We all know that positive emotions are desirable. Who wouldn't rather feel loving than hateful, joyful than fearful, or happy than disappointed? It doesn't take a brain surgeon to tell you that positive emotions make each moment that we are experiencing them a pleasure. But the truth is that positive emotions are far more powerful than that. Thanks to the work of Barbara L. Fredrickson, we now know that positive emotions can bring, not just momentary pleasure, but long-lasting benefits as well.
Fredrickson's Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions shows that positive emotions produce optimal functioning, not just in the present moment, but over the long-term. Her contribution to the field of Positive Psychology has been significant, but her work can benefit each of us individually as well.
To better understand positive emotions, we have to first review what we know about negative ones. Psychological research regarding negative emotions is well-established. While negative emotions are recognized as causing a great deal of dysfunction from phobias and anxiety disorders to depression and stress-related physical disorders, their evolutionary benefit is also recognized. Our ancestor's survival odds were greatly increased when, on the approach of a hungry lion, they experienced fear. Negative emotions like fear, narrow our thought-action repertoire down to two easy options, fight or flight. A narrowed thought-action repertoire in times of crisis helps to ensure our survival by allowing us to act quickly and decisively.
The physical and emotional health problems that we suffer as a result of negative emotions currently are due to the fact that the surge of adrenaline, increased heart rate and so on are not as useful to us when our boss is yelling at us as they were when a lion was chasing us. Without the fight or flight response that burned off all of that adrenaline and allowed for an emotional release, the adrenaline and the anger float around in our bodies doing damage.
Positive emotions may not have such an obvious evolutionary role, but they are beginning to be studied and understood. Fredrickson's theory and research suggest that, while negative emotions narrow our thought-action sequences (for good, survival-related reasons), positive emotions actually broaden our thought-action repertoires and build enduring resources. Over the long-term, positive emotions also improve our chances for survival and our well-being.
The Four Benefits of Positive Emotions
Broadening of Thought-Action Repertoires
Put into simple terms, this means that when we are feeling positive emotions such as joy, our range of thoughts and potential actions gets bigger, more expansive. This means that positive emotions allow us to think more creatively; to think "out of the box." For example, when we are trying to problem-solve, a positive state of mind allows us to brainstorm more freely, accept and integrate information more easily and solve problems more efficiently.
Undoing the Damage of Negative Emotions
Negative emotions can have many deleterious effects. Some of the most easily measured are increases in cardiovascular activity (which redirects blood flow to the skeletal muscles for fight or flight activity). This means increases in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. It has long been known that positive emotion and negative cannot be experienced simultaneously. Newer research has shown that when negative emotion induced in test subjects is followed with positive emotion (which pushes away the negative), the physiological effects of the negative emotion (increased heart rate, blood pressure etc.) normalize much more quickly. Therefore, positive emotions can undo much of the potentially harmful effects of negative emotions.
Building Personal Resources
Resilience is the ability to deal with adverse circumstances effectively. The more resilient you are, the more easily you can overcome challenges and recover from setbacks. Research shows that those individuals who experience the most positive emotion in the course of their days and weeks are also the most resilient. The broadening of thought-action repertoires seems to build the trait of resilience.
Psychological and Physical Well-Being
One measure of a person's well-being is their focus on long-range plans and goals. Engagement in planning for the future indicates psychological health. The ability to find meaning in life, and particularly in adversity, is another indicator of psychological health and well-being. Positive emotions broaden thinking, including the ability to find meaning in adversity and the ability to generate a broad range of actionable choices and goals. This will, over time. lead to improvements in overall well-being.
The upswing on all of this is that positive emotions aren't just indicators of current health and well-being; they can actually produce health and well-being. What does this mean for each of us? It is in our best interests to cultivate positive emotions in ourselves and in those around us, not just because it feels good for the moment, but because doing so can transform and improve the quality of our lives over the long haul.
A more in-depth treatment of the theory and research discussed here can be found in "A Life Worth Living" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi.
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