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Project

The relation between positive and negative affect in depression

How positive and negative feelings are interrelated in everyday emotional experience is a question that has intrigued affective scientists for decades. Can we experience levels of positive affect (PA) irrespective of the experienced level of negative affect (NA; i.e., affective independence), or do these emotional states represent the mutually exclusive ends of a single bipolar continuum (i.e., affective bipolarity)? The overarching premise of this dissertation is that the relation between positive and negative affect is neither universal, nor fixed. That is, there are both between-person differences in the affect relation, as well as within-person changes. From a between-person perspective, we argue that people’s PA-NA relation may be informative for their well-being, with a tendency towards stronger affective bipolarity signaling poor psychological adjustment. From a within-person perspective, we argue that temporary shifts towards stronger affective bipolarity occur when we encounter events or situations that activate personally relevant concerns. In this way, the current thesis can be seen as an attempt to bring additional nuance to the ongoing debate about the relation between PA and NA in general, but also to understand how changes in this relation may be considered adaptive or maladaptive for our well-being specifically.

      In Chapter 1, we focus on between-person differences in the affect relation. First, we provide a brief overview of the different viewpoints on the structure of affect in normal human experience, and review prominent emotion theories that relate changes in the PA-NA relation to psychological well-being. Specifically, we argue that an emotional life that is pushed towards bipolarity should be particularly evident in people who experience depressive symptoms, a type of symptomatology that typically involves a diminished experience of PA, in combination with elevated levels of NA. We find evidence for this idea in three experience sampling (ESM) studies, both concurrently (Study 1) and prospectively (Study 2), as well as with different conceptual operationalizations of PA and NA (Study 3). Across studies, we demonstrate that affective bipolarity shows particular specificity toward depressive symptomatology, in comparison with anxiety symptoms.

      In Chapter 2, we keep a between-person focus, and aim to get additional insight in the specifics of the relation between depressive symptoms and affective bipolarity. Specifically, we examine the role of two potential mediating mechanisms: emotion regulation ability and trait brooding. We show that people’s poor ability to regulate negative emotions in general, but not brooding specifically, mediates the link between depressive symptoms and affective bipolarity, which may highlight an initial mechanism through which depressive symptomatology is associated with lower emotional complexity and flexibility.

      In Chapter 3, we still adopt a between-person angle, and compare the explanatory power of affective bipolarity in the prediction of psychological well-being with other commonly investigated affect dynamic measures. Although we show that a bipolar affect relation indeed captures a unique dynamical aspect of one’s emotional life, and hence shows little overlap with other affect dynamic measures, once individual differences in mere average levels of positive and negative affect are taken into account, the predictive capacity of the affect relation decreases drastically in the prediction of people’s depressive and borderline symptoms, and life satisfaction. Our findings illustrate that mean levels of affect are the most prominent indicators of psychological well-being, and put the added value of more complex affect dynamic measures (such as affective bipolarity) in perspective.

      In Chapter 4, we focus on within-person changes in the affect relation. Drawing from two influential emotion theories, we argue that people’s affect relation will shift from independence to stronger bipolarity when they encounter events or situations that activate a personally relevant concern. We find evidence for this idea in an ESM study, in which we tracked positive and negative emotional trajectories of a large group of Belgian first-year university students around the time they received their exam results, an event of potential great emotional impact. We suggest that flexible changes in the affect relation may function as an emotional compass by signaling personally relevant information, and create a motivational push to respond to these meaningful events in an adaptive manner.

      Finally, in Chapter 5, we adopt a social focus on the relation between positive and negative feelings. We argue that the societal pressure to pursue positive emotions, may also convey the message that negative feelings are abnormal and unwanted. In turn, this denouncement of negative affect may painfully reveal a discrepancy between depressed individuals’ actual emotional states and what society deems desirable, potentially amplifying their depressive symptoms. We find evidence for this idea in an online daily diary study, in which we show that experiencing social pressure not to feel anxious or depressed predicts increases in people’s depressive symptoms, but not vice versa.

Date:1 Oct 2015  →  27 Sep 2019
Keywords:Emotions, Depression, Borderline, Psychological Well-being, Positive & Negative affect
Disciplines:Applied psychology
Project type:PhD project