How Your Life Is Shaped by the Emotions You Want to Feel

But pursuing exuberant positive feelings may have its downsides, too. Valuing extreme levels of happiness tends to go along with feeling depressed. And when our goal is to be energetic and enthusiastic all the time, getting older looks worse and worse.

“Happiness involves experiencing emotions that feel right”

―Maya Tamir et al.

Researchers asked 267 people across the U.S. and Hong Kong about their views on old age—including what they were looking forward to and what they dreaded. Ultimately, the more people wanted to feel high-energy happiness, the less rosy old age looked to them.

This is a problem, because people with a positive view of aging tend to have better health and live longer. In other words, the way we want to feel may color our stereotypes about old age—which, by influencing our health, could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Achieving your emotional goals

With all these complications in mind, how can you ensure that your emotional goals are serving you well and that you’re able to achieve them?

Start with simply listening to yourself. “Happiness involves experiencing emotions that feel right,” write Hebrew University’s Maya Tamir and her coauthors in a 2017 paper. How do you feel at the moment? Does the feeling match the moment? If it doesn’t, what activities might help change the channel?

Pause to think about your desired feelings when you make decisions, since research suggests that we enjoy activities more when they match our emotional goals. For example, people who want to feel more calm might go for a walk rather than a run, or choose the ferris wheel rather than the roller coaster. Instead of being pressured to go out partying, you might be content to read a book, listen to music, or sit on the beach.

Beyond that, especially for North Americans, you might want to invest energy in appreciating the peaceful side of life. That’s because it seems to be easier for us to achieve our ideal levels of calm on a daily basis; elation is harder to come by. “Diversify your happiness portfolio by including different forms of happiness,” suggests Tsai. “It’s good to have a definition of happiness that includes both excitement and calm.”

In fact, researchers found some evidence that Americans have gradually increased how much they value serene feelings over time, since the shock and distress of 9/11 and other world events, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

One way to deliberately change your views on calm is to spend some time practicing mindfulness. After an eight-week class, students in the Bay Area became more interested in calm and relaxation compared to those who took a compassion meditation or improv class. “As people meditate, they may begin to desire or want more calm in their daily lives,” write Koopmann-Holm and her coauthors in the 2013 study. “They may consciously or unconsciously begin to engage in more soothing activities and go to more relaxing places.”

There are other ways to trick your brain into seeking calm. In another study, when Chinese people in Hong Kong imagined they were moving in two weeks, they desired more calm and made more calm-inspired choices, compared to people who imagined they would live 20 years longer than they expected (a thought experiment designed to orient you toward the future). The more we tune into the present, the more we’re drawn toward feeling at peace.

It’s always a good bet to build up your tolerance for negative emotions, which could help buffer the strain on your happiness and health when life gets difficult. Plus, experiencing a variety of emotions may be good for our mental health, and certain mixed emotions—like longing and nostalgia—have particular benefits.

A simple way to get more comfortable with difficult emotions is to journal about a meaningful experience in your life—a time when it was important for you to focus on feeling bad and ignore feeling good, like fixing your mistakes or sitting with a sad friend. In one study, this exercise helped people achieve more balance in their desires for positive and negative emotions.

“Valuing negative states makes actually feeling them easier,” says Tsai. “In those contexts, actually feeling negative emotion doesn’t pack as bad of a punch because you accept negative emotions and you see the utility of them.”

Along the same lines, Tsai urges a bit of self-compassion when we don’t live up to our emotional ideals. “Most people aren’t feeling how they ideally want to feel all the time, so there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re not always feeling how you ideally want to feel,” she says.

By understanding the full spectrum of emotional experiences across cultures, we might be able to open up our minds to different ways of being and feeling—and feel happier ourselves in the process.


The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society. Based at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the world’s leading institutions of research and higher education, the GGSC is unique in its commitment to both science and practice: Not only do we sponsor groundbreaking scientific research into social and emotional well-being, we help people apply this research to their personal and professional lives. Since 2001, we have been at the fore of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior—the science of a meaningful life.

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  1. Great article I do agree emotions play a big part in our mental and physical health. The more.relaxed we are and open minded the more we experience growth. We have to set our expectations high yet reachable. Alot of food for thought here. Emotions are developed at a very young age and good behavior needs to be rewarded. We can all grow by paying attention to whom we are and what our emotions are telling us. We do have control over out emotions.