How Hedonic and Contra-Hedonic Motivations to Experience Positive and Negative Emotions Predict Dysfunctional Emotion Regulation and Depressive Symptoms
The ways in which people regulate their emotions is central to achieving wellbeing in our everyday lives. Typically it is assumed that everyone tries to experience the positive and avoid the negative, however research conducted over the last decade has demonstrated that not everyone is motivated to experience valenced emotions in this normative ‘hedonic’ fashion all of the time. Sometimes people hold and seek to satisfy ‘contra-hedonic’ motives, i.e., trying to experience negative emotions. To investigate the implications of holding one or the other type of motive, this thesis is composed of three studies that investigate the implications of holding these types of motives for emotions: 1) the first paper determined whether the motive to avoid happiness predicts depressive symptoms through the mechanism of lessened hope, 2) the second paper featured the development of a new measure designed to assess a broad range of motives for emotions, and 3) the third paper described the associations between this new measure with a commonly used emotion regulation measure.
The first research paper addresses the phenomenon that some individuals do not approach and seek to experience happiness in a normative fashion. Research on this so-called ‘fear of happiness’ or ‘happiness aversion’ tendency has identified about 10-15% of community samples as composed of individuals who report not wanting to experience happy mood states. Importantly these individuals repeatedly also report elevated levels of depressive symptoms. In this study, I sought to investigate the associations among happiness aversion, hope (a protective factor against negative mood states), and depressive symptoms. Evidence was found that hope functioned both as a mediator as well as a buffer between happiness aversion and resultant depressive symptoms in a concurrent sample of 588 undergraduate psychology students. Follow-up exploratory analysis with a small longitudinal sample suggested that the concurrent findings were replicated across time. Overall findings within Study 1 suggested that interventions which promote hope can be effective in disrupting the relationship between happiness aversion and depressive symptoms.
Happiness aversion research, similar to Study 1 described above, has documented that some individuals are motivated to avoid experiencing happiness (this non-conventional approach is termed ‘contra-hedonic’). I then asked: what about other emotions? Would it be feasible and interesting to assess how individuals try to experience and try to avoid experiencing a range of positive AND negative emotions? The second paper of this thesis describes the development of a new self-report measure, termed the General Emotion Regulation Measure (GERM), that assesses how people are motivated to experience or avoid experiencing clusters of positive and negative emotions in their everyday lives. This paper describes the literature concerning positive and negative emotion regulation motivations (both hedonic and contra-hedonic types) and shows how the new measure provides new information about people’s emotion motives. Latent profile analysis (LPA) was implemented to explore individual differences in general emotion motives, and three different profiles of individuals were identified. In a sample of 833 undergraduate students, a LPA identified these distinct profiles: 1) a normative group in which people tried to experience positive emotions and tried to avoid experiencing negative emotions; 2) a non-normative group which exhibited an aversion to positive emotions and an attraction to negative emotions; and 3) another non-normative group which displayed an unwillingness or inability to regulate either positive or negative emotions. Comparisons of psychological wellbeing were computed among the three profiles using a MANOVA: it identified that the normative group reported higher levels of wellbeing (e.g., optimism) and lower levels of illbeing (e.g., depressive symptoms) compared to the other two groups. The new GERM measure highlights the general utility of these general emotion regulation motives, which, arguably, can be used to inform research on wellbeing across a wide range of psychological fields.
The final and concluding paper within this thesis examined whether the GERM is effective in predicting facets of the commonly used emotion dysregulation scale, the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS). Further, emotion dysregulation was predicted to mediate the relationship between emotion motives identified by the GERM measure and depressive symptoms. Based on previous research, it was expected that the two contra-hedonic motives’ relationships (trying to experience negative emotions and trying to avoid experiencing positive emotions) with depressive symptoms would be mediated by facets of emotion dysregulation. Findings demonstrated that two facets of emotion dysregulation, namely, lack of impulse control and lack of access to strategies, fully mediated the relationship between both contra-hedonic ER motives and depressive symptoms. The third paper demonstrated that contra-hedonic motives predict depressive outcomes through the use and instantiation of several different facets of emotion regulation difficulties. These results show that emotion motives are important in regards to setting the stage for maladaptive emotion regulation strategies and depressive symptoms.
The three studies’ findings show that the ways in which we manage our emotions in our daily lives are guided and constrained by how individuals are motivated to experience positive and negative emotions. These studies highlight the importance that motivation has in directing individuals to choose particular ways to regulate their emotions, and these, in turn, have important effects for emotional wellbeing.