Positive Emotions and Living the Good Life

Introduction

‘Positive emotion’ is the first of 5 elements in Martin Seligman’s PERMA wellbeing model. And it’s essential for living the ‘good life.’ They result from our positive experiences of events and interactions in our lives, whether big or small, and how we make sense of them.

After all, science shows that increasing our experience of positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, awe, serenity, hope, pride, amusement, interest, inspiration, and love on a daily basis promotes growth and wellbeing. 

Indeed, positive emotions are so vital to wellbeing that research in 2018 found they even improve sleep duration and quality in adolescents.

Not only that, but positive emotions are a great way of increasing our own sense of fulfillment and life satisfaction while having a beneficial effect on those around us – it’s infectious, just not in a bad way. In fact, this is mental health and wellbeing at its best: no cost, no drugs, no side effects, and long-lasting [1, 2, 8].

So, what do we mean by emotions?

Emotions are typically linked to specific events or circumstances from our past, present, and even future. We have them all the time; it’s just sometimes we are not aware of or don’t focus on them. Think back to happy memories of childhood parties or more recent concerns about difficult meetings at work – they vary in intensity and how they express themselves. Some emotions are intense and raw – others are softer and more fleeting.

Research psychologist Carroll Izard studied unique facial expressions to identify ten ‘basic’ emotions common across all ages and cultures: anger, contempt, disgust, distress, fear, guilt, interest, joy, shame, and surprise. 

Yet most of us tend to get stuck at happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Indeed, emotions are so rooted in who we are that we even find them in infants – with the exceptions of guilt, shame, and contempt [2, 7].

The value of negative emotions

The exciting and relatively new field of ‘evolutionary psychology’ suggests that emotions have always been crucial to our species, providing adaptive responses that increase our survival chances while maintaining our wellbeing. 

Think about it, early hunter-gatherers, ‘fearful’ of wild animals, may have kept out of the deep forests – keeping them safe. And yet, ‘anger,’ when confronted by someone stealing from the tribe, may have caused them to lash out. Such prompt, selective and emotionally-driven action could have saved their own lives and those of their tribe, safeguarding their genetic line.

Such ‘negative’ emotions, as we think of them now, involved little cognition. Rather than conscious, rational thinking, they automatically channeled our ancestors’ actions toward survival in life-threatening situations.

And we still feel those instincts, even if unwarranted: a surge of anger when someone cuts in front of us in traffic or fear just before we go up on a stage [2, 4].

Positive emotions focus on what is right

Early researchers thought of emotions as uncontrolled and primal and focused much of their attention on what felt negative – what went wrong. And yet, now, science recognizes how all emotions influence ‘what’ we perceive and better understand ‘how’ this happens.

A groundbreaking study of 138 college students asked to complete self-reports found that not only do positive emotions improve attention and broaden cognition, but they lead to upward spirals of enhanced emotional wellbeing.

Such findings provide support to what psychology calls the ‘Broaden-and-Build Theory.’ Negative emotions cause us to be specific, so we narrow our attention, focus on what is going wrong, and react. Think of the last time you were outraged or scared. Did you weigh up all the options rationally, or did you want to confront, dismiss, or escape the situation?

On the other hand, positive emotions do the opposite; they cause us to broaden our repertoire of thought-action responses. And that has both immediate and lasting value: helping us perform better, increasing resilience, and, over time, supporting us as we flourish. And one more thing, and this is crucial, positive emotions can undo the effects of negative ones, helping us regain balance in our lives [2, 3, 9].

Creating ‘upward spirals’

Think back to our hunter-gatherer cousins. Their ‘joy’ from finding a new food source or forming other relationships would have driven them to explore beyond where they were comfortable. And it’s no different today.

Unlike negative emotions that lead us to dwell on the detail, positive emotions help us see the ‘big-picture’; they encourage us to attend to others, form relationships, reduce tensions, and even build intellectual resources. 

Feeling ‘hope’ and ‘curiosity,’ for example, encourages our learning, resourcefulness, and problem-solving. But not only that, research shows positive emotions can lead to ‘upward spirals’ that boost our long-term health, mental and physical wellbeing, relationships, and even our longevity.

In fact, they are so powerful their effects have been observed in studies using brain imagery, eye tracking, and even cardiovascular recovery from stress.

But that’s not all, positive emotions also help us recover from injury and handle pain better than negative emotions – they can reduce anger, anxiety, and sadness and help us focus our attention on what is important [2, 3, 15].

Positive emotions and wellbeing

A wealth of research now confirms the benefits of positive emotions. A recent review in the academic journal Emotion lists a huge range of benefits to wellbeing, including, longevity, reduced stroke incidents, more extensive social networks, lower cortisol levels, and increased prosocial behavior – to name but a few.

So, that’s great, but I still don’t get ‘how’ positive emotions lead us to the ‘good life’ and realizing our best self. 

To answer that, we must return to the goal of positive psychology – to increase the amount of ‘flourishing.’ To thrive and lead a more fulfilling life requires us to develop each element of the PERMA model: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. 

