The Role of Positive Emotions
Positive emotions don’t just feel good in the moment. They neutralise the effects of negative emotions, help build our psychological, social and practical resources, and improve our physical health and longevity.
We don’t need strong positive emotions to get the benefit, we need little and often. Positive emotions are like nutrients – you don’t eat a single sprig of broccoli and expect the nutritional benefit; you need a steady intake.
Learning to increase how often we experience positive emotions in our daily life and how to notice and savour the fleeting moments we normally miss is the key to getting the most out of them.
Health and Longevity
The fight-or-flight response triggered by negative emotions can take a toll on our bodies if overactivated, such as through chronic stress, leading to sometimes life-threatening conditions.
Happily, positive emotions seem to ‘undo’ the effects of negative emotions, such as by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. This is great news for our health and longevity!
According to research, for every negative emotion we experience, we need three positive emotions as an antidote. The 3:1 ratio is helpful to keep in mind: it’s not that we need to banish negative emotion or permanently feel positive. We just need to take opportunities to experience positive emotions instead of letting them pass us by.
Our brains are structured to notice negative events more than positive because detecting threats helped early humans survive.
Think about the last time someone said something that bothered or insulted you – this probably stands out and triggers a negative emotional reaction. Yet all the moments in between when you got along well are largely unnoticed or forgotten.
Negative emotions grab our attention. Consider how you feel when you’re angry or scared. These can be powerful states that overwhelm our bodies and minds. They involve a very real physiological response, as our brain’s amygdala triggers a neural and hormonal cascade causing our body to prepare for ‘fight or flight’.
In contrast, positive emotions can be subtle. If you happen to notice your positive emotions – though quite often, we don’t! – you probably feel a little ’lift’ in your spirits. But if a car then races towards you, it will dominate your attention and get a far bigger reaction from you.
Broaden and Build
Negative emotions might help us survive, but it’s positive emotions that help us thrive.
Whereas negative emotions narrow the focus of our attention and cause us to take actions like defending ourselves or escaping danger, positive emotions cause us to broaden our thinking and behaviour. For instance, joy makes us want to play, and feeling inspired is followed by a desire to do great things.
With these broadened mindsets and behaviours, over time we build our mental and physical resources and even our social bonds. Imagine, for example, that you experience the positive emotion of ‘interest’ in something. Your interest leads you to learn more and more until you find you’ve become quite the expert. Likewise, as you share moments of amusement and affection with someone, your relationship becomes increasingly meaningful and supportive.
As our resources build, we feel more optimistic, more resilient and more socially connected, which in turn generates more positive emotions. This upward spiral is the essence of happiness.
Here’s how these ten positive emotions broaden our thinking and behaviour:
- Amusement – shared laughter/insight
- Hope – yearn for positive change
- Joy – play
- Pride – dream big
- Gratitude – creative giving
- Inspiration – aspire to excellence
- Serenity – savour
- Awe – accommodate the new
- Interest – explore
- Love – all of the above!
Cohn, M., Fredrickson, B., Brown, S., Mikels, J., Conway, A., & Phelps, E. A. (2009). Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361-368.
Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015). The power of negative emotion: How anger, guilt and self doubt are essential to success and fulfillment. London: Oneworld Publications.
Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second Wave Positive Psychology: Exploring the Positive-Negative Dialectics of Wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1753-1768.