2016 Janet Taylor Spence Award
University of Colorado Boulder
Please briefly describe your research interests.
Emotions are an essential ingredient of what makes us human. Surprisingly, there remain many mysteries as to how we can harness emotions to improve mental health outcomes and enhance well-being. My research lies at the intersection of positive emotion and psychopathology, focused on delineating the ways in which positive emotion can go awry and towards developing an integrated clinical–affective science model of positive emotion disturbance. Specific questions of interest include whether positive emotion — in particular degrees, contexts, durations, or types — predicts maladaptive behavioral syndromes and psychological-health outcomes.
What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?
I first got involved in research in emotion as an undergraduate volunteering in psychology labs at the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University. This exposed me to the rich literature and methodological tools in affective science. Later on during my graduate studies in clinical psychology, I gained first-hand exposure to patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder where I first saw the potential negative consequences of heightened euphoria during mania. At that time, there remained much room to translate the theoretical insights on positive emotion to clinical populations, such as bipolar disorder. I’ve continued to focus on understanding the “dark side of positive emotion” ever since.
Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?
Our 2011 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science (Gruber, Mauss, and Tamir, 2012) turned my thinking about “happiness” upside-down, and also made me rethink its broader implications for the scientific study of positive emotionality. In this paper, we focused on presenting a theoretical framework that highlighted key boundary conditions for the ways in which happiness might not portend maladaptive psychological and health outcomes. More importantly, this paper introduced me to two of my most esteemed collaborators and lifelong friends — Iris Mauss and Maya Tamir.
What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?
We are lucky that psychological science is such a warm and generous world to live in. Each project I’ve participated in has been part science and part exposure to incredible minds and human beings. A bow of gratitude to graduate mentors: Allison Harvey, Sheri Johnson, Dacher Keltner, Ann Kring, and Robert Levenson. A second note of indebtedness to senior colleagues who continue to mentor me in the multitudes of science and its practice: James Gross, Jeanne Tsai, Ian Gotlib, Jutta Joormann, Brian Scholl, John Bargh, David DeSteno, Kent Hutchison, and Tor Wager. Unbelievably importantly are my peers (and buddies) who keep science fun as we forge into the unknown together: Tessa West, Iris Mauss, Jamil Zaki, Amy Cuddy, Maya Tamir, Wil Cunningham, Hedy Kober, Kateri McRae, Pranj Mehta, Doug Mennin, Christopher Oveis, Greg Samanez-Larkin, Emma Seppala, Greg Siegle, David Rand, Josh Buckholtz, Leah Somerville, Michael Norton, Jordi Quiodbach, and Lauren Weinstock. And a final shout-out of gratitude to those who, like Janet Taylor Spence, demonstrate that some of the best science would not be possible without women doing it: Tania Lombrozo, Wendy Berry Mendes, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Judith Moskowitz, Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Tackett, Sona Dimidjian, Joanna Arch, and Marie Banich.
What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?
One next step in unpacking positive emotion disturbance is asking why it occurs. This mechanistic approach will necessitate careful measurement of cognitive, neurophysiological and neuroendocrine mechanisms involved in the onset and maintenance of heightened positive mood states. Subsequent translational studies underway focus on the real-world developing and testing novel interventions to promote strategies that carefully cultivate healthy positive feelings, and successfully harness other positive states and their precursors.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
As both a female scientist and a recent “academic mama,” it means a lot. It’s humbling and inspiring to see science honor women within the practice, and to do so via honoring the trailblazing scientist Janet Taylor Spence and her legacy.