If you are a skeptical reader you probably want me to supply lots of scientific evidence that positive emotions are good for you. Even if I did you would probably still think ‘I am not convinced’. Isn’t it interesting that you think you have a critical, no nonsense mind yet are 90% unlikely to be able to think of an actual study which showed that positive emotions make people dumb, narcissistic or shallow? You might be able to recall someone who a) annoyed you and b) also happened to be a happy person but that my friend is not very scientific. However you are almost certain to be able to give a fairly scientific answer as to why negative emotions exist. Evolution, fight and flight, does it ring any bells?
Barbara Fredrickson is the most well-known positive emotions researcher. She found that positive emotions:
- feel good
- change your brain
- change your future
- keep negativity in check
- can be increased
Positive emotions change your brain in two ways: at the moment of experiencing the emotions and in the future. In the moment positive emotions broaden your mind: you become more creative and more open to different options. Depending on the specific emotion there are more momentary benefits such as relaxation, feeling invigorated or playful. These feelings propel you to engage in particular behaviours, such as exploring your surroundings or engaging in relationship building. As a result you learn something new, forge new relationships or deepen existing ones, all of which become resources which build upon each other to form psychological resources. Other benefits of positive emotions include lowering of the pulse, blood pressure and more even breathing.
The good news is that positive emotions can be cultivated in an authentic way. This is an important point: it’s not about fake-smiles, swallowing down your anger or pretending there is hope, when you feel anything but hopeful. Instead positive psychology exercises aim to make you more aware of existing positive emotions, teach you how to appreciate and as a result savour them. Sometimes you can even decide to consciously return to these moments by looking at pictures or reading letters.
The first step towards working with your emotions is identifying them. Fredrickson mentions ten positive emotions:
Which emotions do you experience frequently? Can you remember one instance for each positive emotion mentioned (or just the one you are interested in if you want to start small)? Where are you and who is with you when that happens? Which emotions do you trigger in others? Knowing what’s going on is always helpful to make sure that you can use what’s working when expanding your skill-set.
One fun way of working with your emotions is listening to music. Music is often used in research to put people in a particular frame of mind. Try it yourself. Go through your favourite playlist and figure out which emotions your top 10 songs trigger in you. If you are feeling really energetic you could make emotions playlists, based on the ones mentioned above or others.
If you are familiar with the VIA Strengths classification, you will notice, that a few of these positive emotions are actually also strengths. Gratitude, hope and love are names of three of the 24 described character strengths. Other positive emotions can be directly linked to existing strengths: interest and curiosity or amusement and humour. Awe and appreciation of beauty seem to go well together and so does joy and zest. As you see positive emotions and strengths are intimately connected. Emotions are more fleeting while strengths are more enduring features of who we are.
So which emotions do you experience frequently? Which ones would you like to experience more? Did you try the suggested exercise or a similar one? If yes write your comments below, I would love to hear from you.