We know that positive emotions motivate us to pursue important goals, savor experiences, counteract the cardiovascular effects of stress, and maintain vital social bonds. However, a relatively untouched question remains — Can positive emotions also be a source of dysfunction? Can feeling good be a predictor of negative mental health outcomes? Much of the work in the PEP lab centers on people at risk for, and with a clinical history of, mania (i.e., bipolar disorder) as a means to better characterize and understand the mental health significance of extreme perturbations in positive emotion. The PEP lab also conducts basic research on the normative function of positive emotion and its behavioral and psychophysiological (RSA) markers. An overarching theme in this line of work involves utilizing a multi-method approach by assessing emotional functioning at experiential (self-report, narrative), behavioral (FACS), and biological (fMRI, EEG, Neuroendocrine) levels of analysis. More details are below.
The PEP laboratory houses newly renovated space located in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This space was designed specifically for clinical and affective neuroscience research paradigms, and includes a main research laboratory in the Muenzinger building which houses the state-of-the-art psychophysiological equipment and audiovisual capabilities. Additional laboratory space with two additional rooms designated for clinical interviewing, testing and research is located at the Center for Innovation and Creativity (CINC) which also houses the MRI Center. This includes 3 single-participant psychophysiological testing rooms, 2 dyadic clinical interviewing and psychophysiological room, 8 dedicated workstations for graduate students and post-docs, central control room, participant waiting area, and additional lab-designated testing and clinical interviewing rooms at the CINC fMRI Center. In sum, Dr. Gruber’s laboratory includes full facilities to support psychophysiology, behavioral testing, and neuroimaging and neuroendocrine data analysis.
Psychophysiology: Psychophysiology testing stations are each equipped with Mindware, Inc. multi-channel chassis device (BioNex 50-3711-08 Mindware Technologies, Gahanna, OH) that record continuous data analyzed offline via MindWare or AcqKnowledge software. A TTL digital signal automatically enables the synchronization of physiological data with the onset of the different experimental periods and observational data. This allows for the measurement of a number of physiological responses of the autonomic nervous system especially important to emotional responding, including eletrocardiograph (e.g., heart rate, interbeat-interval, heart rate variability, respiratory sinus arrhythmia), vascular impedance (e.g., pre-ejection period, cardiac output, stroke volume), electrodermal (e.g., skin conductance level and response rate), respiratory (e.g., respiratory frequency, respiratory depth), finger pulse (e.g. finger pulse transit time and amplitude), skin temperature, and blood pressure. Dr. Gruber’s lab also owns several ambulatory physiological recording devices, which are used for experience-sampling and treatment studies. This includes a Bio Harness device worn comfortably around the participant’s abdominal region and measures physiological responses including heart rate, skin temperature, respiration, and gross somatic activity.
Behavioral Observation & Coding: The PEP laboratory is equipped with state of the art audio-visual technologies for clinical interviewing and behavioral observation of experiments. Each testing room contains a mounted digital camera to discretely monitor participants and collect digital video recordings. These video recordings are synchronized with continuous psychophysiological responses using Noldus Behavior Coding Software and coded using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Specifically, the behavioral testing wing of the lab is equipped with: (1) 3 behavioral testing rooms that each contains a mounted digital camera to discretely monitor participants and collect digital video recordings during clinical interviews and baseline laboratory PEP assessments. In addition, they are equipped with 26-inch LCD monitors (refreshing at a rate of 16.66ms) These video recordings are synchronized with continuous psychophysiological responses using Noldus Behavior Coding Software and are coded for behavioral expressivity of emotion using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) in our large dyadic interaction testing room. Computers in the control room deliver stimuli in behavioral experiments to participants via E-Prime (Psychology Software Tools, Inc.), Matlab (Mathworks), and Medialab (Empirsoft), and DirectRT (Empirisoft) software.
Eye-tracking: To isolate cognitive processes that may contribute to emotion-related disturbances in adults with and without psychopathology, we examine the way people visually attend to events in the world around them shapes their emotional responses. One specific methodology well-suited to examining visual attention for emotional events is eye-tracking technology which enables identification of patterns of attention-related biases towards, or away from, emotion-laden stimuli. In the PEP lab, we employ state-of-the art eye-tracking instruments including Tobii, ASL, and SensoMotoric Instruments RED250 infrared eye tracking equipment.
