If you want to have more meaning and stronger life purpose, develop and love your mixed emotions

There is a growing interest in the role of mixed emotions. Until quite recently it was considered that mixed emotions cannot truly exist. This understanding is changing, yet there is still a pervasive view that we need to accentuate the positive and reducing the negative ones. Research using neuroscience techniques however are starting to demonstrate the value in having mixed emotions. This blog looks at how mixed emotions are useful in having a strong life purpose, and how we can all develop our mixed emotions.

What are mixed emotions?

Mixed emotions are the co-activation of both positive and negative emotions at the same time. For instance, research has demonstrated that it is possible to feel happy and sad at the same time (Larsen, McGraw, & Cacioppo, 2001), and that this can be beneficial rather than be a negative experience. They are part of the complex emotions family, and some theories posit the experience of mixed emotions aid the person to absorb multiple information at a given time (Cacioppo, Larsen, Smith & Berntson, 2004) to enable better decision-making.

The extent to which people experience mixed emotions varies, such as within different personalities. This suggests that mixed emotions can moderate (reduce or increase) the negative consequences of stressful situations, depending on whether you perceive them as beneficial or not (Berrios, Totterdell & Kellett, 2017). This moderating effect has even been seen in conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Bodner, Hoffman, Pagli, & Shrira, 2018). Differences can also be seen in different cultures, where Western cultures that value independence have less mixed emotions than Asian cultures that value interdependence. In other words, when we are part of a culture than teaches us to focus on other people and do what matters to the group over more self-focused attitudes, there is more feelings of beneficial mixed emotions (Miyamoto, Uchida, & Ellsworth, 2010).

Life purpose

Life purpose relates to having ambitions and a plan as to what you want to do in life and get out of life. Those who have a focus and strive to achieve something (in any area of their life) are found to have more meaning and well-being than those who drift through life with little thought about making plans (Park & Baumeister, 2017). Often in these circumstances there can be challenges and conflict, which can result in goals that require effort. Having meaning buffers against the effects of stress. However, because it is something that matters it can still be emotionally challenging. Of course we do not live in isolation of other people, and so sometimes what we want is not what other people want us to do, or what other people think should be our priority. When a person feels conflicted in these life goals it can reduce their life purpose and well-being (Berrios et al., 2017).

How mixed emotions can help

When mixed emotions are felt, and they are considered beneficial, they can aid the ability to think through a problem, looking at both sides and taking a pragmatic approach. This then helps make decisions that reduce the negative feelings that can be felt when striving for life purpose. Therefore the experience of stress and conflict in these situations can reduce (Berrios, et al., 2017). Additionally, people who can easily label, differentiate, and recognise their own emotions have been found to have higher empathy, which makes it easier to connect with others and recognise other people’s emotions (Erbas, Sels, Cuelemans, Kuppens, 2016). So when you are striving for your goal and finding purpose and meaning in your life, by having more empathy you will find it easier to connect with others and garner their support in what you do.

Developing mixed emotions

The best way we can know what another person is feeling is by them telling us! Language therefore plays a key role in expression of emotion. In fact, contrary to long time belief in emotion research, judging the expression on someone’s face is not an effective way to know how they feel without them also telling us (Gendron, Lindquist, Barsalou, Barrett, 2012). This is because emotions are constructed through our culture and language. Words in effect give the emotions we feel a context, and so we use the experiences we have externally and internally to ‘predict’ and shape emotions (Barrett, Mesquita, & Gendron, 2011).

So why is this useful for developing our mixed emotions? It informs us that we can use words to improve how we ‘feel’ in the world. Something as simple as learning new words to express how we feel in different context increases our chances of creating new and meaningful emotion concepts. And once we start being able to express ourselves with more mixed emotions we will begin to experience our lives with more variety of feeling. Feeling these emotions is useful in managing the day to day ups and downs of striving for our goals. When we feel frustrated we can easily recognised why and then we can accept it as being part of the challenge we face. After all, we all know the saying: “nothing worth having comes easy”. When we have mixed emotions, we can also feel hopeful or excited about the challenge too, motivating us despite the frustration.

Alongside learning new words we can use mindfulness. It will it give us the opportunity to focus in on our feelings and be more aware of them as we learn how to construct useful emotion concepts. This is because mindfulness has been found to be related to emotion regulation and helps us manage our emotions (Iani, Lauriola, & Chiesa, 2019).

So when you are planning new goals, don’t forget to also work on increasing your emotion adjectives too as these will be a great help in your efforts to achieve what matters to you.


Barrett, L.F., Mesquita, B., & Gendron, M. (2011). Language as context for the perception of emotion. Trends in Cognitive Science, 11, 327-332

Bellios, R., Totterdell, P., Kellett, S. (2017). Individual differences in mixed emotions moderate the negative consequences of goal conflict and life purpose, Personality and Individual Differences, 110, 18-22

Bodner, E., Hoffman, Y., Pagli, Y., & Shrira, A. (2008). A light in a sea of darkness: the moderating role of emotional complexity in the PTSD symptoms- successful aging association. Aging and Mental Health, 22(6), 826-833

Cacioppo, J.T., Larsen, J.T., Smith, N.K., & Berntson, G.G. (2004). The affect system: What lurks below the surface of feelings? In A. Manstead, N. Frijda, & A. Fischer (Eds.) Feelings and emotions: The Amsterdam Symposium, (223-242), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Erbas, Y., Sels, L., Ceulemans, E., & Kuppens, P. (2016). Feeling me, feeling you: The relation between emotion differentiation and emphatic accuracy. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(3), 240-247

Gendron, M. Lindquist, K.A., Barsalou, L., Barrett, L.F. (2012). Emotion words shape emotion perceptions. Emotion, 12(2), 314-325

Iani, L., Lauriola, M., & Chiesa, A. Et al. (2019). Associations between mindfulness and emotion regulation: the key role in describing and nonreacitivity. Mindfulness, 10, 366-375

Larsen, J.T., McGraw, P., & Cacoippo, J.T. (2001). Can people feel happy and sad at the same time? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(4), 684-696

Miyomoto, Y., Uchida, Y., Ellsworth, P. C. (2010). Culture and mixed emotions: Co-occurrence of negative and positive emotions in Japan and the United States. Emotion, 10(3), 404-415

Park, J. & Baumeister, R.F. (2017). Meaning in life and adjustment to daily stressors, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(4), 333-341

About the Author: Lisa Jones completed the MAPP at Bucks New University in 2018. She is an Organisational Change and Development Practitioner, Researcher, and Coach, focusing on how Leaders and their followers can build healthy relationships and connections in the workplace. She is currently undertaking a Ph.D. at Bucks New University on the relationship between complex emotions and close friendships.


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