A lot of research on positive youth development emphasizes the beneficial role of positive emotions (e.g., Reschly et al., 2008). Positive emotions are linkes to student motivation, well-being, and achievement. These desirable feelings contrast with the mostly negative emotions students report to feel at school (Brackett et al., 2016).

But does the dualistic black-and-white painted picture of positive versus negative feelings really describe how students usually feel at school? Aren’t real-life feelings more complex, blended, and mixed? Imagine for instance a student who really likes Math and is looking forward to her Math lesson today, but also feels a bit anxious about an upcoming test, and tired because he spent half of the night studying for that test. Or imagine a student who is happy about meeting his friends at school, but dreads meeting the bullies who are making his life miserable in the same environment. Mixed feelings of positive and negative emotions might occur in the same students more often than acknowledged by the research so far.

Recent studies have started to address such mixed feelings, and found for instance that anxiety is experienced together with motivation and positive emotions by the same students and even within the same situations (Moeller et al., 2015; Pekrun et al., 2002; Schneider et al., 2016). Taking this research to the next level, we now developed an approach to examine all co-occurrences of jointly experienced emotions in large sets of reported feelings. Using co-occurrence network analysis, we studied how frequently positive and negative emotions were experienced together in a sample of roughly 22,000 US high school students. Students reported up to three emotions they frequently experience at school in open-ended responses, which were then coded into 480 emotion categories and three valences (positive, negative, neutral). We found that one out of three high school students said they experienced both positive and negative emotions, and that particularly common mixtures were feeling happy and stressed, happy and tired, and happy but bored.

A pre-print of the paper is available HERE on the pre-print server of the Open Science Framework, and the findings will be featured in an upcoming text on the new science blog by the Jacobs Foundation. Also, I will present the findings in the research meeting of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on October 4, 2016.