Functional Neuroimaging: Work in the PEP lab primarily takes advantage of the Siemens Trio 3 Tesla Scanner at the CINC center. The CINC center is part of the Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium which promotes collaboration and knowledge-sharing among area neuroscientists, and an offers an unprecedented opportunity for other scientists in the region to enhance their existing research by making use of the CINC's expertise and cutting edge neuroimaging resources. Data analysis and backup resources (SPM8, FSL, Matlab) are also available within the PEP lab facilities located primarily in Muenzinger Hall as well as additional lab space in the CINC center.
Neuroendocrinology: The PEP laboratory also assesses hormones such as testosterone and cortisol through saliva to examine how they are linked to emotion regulation, reward sensitivity, and positive emotion variability. By using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA), a diagnostic technique used to measure salivary hormone concentrations, we are able to examine individuals hormone concentrations throughout the day and in the context of specific laboratory tasks.
Clinical Assessments: The PEP lab is well staffed with clinical assessment and patient resources including 2 separate clinical interviewing rooms equipped with audiovisual recording, and clinical assessment training including the SCID-IV/V, YMRS, BMRS, IDS-C, GAF, MMSE, WAIS-IV, among others. Dr. Gruber is also the Associate Research Director of the Robert B. Sutherland Center for the Evaluation and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder in the Raimy Psychology Clinic in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, which provides specialized psychotherapy for adults with bipolar disorder in the community.
Are problematic positive emotion responses evident across other populations? Positive emotions in certain degrees, contexts, and types may serve as a marker of psychological dysfunction rather than health. One route we're taking is to adopt transdiagnostic approach to understand the contribution of disrupted positive emotion to mental health outcomes across a variety of populations (Gruber, 2011; Gruber, in press). Examples include:
An ideal point of entry to begin to understand how positive emotion can go awry is through the study of people with a history of mania, or bipolar disorder (BD). Dr. Gruber has proposed a new account of positive emotion disturbance referred to as Positive Emotion Persistence (or PEP) (Gruber, 2011). PEP posits that BD involves three domains of positive emotion disturbance: the degree of positive emotion, specific type of positive emotion, and context in which positive emotion occurs. Example questions we study here include: 1. Greater degree of positive emotion? We have found that BD is associated with heightened positive emotion experience and physiological response across different types of stimuli, including dynamic films, static photographs, and autobiographical memory tasks (Gruber, Johnson, & Harvey, 2009; Gruber et al., 2008); 2. Wrong context for positive emotion?A functional perspective on emotion conceives of emotional reactions as context-sensitive responses to challenges and opportunities. Our work summarized suggests that in BD, heightened positive emotion responses persists across even maladaptive contexts (Gruber, 2011); 3. Are all positive emotions are alike?We have found that BD is specifically associated with positive emotions related to reward (joy) and achievement (pride) at the trait and state level (Gruber & Johnson, 2009; Gruber et al., 2008); 4. Trouble regulating?Despite trouble regulating in everyday life (Gruber et al., 2011), our work suggests that BD is associated with increased spontaneous efforts to regulate (Gruber, Harvey, & Gross, 2013; Gruber, Hay & Gross, 2013), utilization of appropriate spontaneous emotion regulation choices (Hay, Sheppes, Gross, & Gruber,in press), and and an intact ability to regulate when instructed (Gruber, Harvey, & Johnson, 2009; Gruber et al., 2013).
A core symptom of depression – anhedonia — involves deficits in the ability to experience positive emotion. There has been a dearth of research examining which specific positive emotions are affected. We found that responses to stimuli that are self-focused (pride), but not other-focused (compassion), are impaired in people with symptoms of depression (Gruber, Oveis, Keltner, & Johnson, 2010). Current work in YPEP is comparing emotion responses transdiagnostically across bipolar and unipolar clinical groups.
There is little work that specifically examines positive emotion experience and regulation in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). In collaboration with Doug Mennin, we are working to tease apart the unique and common contributions of worry to positive emotion disturbance. We are also examining the extent to which comorbid anxiety in bipolar disorder and depression influences positive emotion responding.
We know almost nothing about the potential negative consequences of positive emotions more generally in non-clinical samples. Our work explores this surprising possibility, by examining positive emotion disturbance along a continuum in healthy adults and college students, examining questions such as: can there be a wrong degree of positive emotion? wrong types of positive emotion? wrong contexts or situations for positive emotion? (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011).