Psychology shows that increasing our daily experience of positive emotions, such as gratitude, joy, serenity, hope, pride, interest, inspiration, amusement, awe, and love, leads to thought and behavioral patterns essential for growth and wellbeing. They guide us toward being the very best version of ourselves.

Positive emotions, little by little, change the lives of those that experience them – and those close by [1, 2].

We can build positive emotions

Positive emotions significantly impact our lives, but that’s not much help if we are stuck with the ones we have. After all, much of our personality is inherited, so isn’t it the same with emotions?

Well, yes, while we have our family to thank for a great deal of who we are, it turns out we can still build and develop positive emotions and enjoy the resulting psychological, social, physical, and intellectual wellness benefits. The neuroplasticity of our brains means that we can change our experience of our emotions, opening our minds and building valuable personal resources.

And, thankfully, it’s not that difficult. Simply spending more time reflecting on what’s good in our lives can retune our mindset to recognize and embrace positive emotions – we can focus on boosting our wellbeing. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, the result is that positivity “literally gives you a new outlook on life” [1, 2, 5].

Positive emotions and resilience

Positive emotions are great. Really. They open us up to think outside the box, become more open to learning, be better problem-solvers, and even form stronger relationships with those we know and those we meet. 

But there is more. Positive emotions also increase our resilience – our ability to recover from difficult times.

A fascinating 2009 study involving 86 students found that in-the-moment positive emotions are associated with more desirable life outcomes and increased resilience. It seems that living well comes from experiencing the good times and developing our psychological resources.

Skipping forward more than a decade to 2022, we find research that scored adolescents’ wellbeing over three years. Data showed that individuals experiencing a greater volume of positive emotions had increased resilience up to a year later.

While the exact relationship between positive emotions and resilience remains a little uncertain, it seems likely that the two are essential and deeply related factors in our overall wellbeing [1, 2, 12, 13].

Why gratitude is the gift that keeps giving

“Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying,” writes positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Indeed, when we experience this positive emotion, we are reliving and savoring a pleasant moment that happened in our lives. 

Not only that, but doing so strengthens our relationships with that person – the ‘R’ in the PERMA model. So how can we foster gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful way?

Expressing gratitude in the form of a letter has proven so powerful that it increases wellbeing scores and reduces the experience of depressive symptoms when performed regularly.  

A 2012 study reported in the Journal of Happiness Studies asked 219 men and women to write three letters of gratitude over three weeks. Results confirmed not only significant increases to their life satisfaction and wellbeing, but a reduction in depressive symptoms.

Think of someone from your life who has been kind and helpful to you – a friend, family member, teacher, or colleague at work. Write them a letter (it’s a bit old school but more powerful than an email) describing and thanking them for all they have done and how grateful you are. Deliver it personally if possible and ask them to read it aloud [1, 6, 11].

Three Good Things

We are better at focusing on what’s gone wrong in our lives than what’s gone right – and that’s sad. Think back over the last few days. Are you more likely to remember that the coffee machine broke down or that the car started the first time? This bias is not surprising; it’s an evolutionary adaptation that helped our ancestors stay safe by encouraging them to prepare for disaster when they could have been out having fun down at the water hole.

So, can we undo the bias and have a more balanced outlook? Well, yes. Focusing on what’s gone well is a skill we can develop and provides a boost to our positive emotions. 

Each night for a week, write down three things that have gone well that day and why. It’s simple, but research has consistently shown that it will make you happier and less depressed – even 6 months from now [1].

Potential questions

Q1: What positive emotions have you experienced today? 

Q2: How do you think these positive emotions helped you learn or be open to new ideas?

Q3: What was your most recent negative emotion and how did it influence your behavior?

[1] Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

[2] Boniwell, I., & Tunariu, A. D. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. London: Open University Press.

[3] Hart, R. (2021). Positive psychology: The basics. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[4] Buss, D. M. (2016). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[5] Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to release your inner optimist and thrive. Richmond: Oneworld.

[6] Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

[7] Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart. London: Vermilion.

[8] Shen, L., van Schie, J., Ditchburn, G., Brook, L., & Bei, B.(2018). Positive and Negative Emotions: Differential Associations with Sleep Duration and Quality in Adolescents. Journal of  Youth and  Adolescence, 47, 2584–2595..

[9] Fredrickson, B. L., &  Joiner, T. (2002). Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional Well-Being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172–175.

[10] Silton, R. L., Kahrilas, I. J., Skymba, H. V., Smith, J., Bryant, F. B., & Heller, W. (2020). Regulating positive emotions: Implications for promoting well-being in individuals with depression. Emotion, 20(1), 93–97.

[11] Toepfer, S. M., Cichy, K., & Peters, P. (2011). Letters of gratitude: Further evidence for author benefits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(1), 187-201. 

[12] Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., & Conway, A. M. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361–368

[13] Gilchrist, J. (2022, April 26). Reciprocal Relationships between Positive Emotions and Resilience Predict Flourishing Among Adolescents. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/dwbhp

[14] Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer, P. S., & Penn, D. L. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 849-864. 

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