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Want to improve your life? Try "positivity."

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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 amp 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.

Try this!

There is much more to be written about this topic, especially how to get ourselves to feel and experience positive emotions more often. In fact – here’s a teaser for my next post – Fredrickson has even discovered a formula for us to live by. It turns out that a 3:1 ratio of positive-to-negative emotions not only helps us feel good, but actually can “undo” some of the effects of the negative emotions we feel.

More next week, but until then, just try this to increase your positive emotions: Notice the little things. Does petting your dog bring you joy? Then make sure you are right there in the moment with your furry friend, noticing how you feel and being okay with feeling good. Allow yourself to feel happy and content in the small things in life – it’s okay, I give you permission!

Takeaway points: Positive emotions help improve our life satisfaction by helping us to relax and by broadening our imaginations and idea-generators so that we can more easily solve problems, gather people into our support network, and grow as human beings.

Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I shouldn’t be feeling this good” or, “If I feel this good now, I’m sure to have a big let-down afterwards”?


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.