The longstanding assumption has been that positive emotions and associated feelings are entirely adaptive. As a result, less scientific attention has been devoted to understanding the ways in which positive emotions might also be a source of dysfunction for our psychological health. However, the empirical tides have recently begun to change and with it a new wave of research centrally driven by the PEP has pointed to ways in which positive emotionality is also related to a range of poor health outcomes and maladaptive clinical syndromes. Work in the PEP lab is centrally focused on unpacking the nature of positive emotion disturbance by highlighting key themes deterring the ways positive emotion may go awry (e.g. Gruber & Purcell, 2014). These insights are aimed at providing an integrative model for understanding positive emotion as well as how to harness and cultivate appropriate positive feelings. Sample conceptual themes of focus include:
Size: Is more positive emotion really better? Aristotelian definitions of emotional health argue that positive emotions are beneficial up to a moderate degree, but can incur costs when experienced too intensely. In other words, an intensely experienced level of happiness may not convey additional benefits beyond the standard; it may even lead to negative outcomes (for review, see Gruber, Mauss & Tamir, 2011).
Situation: A time and place for positive emotions? Positive emotion has a proper contextual timing, and is not always suited for every situation. Work in clinical populations in the PEP lab suggests that individuals with bipolar disorder who experience positive feelings in inappropriate contexts – such as watching sad films or listening to a distressed partner were at greater risk for developing mania (Gruber Johnson, Oveis, & Keltner, 2008) are at greater risk for psychological disturbance.
Specificity: Not all positive emotions are created equal. Many forms of happiness are associated with adaptive and prosocial outcomes, such as fostering connection to others, altruistic acts, and generosity. But importantly not all specific types of positive emotions appear to promote beneficial outcomes. A more nuanced analysis of different types of positive feelings suggests that some forms may actually be a source of dysfunction. This includes aggressiveness towards others, antisocial behavior, and even an increased risk for the onset of mania (e.g., Gruber & Johnson, 2009). Thus certain kinds of positive emotions – such as those that are too self-focused – may at times hinder our ability to adaptively connect and build bonds with others around us.
Self-regulation: Unable to harness positive emotions? The ability to adaptively regulate emotion has been linked to favorable health outcomes, including greater well-being and social adjustment (Tamir, John, Srivastava, & Gross, 2007) and may sustain, or even improve, mental health outcomes (e.g., Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000; Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). By contrast, having little or no self-regulation or control over one’s emotions is associated with maladaptive mental health outcomes, such as increased symptoms of depression and anxiety. Less work has examined consequences of positive emotional experiences perceived as uncontrollable versus controllable. Emerging work generally suggests that controllability over positive emotions – measured both as actively generating or increasing positive emotions as well as decreasing or dampening positive emotions – is associated with beneficial mental health outcomes. By contrast, inappropriately managed positive emotions can incur significant costs on a personal level and within broader social contexts (Gruber, Dutra, Hay & Devlin, 2014).
Stability: Positive emotions best kept stable? A complete understanding of the correlates of positive emotion requires more than an understanding of its overall mean levels but rather, positive emotion can only be fully understood if we account for its dynamics. Thus, examining variation, or stability, in positive emotion is scientifically feasible. Recent research suggests that there is a high variability in positive emotions, ebbing and flowing across the course of several weeks and even causing waves within a single day. Greater oscillations in self-reported positive emotions have been associated with worse psychological health (Gruber, Kogan, Quoidbach, & Mauss, 2014), including lower well-being and life satisfaction and greater depression and anxiety. Thus, too much variability and not enough stability in one’s positive feelings can be a harbinger of poor mental health outcomes.
Striving: Seeking positive emotions may lead to decreased well-being. Not surprisingly, most people want to be feel positive or happy. Recent work by PEP lab and colleagues suggests that striving for positive emotions may actually cause more harm than good (e.g., Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011; Ford, Mauss, & Gruber, in press). Specifically, the pursuit of happiness is associated with problematic clinical health outcomes can be associated with the pursuit of happiness, which also serves as a marker of individuals with a history of depression (Ford, Shallcross, Mauss, Floerke, & Gruber, in press). These findings are consistent with early observations by philosophers who observed that the pursuit of happiness does not always appear to lead to the desired outcomes. In fact, at times, the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to be able to obtain it.
As empirical research on positive emotion and happiness gains increasing momentum, two seemingly conflicting streams of findings have emerged. On the one hand, research supports robust social, cognitive, and physical health benefits of positive emotion. On the other hand, emerging findings also suggest maladaptive risk-taking, cognitive, and social and mental impairment associated with positive emotion (Gruber, Mauss, & Tamir, 2011). How can these seemingly conflicting 'light' and 'dark' sides, respectively, of positive emotion be understood together? Work in PEP lab is currently focused developing and empirically testing an integrative account of positive emotion, along with a 2014 book by June Gruber & Judith Moskowitz by Oxford University Press “Seeing Both Sides: The Light Sides and Dark Sides of Positive Emotion.”
Details coming soon.