How Positive Emotions Can Benefit You Starting Now

Linda Graham, MFT, breaks down of the research-backed benefits of positive emotions; what they are and how they can help you.

Our response to any emotion can become a gateway to resilient action. Anger fuels our fight against injustice and oppression, sadness can lead us to reach out to others for comfort and support, guilt can lead to making amends, even as joy sparks the urge to play and be creative, interest sparks the urge to explore and learn, and serenity helps us savor the goodness of life just as it is.  Dr. Psychologist Barbara Frederickson wrote, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive, to make her 20 years of research and scientific data accessible and applicable to us regular folks who want to move from languishing to flourishing.

Dr. Frederickson clearly acknowledges the inevitability, even the necessity, of negative emotions in our lives. Negative emotions can be corrective and energizing, even essential for our survival.   Modern psychology has focused a great deal of attention, in research and in treatment, on the impact of fear, anger, shame, depression, negative self-talk and judgments, on the individual human mind and heart as well as on our relationships and larger communities.   We all know how the value of negative emotions can be intensified and prolonged beyond their usefulness as signals to change course; when entrenched, they can become quite corrosive or smothering to our well-being.

Frederickson chose early in her career to focus instead on the role of positive emotions on our surviving and thriving. She found that while we evolutionarily experience negative emotions more intensely, we evolutionarily experience positive emotions more frequently, the brain’s negativity bias and the positivity offset. She further found that the ratio of positivity to negativity is the key factor in our subjective well-being.

The positive emotions Frederickson has researched to date are: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement (I find delight a more accurate term for what she describes), inspiration, awe, and love. She does state that a basic level of safety and satisfaction is required for these positive emotions to be potent in their impact. Anyone in the field of psychotherapy knows it can take a lot of effort and skill for folks to achieve that basic platform of safety and satisfaction. Nonetheless, what the dedicated cultivation of these positive emotions can lead to has merit and both subjective and scientific validity. Hundreds of studies now show:

1. Positive emotions help us feel good…and improve our physical, psychological, mental and social health:

  • positive emotions reduce stress, lower blood pressure, improve the immune system, reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and help people live longer (7-9 years longer);
  • positive emotions have a cause and effect relationship to resilience, not merely a correlation. I.e., positive emotions are not simply a reflection of resilience – the capacity to bounce back from setbacks. Positive emotions help produce resilience;
  • positive emotions change how the brain functions, making it easier to learn new skills, new points of view, new ways of being;
  • positive emotions build resonant connections with other people and help us move from “me” to “we.”

Frederickson found positivity:

2. Puts the brakes on negativity, un-does the impact of negative emotions on the body, on our thinking, on our choices; positivity helps us reset and rebound. Frederickson is clear, positivity is never about denying or suppressing negative emotions. It’s about being nimble and agile with them. We are to approach all emotions with curiosity and compassion. It’s about engaging with emotions mindfully – with awareness and acceptance – and then shifting focus to skillfully “practice” positive emotions instead, even most of the time.

3. “Broadens the possibilities of perception and response beyond the narrower range of basic survival responses. Positive emotions open the mind and heart to new ideas, new behaviors of coping, new outlooks on life. There’s more mental space for exploration and learning. Positivity expands the horizons and allows us to see the forest and the trees, to see the bigger picture more accurately, and to connect the dots in new ways. Positivity leads to more optimism, more confidence, more creativity, more collaboration with others, more spontaneous yet accurate decision making, more win-win solutions.

4. “Builds” resources to draw on long-term. Frederickson found that positivity is not a placebo with effects that are large, immediate and that may disappear, nor are the effects of positivity random or isolated. The effects of cultivating positive emotions are small, incremental, predictable, and permanent. There is a cumulative effect beyond the immediate moment of joy or interest or awe that can alter the trajectory of an entire life.

With more positivity, there is deeper self-acceptance (less shame-blame, more relaxation, forgiveness and inner peace); greater sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment; more resonant connections with others; more receptivity, flexibility and creativity; a better balance between gravity and levity; a more buoyant, dynamic, yet realistic “ready for anything” vitality; more openness to the inter-comnectedness of all of humanity; more impetus to make a lasting contribution to the larger community.

5. Positivity ratio – Frederickson worked with mathematician Marcial Losada to apply his model for predicting high performance in business teams to positivity. Like knowing at what temperature ice will turn into water or vice versa – the “tipping point” of 32 degrees Farenheit – Frederickson was curious about what ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions would tip a person’s subjective experience of well-being from “good enough” to flourishing. Chapter 7 in the book gives an elegant yet simple explanation of the research. The data indicates the positivity ratio is a consistent 3 to 1. Over the course of a day, but even more reliably over the course of a month or a year, a positivity ratio of three positive emotional experiences to every one negative emotional experience predicts thriving and flourishing in an individual. (Similar to John Gottman’s findings that five positive experiences to every one negative experience reliably predicts whether a couple will become relational masters or disasters.)

“I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”

            – Diane Ackerman

Linda Graham, MFT

Linda Graham, MFT

Linda Graham, MFT is the author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being (New World Library). Linda specializes in relationship counseling in full-time private practice in Corte Madera, CA. She offers trainings and consultation nationwide on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience.

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