Note: This is a guest post by Stu of Improved Lives.
In most of the personal growth advice you will read, positive emotions are considered the goal. We think to ourselves, ‘I'm going to do this, this, and this and that will make me happier, more optimistic, and more outgoing.'
And you know what, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there are many, many different techniques, exercises, and strategies that you can use to achieve those goals.
The best way to achieve those ends would probably elude you though, because it is so simple, most of us don't even think about it.
It turns out that one of the best ways to build up and create positive emotions is by having positive emotions.
Like most of the really useful techniques and exercises in personal growth, this comes from psychology. The theory is called the Broaden and Build theory, and it's a fairly simple one.
Negative Emotions Lead to more Negative Emotions
Because of the way our brains are wired up, negative emotions tend to cause restricted, short term survival oriented behavior. For anyone familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs, another way to put this would be to say that negative emotions tend to make us focus on the two bottom levels of the hierarchy, which are:
Safety needs – safety of our job, of our body, of property, and our immediate health
Physiological needs – concern for food, water, sleep, and breathing
The really important thing to understand is that this focus feeds on itself in a positive feedback loop. That means that focusing on negative emotions will make you focus even more on negative emotions, and your focus will slide farther and farther towards the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
It's a vicious cycle that a lot of people struggle to escape from.
Positive Emotions Lead to more Positive Emotions
The good news though is that positive emotions work in the same way, which is where the broadening and building comes in.
When we experience positive emotions, our brains lose that narrow focus, the horizons of our mind expand, and we experience varied and novel thoughts and actions which encourages us to explore the world.
And just like negative emotions, positive emotions build on themselves. So experiencing positive emotions leads to more positive emotions and an even broader view of everything around us. This build up of positive emotions affects many, many different areas of our lives. Here are just a few examples.
The Benefits of Positive Emotions
The Broaden and Build theory shows that positive emotions build:
- Attention and Focus – When we're experiencing negative emotions we tend to ‘miss the forest for the trees'. When we are experiencing positive emotions, our attention and focus are broadened and deepened.
- Scope of Cognition – Positive emotions cause us to see more interconnection in the world, be more flexible in our thinking, and see more relation and integration in our thoughts and ideas. All these things add up to a big increase in creative thinking.
- Better Relationships – Unhappy couples tend to interact in structured, predictable, and rigid ways. In contrast, happy couples interact in more unpredictable, natural, flowing way. Additionally, happy couples actually build up a surplus of positive sentiments for their partner and their marriage. This surplus acts like a buffer against negative emotions and conflict.
- Resilience to Negative Emotions – Positive emotions actually help to override negative emotions. It has been shown that “individuals who express or report higher levels of positive emotion show more constructive and flexible coping, more abstract and long-term thinking, and greater emotional distance following stressful negative events.”
The benefits of positive emotions are clearly varied and extremely substantial. The next thing we need to look at is how to bring more positive emotions into our lives.
4 Ways to Create Positive Emotions
There are many excellent ways to bring positive emotions into our lives. Here are just a few that research has shown to be particularly effective:
Do Relaxation Techniques – Relaxation techniques includes things like meditation, yoga, and muscle relaxation exercises. The primary positive emotion associated with relaxation techniques is contentment. Contentment is particularly good for reversing negative emotions and building resilience to negative emotions.
Find Positive Meaning – Finding positive meaning works in three different ways:
Reframing adverse events in a positive light (also called positive reappraisal)
Infusing ordinary events with positive value
Pursuing and attaining realistic goals
The trick to finding more positive meaning in your life is to just be constantly mindful of it. Evaluate every situation you're in and try to apply those three ways to find positive meaning. The payoff is that people who find a lot of positive meaning in their lives will experience more of the whole range of positive emotions.
Just Smile – Our brains don't know the difference between a real smile and a fake smile, so when you fake a smile, your brain responds in the same way (releases the same ‘happy chemicals') that it would if your smile had been genuine. So even faking positive emotions can have a real, positive impact.
Do Something you Love – Some of my favorites are playing soccer, reading, and cooking. These things relax me, make me feel good, and let me forget about the world for awhile. Everyone's favorites will be different and unique. Make sure you know what your favorites are and make sure they are always close at hand.
Remember that positive emotions are only one half of the equation. Negative emotions can be a serious detriment to any progress you make with positive emotions, so be sure to squash negative emotions as they come and replace them quickly with something more positive
– Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being (pdf) by Barbara L. Fredrickson.
– What Good Are Positive Emotions? (pdf) by Barbara L. Fredrickson.
This is a guest post by Stu, who writes about how to use psychology for personal growth over at Improved Lives. He is the author of posts such as 112 Quick and Easy Personal Growth Exercises and 5 Happiness Boosting Exercises: Which Ones Work and Which Ones Don't Do Anything.