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The Benefits of Positive Emotions for Inhibiting Anger

Positive emotions help create new ways of responding to anger arousal.

Key points

  • Positive emotions expand the capacity to form novel connections between thoughts, feelings and behavior.
  • Positive emotions help to pause and choose how to respond rather than react to anger.
  • Cultivating opportunities and savoring the details can help enhance positive emotions.

How much joy, gratitude or awe do you experience in your daily life? These are just a few of the positive emotions that can guide and influence our thoughts and behavior. Like all positive emotions, including hope, optimism, serenity and inspiration, they provide us important information to help satisfy what many consider to be our three core drives—the desires for safety, satisfaction and connection.

123rf Stock Photo/Volodymyr Melnyk
Elated man
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/Volodymyr Melnyk

In the past two decades, much research has highlighted the importance of positive emotions for our overall emotional and physical well-being.

This is not about denying negative feelings with Pollyanna exuberance. Rather, it calls for cultivating activities and a mindset that help us to create, notice and savor the good rather than fall victim to a tendency to focus on the negative.

As an anger management specialist, I have observed that many of my clients report a low frequency of positive emotions. Many, especially those who have a history of ongoing anger, trait anger, are predisposed to viewing life through a filter of hostility. While the hurts that promote this tendency need to be fully explored, so does its influence on inhibiting positive emotions.

Positive emotions generate more positive emotions

Barbara Fredrickson, a key researcher in the area of positive psychology, identified the “broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” asserting that positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire (Frederickson, 2004). Such emotions allow for a broader array of thoughts, actions and perceptions to occur, thus allowing greater freedom to discover and seek new knowledge, skills and relationships. At the same time, positive emotions expand our physiological reactions to what confronts us. Consequently, they allow us to build resources for survival.

Positive emotions contrast sharply with negative emotions, like fear, shame and anger, that constrict our focus and leave us defensive, closed off to curiosity and less able to generate alternative ways of being. As such, they help us to thrive and flourish as they promote both emotional and physical well-being.

Positive emotions and anger arousal

The physiological lifespan of anger, like that of other emotions, is only 90 seconds. However, rumination regarding the perceived grievance prolongs its duration. It’s one thing to reflect on how best to manage anger, but rumination creates a mood of anger. And when such moods are excessive, we then develop “trait anger,” an ongoing predisposition to anger.

Cultivating positive emotions is an antidote to this tendency. They increase our capacity to feel safe, not in denial of genuine threats, but rather by making us less prone to experience threatened when none exist. This has been supported by research regarding forgiveness and gratitude (Garcia-Vazquez, 2020), as well as the use of positive emotion training (Dickerson, et. al., 2020).


Happiness encompasses positive affect that may derive from one or a variety of positive emotions. It is about a mind-body state. Like all such states, it is transient and ultimately fleeting. Trying to establish a heightened sense of happiness as a fixed and stable mood is like trying to catch those elusive bubbles we played with as a child. They shimmer with dazzling colors, seem to defy gravity in their lightness, draw us toward them, entice us to touch them and yet they disappear at the very moment we attempt to grasp them.

Learning to increase our happiness encompasses learning how to create and truly savor positive emotions. It is about creating more bubbles in our lives.

Savoring the good

Savoring the good calls for attending to the details of our positive emotions, whether with regard to nature, our relationships, a morning breakfast, a shower, a song, a task at work or any aspect of our daily life. It involves thinking about and being mindful of our positive emotions as well as the sensations in our body.

Rick Hanson, noted neuropsychologist and fellow PT blogger, defines taking in the good as the “…deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory” (Hanson, 2011). Taking in the good defined in this way involves “seeding” our memory with positive experiences as a way of buffering our brain against its tendency toward negative bias. Savoring the good helps to draw our attention to the details of our internal experience and with continued practice predisposes us to be mindful of such experiences. Mindfully savoring the good serves to reduce reactivity, helping our brain to become more receptive and alert to positive experiences.

Savoring in this manner expands what it means when we say take “time to smell the roses.” It encompasses being fully present with our emotions, thoughts and sensations surrounding being present with a rose. Dr. Hanson uses the acronym HEAL to describe a four-step process to achieve this goal.

H - Have a positive experience. This involves attending to the experience and accentuating the very positive emotional reward associated with doing so.

E - Enrich it. Truly feel the experience deep within your body, the fullness of its joy and how it nurtures you.

A - Absorb it. Imagine the experience being absorbed by your mind and body, picturing it as a very vivid memory and visceral experience that you can readily retrieve and re-experience at any moment.

L - Link positive and negative material (described by Hanson as being optional).

While mindfully attending to something very positive, also notice in the background something that is negative. If the negative begins to dominate your attention, evoke both self-compassion and mindfulness in order to once again focus on the positive.

This last aspect can be a valuable exercise for both strengthening the positive so as to reduce the emotional pull of the negative. I concur with Hanson regarding the need to be cautious with regard to this last component and suggest you further consult his book or seek professional support to manage practice this strategy. (It is for this reason that Hanson describes it as being optional.)

Cultivating specific positive emotions

We are fortunate to now have vast knowledge about positive emotions. We’ve come to recognize that while nature and nurture interact to influence patterns in the arousal of emotions and how we manage them, with effort and practice, we can cultivate positive emotions such as gratitude, joy, serenity, hope, pride, amusement, awe, inspiration and love. Most importantly, numerous books have been written in recent years that provide specific ways to cultivate them. The suggestions they offer are more than just armchair reflections or sound bites describing quick and easy ways to achieve it.

Cultivating positive emotions takes time, commitment and practice. After all, the brain has had a history during which to enforce negativity bias. But truly making the cultivation of positive emotions a priority can be an antidote to the propensity to anger arousal—as it boosts overall emotional and physical well-being.


Frederickson, B. (2004). The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 Sep 29; 359(1449): 1367–1378.

Garcia-Vazquez, F., Valdes-Cuervo, A., and Parra-Perez, L. (2020).The Effects of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Self-Control on Reactive and Proactive Aggression in Bullying. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 17, 5760

Dickerson, K. L., Skeem, J. L., Montoya, L., & Quas, J. A. (2020). Using positive emotion training with maltreated youths to reduce anger bias and physical aggression. Clinical Psychological Science, 8(4), 773–787.

Hanson, R. (2011) Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice as a Time. Okland, CA: New Harbinger, 2011.