Study: Feel Bad to Feel Great (Relief Boosts Positive Emotions)

Relief is one of the most common emotions, and it is one of our few basic emotions. Most of our emotions have clear emotional valences. For example, happiness is considered to have a positive emotional valence; anger is considered to have a negative valence; and arousal is considered to have a neutral valence.

However, the emotional valences that are connected to relief have remained rather unclear throughout the research history of relief. It is an important aspect though because it might explain both normal (e.g., scratching) and abnormal behaviors (e.g., self-harm; Franklin et al., 2013).

Franklin and colleagues (2013) wanted to examine the relationship between relief and emotions in greater detail. Basically, they asked the questions: will pain offset (i.e., relief) lead to an increase in positive emotions, or will it lead to a decrease in negative emotions? Or will it lead to both? In short, the study examined the emotional valence of relief.

To examine this, the authors induced a low-intensity pain to the participants, and after having induced the pain, they measured the emotions connected to relief. They did so by using well-validated (objective) psychophysiological measures of emotions. 

Startle eyeblink reactivity was used to indicate negative emotions, and startle postauricular reactivity was used to indicate positive emotions. Startle eyeblink is triggered by unpleasant stimuli (e.g., pain) and diminished by pleasant stimuli, and the opposite is true for startle postauricular reactivity.

The results of the study show that (pain) relief is associated with a decrease in negative valence and an increase in positive valence at the same time. Therefore, relief is probably best described in terms of both positive and negative emotions.

It does not have as clear a valence as happiness, for example, because happiness is considered to have a mere positive valence. The study also shows that relief is strongest in the initial trials. Relief was found to be an automatic, unconditioned response rather than a learned response.

The relief of higher pain was found to produce slightly more positive emotions than the relief of lower levels of pain, which is consistent with the opponent-process theory, proposed by Solomon (1980, as cited in Franklin et al., 2013), which states that more intense processes (pain) lead to more intense opponent processes (relief). 

The emotional valence of relief also appeared to last up to 14 seconds after the pain offset, and especially positive valence seemed to be persistent at this time. 

In sum, relief may serve as a way to experience an increase in positive emotions, and therefore, it might be a tool to cope with negative emotions

Image: Bob May

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