The Model: more on the difference between “positive” and rewarding emotions

September 23, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

[This post is part of a series on The Model — my model for the human emotional system designed for use in leadership, self-awareness, and general purpose professional and personal development — which I find the most effective and valuable foundation for understanding yourself and others and improving your life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

People usually say they want to feel positive emotions. I’ve already discussed how calling emotions positive doesn’t help. They may feel good, but even ones that feel bad are useful. We have them for a reason. Treating them functionally helps you manage them better.

The following examples illustrate how reward comes about, or doesn’t, independent of which emotions brings it about. I’ll refer to the Model:

reward environment beliefs emotions behavior

Consider the following two sets of scenarios.

Set 1 – Friendliness

I picked friendliness as an emotion everyone would call positive. We’ll consider different cases involving friendliness and how various combinations of environments, beliefs, and behaviors affect friendly feelings.

Scenario 1 – Harmony and reward
  • Environment: You’re with friends
  • Belief: You believe them to be your friends
  • Behavior: You are doing friendly things

No matter how you felt before that situation, eventually your emotional system will create in you friendly emotions. Recall, it reacts to your environment, beliefs, and behavior to motivate you to behave appropriately, based on the wiring you inherited from your ancestors.

Once your emotions become friendly, the circuit completes and you will feel emotional reward. I call a closed circuit harmonious because all the elements resonate with each other. Friendliness feels good, but the feeling of reward is different, as we’ll illustrate below.

For the next three scenarios we’ll vary one of the elements of the

Scenario 2 – behavior clashes
  • Environment: You’re with friends
  • Belief: You believe them to be your friends
  • Behavior: Instead of doing friendly things, you are arguing with one friend

Like the previous situation, your emotional system will give you some feelings of friendliness, but since your behavior clashes with your environment and beliefs, you’ll also feel some emotions of conflict — maybe impatience or frustration.

Since the circuit doesn’t close, you won’t feel reward, meaning you won’t feel motivation to recreate this situation.

This scenario illustrates that positive emotions alone don’t guarantee feeling good. If your environments, beliefs, and behavior don’t resonate, you won’t feel deeper feelings of emotional reward.

Scenario 3 – beliefs clash
  • Environment: You’re with friends
  • Belief: You believe one of them is angry at you
  • Behavior: You are doing friendly things

Like scenario 1, you’ll feel some friendliness, but like scenario 2, because the three voluntary elements of your emotional cycle don’t all resonate, you won’t feel reward. Like scenario 2, you’ll feel some emotions of conflict, maybe suspicion or anxiety.

Like scenario 2, this situation illustrates that positive emotions alone, without environments, beliefs, and behaviors to match, don’t suffice.

Scenario 4 – environment clashes
  • Environment: You’re not with your friends
  • Belief: You believe them to be your friends
  • Behavior: You are doing friendly things

This situation may happen when you plan to meet your friends to do something fun together — maybe watch a movie. They don’t show up but you do it anyway.

Like scenarios 2 and 3, you’ll feel some friendliness, but again emotions of conflict too, maybe confusion or futility.

These four examples illustrate two things: that reward differs from positive emotions and the importance of all the elements in your emotional cycle resonating to get that feeling of reward.

Now let’s see how your emotional system still provides reward, even if the emotional cycle isn’t what most people would call positive.

Set 2 – Anger

I chose anger as an emotion many people call negative. If you don’t, but call other emotions negative, you can substitute that emotion and adjust the scenarios appropriately.

Scenario 1 – behavior clashes
  • Environment: Someone is antagonizing you, provoking a fight
  • Belief: You believe you should teach this person a lesson, maybe even punch them
  • Behavior: You hold back from teaching them a lesson or punching them

Because of your environment and belief, you’ll feel some anger. However, your behavior doesn’t resonate, you’ll also feel emotions of conflict, maybe frustration.

Scenario 2 – harmony and reward

Environment: Someone is antagonizing you, provoking a fight

Belief: You believe you should teach this person a lesson, maybe even punch them

Behavior: You yell at them or even punch them in anger

Since all the elements resonate, you’ll feel reward when you act on your anger. The feeling of reward may be fleeting if they other person punches you back or you come to regret your actions, but for at least a moment, you’ll feel reward.

This scenario illustrates that you can feel deep reward from any emotional cycle, even if the emotional cycle involves so-called negative emotions.

The point

Emotions within a cycle, while important, are generally less important than the potential reward the whole cycle can bring. Moreover, any emotion can bring reward.

No matter where you are in life, even if everything around you sucks, you can bring about feelings of reward. Likewise, even if you’re healthy, rich, and surrounded by happy people, you can bring about feelings of punishment.

This control over your most profound emotions — reward and punishment — despite the vagaries of your momentary emotions, is the foundation of living as rewarding a life as you want. It enables you to feel reward even when situations keep you from joy or happiness or other emotions people call positive.

It lets you create meaning and purpose in your life no matter what your circumstances — the same meaning Victor Frankl wrote about finding in Man’s Search For Meaning, which showed how people could find and create meaning in their lives even in the most punishing environments people have ever created for each other.

I strive to bring happiness, joy, friendliness, and all the emotions people call positive to my life, but I recognize sometimes they can be out of my control. Reward, on the other hand, I know I can always bring about, no matter what my environment, because I can control my beliefs and behavior. And it turns out reward can be the most profound emotion — capable of all emotional characteristics.

The Method, which I’ll cover in future posts, builds on that control to bring about reward, meaning, and purpose according to your values.

Learn to make Meaningful Connections

with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.

Including

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