Category: Adult Anxiety

PS15- #B39 - Maximize Pleasure or Minimize Pain? Implicit Beliefs About Well-Being Moderate the Relationship Between Anxiety and Well-Being

Sunday, Nov 19
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM
Location: Indigo Ballroom CDGH, Level 2, Indigo Level

Keywords: Anxiety | Emotion Regulation

Anxiety is inversely associated with well-being (Olatunji, Cisler, & Tolin, 2007). One mechanism that helps explain this association is the belief that negative and anxiety-provoking experiences should be avoided in order to maximize well-being. Although avoidance may alleviate momentary discomfort, over time, excessive avoidance has the paradoxical effect of increasing anxiety (Hayes, Wilson, Gifford, Follette, & Strosahl, 1996). People who avoid experiences as a means to alleviate discomfort are more likely to miss out on rewarding experiences that serve to enhance well-being. Possessing the belief that well-being is maximized by approaching or seeking out pleasurable experiences, even if pain is required to obtain pleasure (such as an exercise regimen), may catalyze reward-seeking behavior. We explored the influence of these two implicit beliefs about well-being as respective risk and resiliency factors in the lives of individuals high in trait anxiety.


The present study tested whether beliefs about avoiding unpleasant experiences and beliefs about the pursuit of pleasure moderated the effect of anxiety on well-being - as operationalized by positive affect and meaning in life. Data were collected from N=403 participants via Amazon Mechanical Turk who completed a battery of self-report questionnaires.


Results of hierarchical linear regression models suggest the belief that well-being involves the pursuit of pleasure significantly moderated the association between symptoms of anxiety and meaning in life (β = -.10, p < .05). Effects were in the opposite direction of hypotheses; the inverse association between anxiety and meaning in life was stronger among individuals higher in approach beliefs compared with individuals lower in approach beliefs. As for avoidance beliefs, the belief that avoidance of negative emotions maximizes well-being moderated (although only at trending levels of significance) the effect of anxiety on positive affect (β = -.09, p = .056), such that the negative association between anxiety symptoms and positive affect was stronger among individuals higher in avoidance beliefs compared with those lower in avoidance beliefs. No other significant interactions were observed.

Results are congruent with prior findings that implicit biases about avoiding negative emotions or situations have the paradoxical effect of increasing distress (McMahan et al., 2016). Our hypotheses regarding pleasure were not supported; for people high in anxiety, it is possible that other-centric beliefs about well-being (e.g., through altruism) are stronger facilitators positive experiences than self-centric beliefs (e.g., pleasure) (McMahan & Estes, 2011). Future research is needed to elucidate the mechanisms by which beliefs about well-being enhance or mitigate adverse affects of anxiety.

Fallon Goodman

Doctoral Student
George Mason University
Arlington, Virginia

Maria A. Larrazabal

Post-Baccalaureate
George Mason University

James D. Doorley

Graduate Student
George Mason University

Todd Kashdan

Professor of Psychology
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia