How do you feel when you’re put on the spot and expected to do well in a stressful situation? Perhaps you’ve been handed an important task at work, one that is completely new to you. The person who usually takes on this role is out sick, and the onus is on you to come up with both a plan and an outcome. The situation leads you to think back on times when you faced what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, such as taking a critical exam that would determine your future opportunities. Do you scream inside with anxiety and self-criticism, or do you feel energized about rising to the challenge?
It is a foundational principle in the psychology of emotions that there is nothing inherent about a situation that can cause either anxiety or excitement. Stress, according to this view, is in the mind of the beholder. If you want to be able to rise to a challenge, you just need to change your perception of your ability to cope with it. Just as you might redefine that important exam as an opportunity to shine, you can also view that work task as a way to strut your stuff. Who knows? It might lead to a promotion.
A New Angle on Achievement Emotions
According to a new study by an international team headed by University of Essex’s Reinhard Pekrun (2023), the emotions associated with achievement have not received the attention they deserve: “Studies integrating more than two or three single emotions are largely lacking.” These emotions include, for example, anxiety (such as test anxiety), enjoyment, boredom, and anger. There is, the U. Essex-led team observes, a much larger “conceptual space of emotions related to achievement” (p. 146).
The thoughts that can infuse this conceptual space can include perceptions of an individual’s competence, the value placed on the activity, and whether the outcome resulted in success or failure. Imagine the types of thoughts you might have when the pressure is on to perform. Your emotional response will depend on whether you think you have the ability, whether it seems worthwhile, and whether the outcome seemed to be positive or negative.
An Expanded View of the Conceptual Space of Emotions
Pekrun and his colleagues developed a “taxonomy” (or classification) of achievement emotions based on their positions along the dimensions of valence (positive or negative), arousal (high or low), and “object focus,” defined as “any real or imagined event, situation, or physical object to which an emotion can refer” (p. 148). Putting the three dimensions together leads to a total of 12 separate emotions, organized as follows:
Object focus: Activity
- Positive/activating: Enjoyment or excitement
- Positive/deactivating: Relaxation
- Negative/activating: Anger or frustration
- Negative/deactivating: Boredom
Object focus: Future outcome
- Positive/activating: Hope or anticipatory joy
- Positive/deactivating: Assurance
- Negative/activating: Anxiety
- Negative/deactivating: Hopelessness
Object focus: Past outcome
- Positive/activating: Pride, retrospective joy, or gratitude
- Positive/deactivating: Relief or contentment
- Negative/activating: Shame or guilt
- Negative/deactivating: Disappointment or sadness
Does the Achievement Emotion Taxonomy Work?
Turning now to the test of whether this complex categorization system corresponds to the feelings that people have when they face tests of their competence, the authors turned to a variety of samples of individuals facing various achievement-oriented situations to see if the descriptions people offered of their emotions statistically aligned themselves along the three dimensions. The samples included students who clearly face achievement situations on a nearly continuous basis but also workers who recorded their emotions in the form of daily diary reports.
The study participants rated their feelings with respect to achievement situations occurring in the future, present, and past. For the most part, these were self-explanatory, such as “I am hopeful I will perform well in my work” for hopefulness. For assurance, a sample item is “I feel relaxed because I know I will be successful.”
Across the investigation’s four studies, the 12 emotion scales performed as expected, supporting their validity as independent qualities of achievement-related experiences. The authors also demonstrated links in predicted directions with personality traits as the “antecedents” or stable predictors of emotional reactions to achievement. People high in neuroticism were more likely to experience anxiety, shame, and hopelessness, emotions more likely to occur in achievement situations for people who lack confidence in themselves.
The authors also tested whether achievement emotions would differ by the value attributed to an activity, and, again, the findings were in support of predictions. The more participants valued an activity, the stronger their emotions, both negative and positive. People who didn’t value an activity felt stronger levels of boredom, a finding that completely makes sense.
Do Achievement Emotions Matter?
At a practical level, achievement emotions also related to important outcomes across several of the studies in academic and work contexts. People who felt greater levels of enjoyment, hope, and assurance performed better in achievement situations. Apart from actual performance, negative achievement emotions also predicted health outcomes effects that, the authors suggest, could accumulate over the life span because, in their words, “achievement situations are the most important contexts that individuals encounter on a daily basis” (p. 173).
When you think about that job that was handed to you without much preparation, you can undoubtedly imagine how a continuing saga of high job expectations that you felt were beyond your ability could have a long-term impact on your mental and physical well-being.
From a theoretical standpoint, the findings represent a valuable addition to the literature by taking into account “object focus,” or the specific context in which an emotion is experienced. When you think about your own achievement tests, whether in your personal or professional life, it can therefore be helpful to identify which situation is associated with which emotional reaction. From a therapeutic standpoint, you can also begin to learn how to deconstruct an automatic negative emotion such as hopelessness by introducing more positive elements such as assurance. How great it would be to take what seemed like one of those insurmountable obstacles and turn it into one that you look forward to with equanimity if not anticipatory joy.
To sum up, this important international study on achievement emotions shows that there is nothing inherent in a situation that need define its potential to affect how you perform, how you feel, and even how it affects your health. By unpacking your emotions, you may find it possible to find fulfillment in life’s many tests, even the ones that are hard.