Do positive emotions increase life satisfaction?

The answer is yes and they do it by building resilience. University of North Carolina professor Barbara Fredrickson has spent the past two decades looking into why we have positive emotions and what we do with them. She even has her own term for her work: positivity.

To quote an old commercial, “Why ask ‘why’?” when it comes to positive emotions? Shouldn’t we just enjoy them while they’re around? Sure, but maybe we can find even more about how these emotions benefit us.

Emotions have helped us survive

For example, we know that negative emotions evolved to keep us safe. Fear, anger, sadness, and other negative emotions actually narrow the focus of our attention while at the same time increasing the rate of our cardiovascular systems. Why? (There I go again.) So our ancestors could make quick decisions about new information coming into their brains and mobilize their bodies for action. Yes, it’s that old fight-or-flight response mechanism. When a predatory animal approached our ancestor, she needed to become very focused on the situation at hand and her body needed to ramp up to either run or fight the animal. It’s a very adaptive response and one that helped the rest of us be here today. If our ancestor didn’t feel fear or anger or anxiety when facing a dangerous animal, she was most likely dinner for that particular hunter.

Are positive emotions adaptive or do they just make us feel good?

So how did positive emotions evolve? Being happy is not going to keep me safe or spur me into action, right? Or will it?

As it turns out, Fredrickson’s research shows that positive emotions are very adaptive and here’s why: being happy or content or joyful not only calms our cardiovascular systems so we can relax, but those emotions expand our mindsets and social openness, among other things, which allows us to have wider ranges of ideas and more flexibility in our behaviors. What does this all mean? We are able to problem-solve more easily, increase social support, and increase physical health – essential resiliency skills – all by experiencing positive emotions.

As Fredrickson says, “Put simply, positive emotions expand people’s mindsets in ways that little-by-little reshape who they are.” Indeed, she has found that experiencing positive emotions creates an “upward spiral” of increasingly better life satisfaction and contentment as opposed to the “downward spiral” of dissatisfaction triggered by self-perpetuating negative emotions.

Can positive emotions actually “undo” the effects of negative emotions?

It seems they can. Fredrickson has found that experiencing a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions can actually make physical changes in your body and broaden your mindset to create more personal resilience. As mentioned previously, negative emotions such as fear and anger are useful in that they pump up your cardiovascular system to prepare you to either get away from or fight a threat to your well-being. The problem is, the increased heart rate, blood pressure, and shallow breathing continue long after the threat is gone and create other physical problems for you.

Another useful aspect of negative emotions is that they narrow your focus to the threat at hand so you can make a decision as to what to do. However, the downside is that continued negative emotions leave you in a very limited frame of mind, one that does not allow for the creativity and growth needed to live a satisfied and resilient life.

The “undoing” effect of positive emotions

Positive emotions such as love, joy, and interest allow the cardiovascular system to relax and, as it turns out, experiencing three times as many positive emotions as negative actually “undoes” the lingering cardiovascular restrictions caused by your negative emotions.

Similarly, positive feelings create an emotional space that allows you to broaden your attention and utilize your creativity to not only enjoy life more but also stock up on emotional and social resources that help you later when you face adversity.

Creating positivity

So, how can you go about getting more positive feelings in your life? Here are some ideas:

1. Notice positive moments. Researchers Susan Folkman and Judith Moskowitz from UC San Francisco suggest that you take “psychological time-outs” by noticing the beautiful smile of a person walking by you, reflecting on a compliment someone gave you, or pausing to enjoy a beautiful sunset. Don’t let those wonderful little moments pass you by without taking a moment to appreciate them.

2. Practice mindfulness meditation. Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, even for a few minutes. Focus on your breath and, as you notice your mind being active with thoughts, just allow those thoughts to float away like bubbles. And don’t judge either yourself or the thoughts passing through your mind. That’s the key to mindfulness meditation – lack of self-judgment. As you learn to be less judgmental toward yourself, you create more space for positive feelings about yourself and the world.

3. Practice random acts of kindness. Helping others makes them feel good and increases your positivity, too.

Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who blogs at Bounce Blog.

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