Positive Emotions; Building Blocks for Personal Growth

Being genuinely positive helps people do better; you can, too!

Posted Dec 20, 2010

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has conducted a lot of research on the effects of positive emotions. From this work, she has developed the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. It basically states that these emotions broaden (or, increase) the pool of thoughts and actions that come to mind in any given circumstance. This increases people's options (or, personal resources) in those, as well as later, situations. For instance, when children play, they increase their friends and social support system, develop their creativity, and learn more about how people work. So, their play puts them in a better position to cope with new situations or problems in the future. This is the same way that positive emotions help all people to develop resources and become more resilient.

Frederickson cautions that positivity fades. For instance, the pleasure you feel from the fabulous lunch you devoured this afternoon will be all but forgotten by tomorrow. So it is important to have a lot of positives in your life. It is also important to have more positives than negatives. In fact, her research shows that in order to flourish in life, you must have 3 positive emotions to each negative one.

Positive emotions are important in that they also open people up to curiosity about, and desire for, more experiences. They orient people toward finding positive meaning in their experiences (even painful ones) and wanting new ones. This leads to growth. For instance, someone who has overcome chronic depression might appreciate their empathy for others' struggles and also feel better about their ability to notice all the good things in their life (things they might have otherwise overlooked).

Along with this, positively oriented people are motivated to alter their lifestyle in ways that will help sustain changes they've made. For instance, those who overcome depression are motivated to keep doing things that make them happier; such as exercising regularly, engaging in meaningful activities, and maintaining a social network of friends.

As wonderful as positivity can be, it also must be heartfelt - forcing or pretending to be positive can backfire. For instance, telling yourself to "be positive" when you are down can actually make you feel more depressed.  This can feel like a real conundrum- how can you genuinely feel positive when everything is looking gray?

It's precisely at such difficult times when compassionate self-awareness (a combination of self-awareness and self-compassion) can be extremely helpful. It can nurture positive emotions and, as I discussed in my last blog (Compassionate Self-Awareness, A New Concept), can provide many other benefits. It can help people be more accepting of themselves, tolerate distress better, and make progress toward self-improvement. So, though it won't solve all your problems, it can help you to feel good about you. And, it can move you in the direction of the advice Frederickson gives to create positivity. She instructs: Be open. Be appreciative. Be curious. Be kind. Be real.  To these, I would add: Be compassionately self-aware.


Dr. Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the 'relationships' expert of WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community

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