflict, and how great their sense of meaning and purpose was. Again, all of these things were connected. According to Berrios' analysis, mixed feelings serve as a kind of signal that something is amiss, that our various goals are in conflict.

Straightforwardly positive or negative emotions generally have a pretty clear practical message: approach or avoid. Mixed emotions point in more than one direction at once, and this ambivalence can cause us to reflect, to review our different goals and the values they embody, and try to fit them together in a coherent whole. It turns out that having a meaningful life doesn't usually come from having a single goal and pursuing it single-mindedly. Instead, it's the moments where our goals and our feelings come into conflict that send us searching for meaning. Often, we find it.

Igor Grossman, of the University of Waterloo, is also working against the notion that healthy emotions are one-sided emotions. According to Grossman, mixed feelings are a sign of emotional complexity and depth, not indecision. In a cross-cultural study of "emotional dialecticism" (experiencing both positive and negative emotions at the same time), Grossman found that experiencing mixed feelings was correlated with "the ability to experience and report one's own emotions in highly differentiated and granular manner." People with mixed feelings are more in touch with their emotions and understand them better.

Very frequently we are told to be decisive, and encouraged to feel unremittingly positive. It's not always looked well upon to point out the fly in an otherwise happy ointment, or the silver lining of a very dark cloud. Think how out of place it feels when someone expresses that they are somehow happy or relieved when a loved one dies. When we have mixed feelings, we are often encouraged to just pick a side. Berrios' and Grossman's research reveal that this would be a mistake. We shouldn't think of mixed feelings as just a kind of indecision or wishy-washiness. It's what motivates us to reflect on our goals, and doing so can improve our self-control and give us a greater sense of purpose.


Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter. 

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