Who doesn’t enjoy feeling content, curious, elated, or excited? Positive emotions feel good. We look for experiences that create positive emotions and we want them to last. We may appreciate and savor them, we may take them for granted, or we may feel frustrated at how fleeting and brief positive states can be. But do we ask ourselves what value, if any, positive emotions might have aside from bringing us pleasure, satisfaction, and feelings of happiness.
It turns out there is a lot more to positive emotions than just feeling good. Research shows that positive emotions provided our ancestors with crucial evolutionary advantages and may well be at least partially responsible for your being here – the product of a very long line of humans who generation after generation beat the evolutionary odds and survived long enough to pass their genes down the line.
But to understand what makes positive emotions so important to our survival and well-being, we must first understand how they differ from negative ones. Let’s engage in a brief experiment. To start, think of a negative emotion such as, for example, anger. Imagine yourself in a situation that has made you feel quite upset and angry. What thoughts are running through your mind? What is the cause of the anger? Do you perhaps feel that your rights have been violated, you’ve been treated unfairly, or you feel disrespected by someone? Now think about the action that you want to take. If you are completely honest with yourself, how would you describe the impulse to act that you are feeling in this moment? Do you by any chance feel like you should stand up for yourself and fight back? What other options are obvious and available to you? Are those options pretty specific and relatively few in number?
Now imagine a situation in which you feel safe and at peace. Visualize yourself experiencing a particular positive emotion such as joy, for instance. Feel the emotion of joy running through your whole body. Focus on the more or less subtle sensations you are feeling. Immerse yourself entirely in the state of joy. Now, what are the predominant thoughts you are aware of while in this state? Can you discern a specific call to action that propels you forward or are you experiencing more of undifferentiated field of openness, exhilaration, and “free activation”?
I hope this little experiment served to demonstrate a crucial difference between positive and negative emotions that was first defined by psychologist and researcher Barbara Fredrickson. Fredrickson noticed that negative emotions lead to very specific actions that are generally associated with avoiding or responding to threat or danger. For example, anxiety will generally cause people to run away, guilt will move a person to make amends, embarrassment will lead to retreat, and sadness or depression are usually associated with mourning the loss of something or someone important to us. In other words, negative emotions narrow the scope of our attention and get us focused on a few very specific actions we could take to avoid, respond to, or manage a threatening situation.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, broaden our repertoire of possible thought and action responses. In other words, when we experience joy, interest, contentment, or love we are able to see many more possibilities, directions, and opportunities that we can choose from. Fredrickson speculated that positive emotions help us broaden and build upon our options which is why she called the theory she developed the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. With Fredrickson’s work, for the first time, positive emotions were seen and understood within the context of a distinct model that recognized their particular function as different from that of negative emotions.
It gets better! Not only do positive emotions reveal a wealth of previously hidden opportunities for responding to situations in new and creative ways, they build out our physical, intellectual, and social resources over time. For example, engaging in play and playfulness helps us cultivate physical and cardiovascular fitness, locomotor skills, and general behavioral flexibility all of which means that over time we consistently add to our physical resources. Studies show that positive emotions such as interest or curiosity, for instance, lead to an enhanced capacity for learning and creativity, higher academic achievement, faster and more effective problem solving, and better performance on tests among other benefits. This suggests that positive emotions are instrumental in building intellectual resources that we can draw on when we are under pressure and needing to think creatively and fast. Last but certainly not least, positive emotions share d with family, friends, and coworkers help create lasting social bonds and alliances and strengthen social support systems all of which contributes to growing our social resources.
The ability to draw on a reservoir of physical and psychological resources in times of need is a major evolutionary advantage. Positive emotions help us replenish, sustain, and grow that reservoir over time.
Now that we know so much about the benefits of positive emotions, we might think that choosing positive states over negative ones should be easy. After all, we have plenty of good reasons to choose joy over sadness or curiosity over anger. Why then are positive emotions so fleeting and why can negative ones be so seductive? It turns out the tendency to focus on negative rather than positive stimuli is not an arbitrary feature of the brain but one that thousands of years ago would have meant the difference between staying alive or being eaten by a predator. The so called “negativity bias” afforded early humans a distinct evolutionary advantage. The refined ability to notice and respond to threat was critical to survival. Even though saber-tooth tigers are long extinct our brains continue to spot predators as we make our way through a maze of office cubicles and attempt to safely navigate politics at work. Except today’s predators appear in the guise of toxic bosses, relentless competitors, and looming deadlines.
It’s important that we recognize and honor the workings of the brain and the mechanisms through which our emotions are designed to support our ability to survive and thrive. At the same time, our growing knowledge of the full range of emotions we experience along with their functions and evolutionary benefits can help us make a deliberate choice to strengthen and build out our physical, intellectual, and social resources. We can use a number of available tools to shift into more positive states so that we could be more flexible in our behavior, creative in our thinking, and supportive in our relationships with others.
A growing toolbox of research-based interventions for boosting positivity is available to us through positive psychology. For example, engaging in what we call “counting your blessings” at least once a week will help you appreciate the positive events and experiences in your life rather than taking them for granted. The gratitude intervention involves writing down three good things that happened to you that day or that week and describing your contribution to bringing about the positive experience. This intervention can be a great and reliable source of positivity through appreciating what you already have in your life.
Another effective intervention is the practice of savoring. Savoring is defined as actively appreciating positive experiences by slowing down, being present, and giving full attention to our emotions, our environment, and positive events as they unfold. It is important to remember that savoring is a process and not an outcome. It is a way of making the most of all the wonderful experiences that life has to offer. You can savor the past (reminiscing), the present (being in the moment), or the future (anticipating).
Engaging in random acts of kindness is another great intervention that will help build positivity in your life. Being kind and generous toward others in an intentional way will enhance your social interactions and build good will between you and others as well as support a more positive self-image. You can pick a day and engage in several different acts of kindness throughout the course of the day. It’s important to mix things up – variety helps maximize the effect of the intervention.
Engaging in the activities described here is a great way to start generating more positivity and strengthen your physical and psychological resources. And as you learn more, you can keep adding tools, practices, and interventions to your growing positivity toolbox.