The passing of time help us regulate our own emotions

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The study of emotions is not an exact science. Psychologists still debate the body-mind connection in emotional reactivity; don’t have a complete taxonomy of emotions; and are even uncertain about whether emotions are the cause or result of the way we construe the world.

However, there are advances being made in understanding the concept of emotion regulation, the process of influencing the way emotions are felt and expressed.

Stanford University psychologist James Gross (2001) proposed a 4-stage model to capture the sequence of events that occurs when our emotions are stimulated.

In what he calls the “modal model,” a situation grabs our attention, which in turns leads us to appraise or think about the meaning of the situation

Our emotional responses result from the way we appraise our experiences. 

Some emotional responses require no particular regulation.

If the emotion is appropriate to the situation and helps you feel better, there’s no need to worry about changing the way you handle things.

Laughing when others are laughing is one example of an appropriate reaction that helps you feel better.

Expressing road rage may also make you feel better, but it’s not appropriate or particularly adaptive. You could express your frustration in other ways that allow you to release those angry feelings, or instead try to find a way to calm yourself down.

Calming yourself down when you’re frustrated, of course, may be more easily said than done.

If you tend to fly off the handle when aggravated and express your outrage to everyone within earshot (or on the other end of an email), your emotions could be costing you important relationships, your job, and even your health.

An inability to regulate emotions is, according to Gross and his collaborator Hooria Jazaieri (2014), at the root of psychological disorders such as depression and borderline personality disorder.

Although more research is needed to understand the specific role of emotional regulation in psychopathology, this seems like a promising area of investigation.

We are more envious of someone else’s covetable experience before it happens than after it has passed, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Enviable events lose some power over us once those events are in our past,” says psychological scientist Ed O’Brien of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“This occurs even when people are left to their own devices – in our studies, we didn’t instruct participants to engage in any particular distraction task or coping strategy, yet they still felt better as long as some time passed.”

Previous research has shown that we generally tend to have heightened emotions about future events than past ones – a party seems more exciting and an exam feels more stressful if they’re happening tomorrow than if they happened yesterday.

O’Brien and coauthors Alexander Kristal and Eugene Caruso wanted to know whether the same phenomenon would apply to envy.

Envy is an interesting emotion because it can motivate negative outcomes, such as self-dislike, and also positive outcomes, such as feeling inspired.

Would timing make a difference in how people experience envy?

In the first study, 620 participants – including university students, adults from the local area, and online participants – imagined a close friend getting to have experiences that the participants desired themselves, such as taking a dream vacation, being promoted to a dream job, and buying a dream car.

Some imagined how they would feel about the various scenarios in the days and weeks before they happened; others imagined how they would feel in the days and weeks after the events occurred.

The results showed that timing, even when thinking about hypothetical scenarios, mattered.

Participants rated the experiences, which were otherwise identical, as less enviable after they happened than before they happened.

Do people show the same pattern of responses in relation to real-world events?

To find out, O’Brien and coauthors assessed people’s feelings of envy for a peer’s Valentine’s Day date every day during the month of February 2017.

In line with the first study, envy grew as February 14 approached, but dropped on February 15 and stayed relatively low the rest of the month.

The researchers replicated these patterns in February 2018 with a new group of participants, tracking envy over the course of three key dates:

Envy rose from February 13 to February 14 but then dropped on February 15.

Interestingly, benign and malicious envy seem to have different temporal dynamics. Participants who imagined how they would feel in the days and weeks after an enviable event reported less malicious envy – including less frustration, dislike, and ill will – than did those who imagined their feelings in the days and weeks leading up to the event.

But participants imagined feeling similar, or even greater, levels of benign envy – including inspiration, motivation, and liking – when they thought about the event as having passed.

“Previous research uniformly suggests that events in the future will prompt more extreme reactions because it’s more relevant to pay attention to things that might still happen to us,” O’Brien says.

“But these findings suggest that the passing of time may be particularly linked with reducing the intensity of negative experiences, rather than reducing the intensity of all experiences.”

It’s possible that knowing this could help us regulate our own emotions.

Findings from a final study showed that imagining looking back on an envy-inducing event had the strongest effects on people’s well-being, lowering their feelings of envy and stress and increasing their positive mood.

This is important given that our increasing use of social media facilitates social comparison, even with people we will never meet.

“More than 500 million people interact daily on social media such as Facebook, where they disproportionately encounter other people’s best moments, promoting a fear of missing out and undermining viewers’ well-being,” the researchers write.

“There may be subtle power in the timing of information sharing,” they add.

“A status update of ‘All packed for Maui!’ may have more influence than ‘Back home from Maui!'”

The researchers hope to extend this research to real-world contexts, including social media, and to further explore the differences between benign and malicious envy. Ultimately, the findings reveal that the green-eyed monster may diminish with hindsight.

“There is something of a paradox in our reactions to people who get to have what we want:

It stings less if they already have it,” O’Brien and colleagues conclude.

More information: Alexander C. Kristal et al, Yesterday’s News: A Temporal Discontinuity in the Sting of Inferiority, Psychological Science(2019). DOI: 10.1177/0956797619839689
Journal information: Psychological Science
Provided by Association for Psychological Science

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