Emotional goals: how do we want to feel?

Maya Tamir and her colleagues are doing interesting research on emotions. Emotions are not simply states that overwhelm us and that we are at the mercy of. Nor is it the case that by definition we always simply want to feel happy or good. The story is more complex. As humans, we appear to have emotion goals and we construct and are able to regulate emotions.

Emotion regulation 

We all have experienced a situation in which we let ourselves be carried away in a conversation by our emotions, which made the situation tense and difficult. Both for you and the other person(s) involved. In such situations, emotion regulation is useful. 
Emotion regulation is the effective development and influencing of your emotions. Effective emotion regulation leads you to develop and change your emotions in such a way that you can function well in the situation you face. Maya Tamir describes emotion regulation as applying strategies to achieve emotion goals

Emotion Goals 

Emotion goals are desired emotional states or reactions. There are two types of emotion goals: 
  1. hedonic: aimed at increasing pleasant emotions (such as happiness) and reducing less pleasant emotions (such as sadness). 
  2. instrumental: aimed at increasing helpful emotions and reducing harmful emotions in a specific context 

Instrumental Emotion Goals 

Here are two examples that show how we, as adults, want to develop different emotions in different situations. 
  • in a collaborative context we are more motivated to feel happy and believe that that is more useful 
  • in confrontational contexts we are more motivated to experience anger provided we think anger can be useful in that context. (Note: this is not the same as feigned anger ). 

The usefulness of instrumental emotion goals 

Instrumental emotion goals seem to be helpful. Different situations seem to call for different emotions. Research shows that a higher degree of context sensitivity of emotion goals in adults is associated with higher emotional intelligence and well-being. In contrast, a lower context sensitivity of emotion targets has been observed in clinical groups with problems with emotion regulation. 

Conditions for using emotion goals 

To be able to use instrumental emotion goals properly, the following conditions must be met: 
  1. We must believe that emotions can be useful (rather than useless consequences of what happens to us). 
  2. We must be able to think differentiated about emotions. Young children can't do that yet. Therefore, up to a certain age, they can only choose hedonic emotion targets. 
  3. We need to have context sensitivity. We need to have a good idea of ​​the nature of different contexts and what emotions are useful in those contexts. This is also something that young children are not yet good at. 
  4. We must believe that we are not at the mercy of our emotions but instead are able to develop and change our emotions. In other words, we need to have a growth mindset about emotions


Although intuitively perhaps surprising, it is actually not strange to ask yourself the following question: how do I want to feel in that situation?