What Good Are Positive Emotions?
Research explains how they don’t just feel good but are good for us.
Posted June 13, 2018
Until recently, empirical psychology focused predominantly on the role that emotions like fear, sadness, and disgust play in our lives. Since these emotions are reactions to negative aspects of our environment they are often referred to as “negative emotions.” These emotions are incredibly important, and each plays a protective role in our lives. For example, fear alerts us to danger and causes us to flee; sadness encourages us to withdraw and reflect amid loss; and disgust helps rid us of contamination by causing us to spit out potentially poisonous things.
Each of these emotions cause us to act in a specific way and has played an important role in our survival. They narrow our attention and make it possible for us to act swiftly and effectively in life-threatening situations.
Imagine a car barreling through a red light headed straight for you as you’re crossing the street. No time to think and no need to: We are on red alert, our fear at a high, and we immediately sprint out of the way to safety.
Thank goodness for these automatic reactions that can help keep us safe. Individuals with the highest sensitivity to these emotions reacted the quickest and were most likely to survive and pass along their genes to future generations. We can understand why we are so tuned to these so-called “negative emotions” and so good at responding to them. We also understand their importance–our survival.
So what good are “positive” emotions, if they're not for survival?
This is a question posed by leading emotion researcher Barbara Fredrickson, which led to her groundbreaking broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions to explain how positive emotions work. While negative emotions narrow our attention and urge us to act in a specific way, positive emotions do the opposite: They broaden our attention and increase our thought-action repertoire. In other words, they increase the range of thoughts we might consider and actions we might take in a given situation.
Compare what is going on in your body when you feel sad versus joyful. When feeling sad or “down” we are often looking down, shoulders slumped and unable to think clearly. We are usually focused inward and oblivious to what is going on in our surroundings with a slower reaction time. In contrast, when feeling “up,” we stand upright, chest out, looking up with our mind full of ideas. We are more likely to notice what is going on around us, and subtle opportunities. We are quicker to reach out and engage with others.
Positive emotions open us up and allow us to take in more visually. They enable us to reach out and connect with others, thereby building stronger bonds. When in a positive mood we are more creative and able to come up with solutions to problems more effectively than when we are in a negative or neutral mood. We can see how this can help us in our relationships with our family, friends and business colleagues. Experiencing positive emotions can lead to upward spirals because the openness leads to greater positive emotions, which in turn lead to more openness.
However, they aren’t just good for us in the moment; they also have long-term effects. The second part of Fredrickson’s theory is that positive emotions build resources for us down the road. While emotional states are fleeting, they have long-term positive consequences. For example, they can help us get to know the world in new ways. When we are feeling joyful, we are more playful and creative, when we are feeling interest, we seek to explore and learn more about others. This openness allows us to get to know ourselves, others and our world in new ways, and the knowledge can be advantageous as we are confronted with new situations throughout our lives.
Positive emotions help us build physical, psychological, and social resources. Those who experience more positive emotions have lower blood pressure, fewer colds and better sleep. They are more optimistic, resilient and more accepting. They also have stronger and more satisfying relationships because the good times help buffer against break-ups and divorce.
As humans, we experience a wide range of emotions. All emotions are important and should be valued and respected. We believe it’s critical to be open to, and learn from, negative emotions as they occur in our lives. However, it’s the positive emotions, not the negative ones, that we want to actively cultivate in our lives to enhance our well-being and build stronger bonds.
This is often easier said than done, since, as we explain in our book, Happy Together, problems scream at us whereas opportunities just whisper.
Problems Scream at Us. Opportunities Whisper.
We know when we have a problem, like that speeding car headed straight for us. And we take immediate action to protect ourselves. But do we similarly notice and leverage the opportunities in our day-to-day lives or do we just let them slip by?
Perhaps if we shifted our attention from our problems to what we could proactively do to generate a healthy stream of positive emotions in our daily lives we could open ourselves up and connect more deeply with others.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology 2(3), 300-319.
Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J.(2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.