A few years ago my daughter and I were helping to close up the family cottage for the winter. The water system was turned off so I went to the lake to rinse my hands before we left for home. Despite many years of warning my daughter to be careful on the slippery rocks, I slipped on those rocks and fell in. I screamed at the shock of the fall and I screamed again at the reality of sitting up to my neck in the cold water. My daughter, shaken by my screaming, helped me out of the water and out of my soaking wet clothes. The whole situation seemed surreal and quite funny. One minute I was getting ready to go home and the next I was soaking wet and trying to fashion a dry outfit out of towels and a few old clothes. My daughter said that she expected me to be really angry. Instead, I was laughing.
In psychology there is a process called Appraisal Theory. Something happens to us, we evaluate the situation, and finally we respond to our interpretation of the situation. The evaluation takes place in the gap after the event or experience – a space where we choose how to react. According to psychology professor Barbara L. Fredrickson this gap is the gateway to whether our emotions surrounding the event are positive or negative. You and I could respond to the same situation in very different ways depending on how we interpret it.
The goal isn’t to eliminate negative emotions. Dr. Fredrickson points out that we need both positive and negative emotions to be happy and that we can experience positive emotions even during times of great difficulty. For example, with the death of a loved one it is natural to experience negative emotions like grief and loss and maybe anger. However, we could also experience positive emotions like gratitude for the time we had together and hope for the future and comfort in knowing that others have experienced this before and that we are not alone. Holding positive and negative emotions at the same time can help to avert a downward emotional spiral because our emotions in the current moment influence our experience of future events as well.
Although ending up in the lake turned out to be a funny experience for me, when it happened there were other possible reactions – anger, blame, regret. The event had happened and that couldn’t be changed. However, my reaction to the event was within my control. By evaluating the situation as funny I avoided a downward emotional spiral thinking that “This is terrible. I am wet and cold and I have no dry clothes and now my whole day is ruined”.
According to Dr. Fredrickson, “Negativity doesn’t always feel like a choice; it feels like it just lands on you, and you have to deal with it. Positive emotions, I think, are more of a choice.” So mind the gap, because the emotional choices we make in the gap will shape our day and, ultimately, our reality.