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Happiness is such a central concept in life that we don’t often pause to consider what, exactly, happiness is and why we work so tirelessly to attain it.
To many, the pursuit of happiness is not just an abstract idea but a tenet so integral to humanity that it was included in America’s Declaration of Independence, on equal footing with life and liberty. Clearly, it was considered an extremely important facet of life by the founders of America, and this pursuit seems just as relevant today as it was nearly two and a half centuries ago.
Humans as a species are constantly striving for happiness. Whether they search for it within themselves or from external sources, whether they view it as a constantly cheery disposition or as a sense of quiet contentment, humans are obsessed with happiness.
It’s no surprise, then, that positive psychology has sprung up, dedicated to the study of happiness and other positive aspects and experiences in life. It’s even less surprising that a large body of research, from within and outside of this branch, has been devoted to the application of positive emotions to the betterment of human lives.
What Are Emotions?
Emotions play a significant role in our day to day lives. Even the most logical and detached of scholars feels, and is influenced by, emotions. Like happiness, emotions are such an integral part of life that it is hard to define, let alone measure and quantify the emotions that seep into every pore of our beings, both consciously and subconsciously.
Luckily, some researchers have taken on this challenge and have been tackling these questions, although the philosophical consideration of human emotions can be traced back as far as we can see in human history. The word “emotion” can mean different things to each individual, but some commonly used definitions in research include those from Barbara Fredrickson and Michel Cabanac.
The positive psychologist Fredrickson defines emotions as “multicomponent response tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans” that are categorized in emotion families (such as anger, joy, and interest) (Fredrickson, 2001). While Cabanac explores the ambiguous descriptions and meanings of “emotion” floating in our collective consciousness and defines emotion as “any mental experience with high intensity and high hedonic content (pleasure/displeasure)” (Cabanac, 2002).
While these two perspectives on emotion have their differences, they both view emotions as complex mental responses to stimuli with an overarching valence that leans towards the positive or the negative.
Identifying Positive Emotions
With these definitions in mind, we can shift our attention to positive emotions. In Cabanac’s conception, positive emotions are easy to conceptualize: they are mental experiences with high intensity that lean towards the pleasurable end of the hedonic spectrum. In a similar vein, Fredrickson views positive emotions as good feelings that indicate human flourishing.
So, with these perspectives to draw from, we can conceive of positive emotions as mental responses that fall within a range of hedonic content and evoke a specific, positive feeling. Fredrickson has outlined ten of the most commonly experienced positive emotions (Henley, 2009), these include:
9) Awe and lastly,
These emotions are likely to strike you as desirable emotions to experience, and clearly you’re not alone in that sentiment. While most people agree that striving to increase your experiences of these emotions is a worthy cause in and of itself, many researchers also envisage desirable outcomes in the application and encouragement of these emotions.
Positive Emotions Help Us Grow
The Broaden and Build Theory, developed by Barbara Fredrickson (2001), posits that positive and negative emotions play different roles in individual processing and personal development. Fredrickson (2001) theorizes that positive emotions broaden people’s thought-action repertoires and enables effective building of personal resources, including physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources. She views positive emotions as internal signals encouraging approach behavior, motivating individuals to engage in their environments and explore novel people, ideas, and situations. The idea is that when people are open to new ideas and actions, they broaden their horizons, learn, and grow as individuals.
Further research by Fredrickson on the Broaden and Build Theory confirmed that positive emotions both lead to and result from broad-minded coping (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002), and showed that a specific positive emotion, mindfulness, increased cognitive flexibility and expanded cognitive scope, which results in a deeper capacity for finding meaning and engaging with life (Garland, Farb, Goldin, & Fredrickson, 2015).
Positive emotions have been researched extensively, finding significance and evidence to support the advocacy and application of positive emotions in our daily lives. Here’s how.
What We Gain from Being Positive
Many positive psychologists have dedicated their time and energy to learning about how applying positive emotions impacts our lives. These outcomes are not limited to one area of life, but span across every nook and cranny of the human experience; positive emotions have been successfully applied to the improvement of relationships, the workplace, therapy and counseling, the classroom, families, and to individual development and fulfillment in general (Linley, Joseph, Maltby, Harrington, & Wood, 2009).
1) Reduce Stress and Boost Well-Being
Tugade, Fredrickson, and Barrett (2004) found that positive emotions moderate the impact of stressful events on coping ability, and in turn, psychological and physical well-being. Additionally, positive emotions have been found to moderate reactivity to stress and mediate recovery from stress (Ong, Bergeman, Bisconti, & Wallace, 2006).
2) Aid Coping and Develop Resilience
One study showed that increased resilience improved the effectiveness of emotion regulation in medical students, an important skill for professionals who have patients depending on them to keep a cool head (Li et al., 2014).
Another study also found that increased resilience had a significant impact on emotional regulation, which allows individuals to bounce back from stressful events and find meaning in negative experiences (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). One program focusing on increasing resilience and other positive emotions in schoolchildren resulted in enhanced student engagement and social skills, including empathy, cooperation, assertiveness, and self-control (Seligman et al., 2009).
Alternatively, positive emotions can also lead to resilience and effective coping, which have been found to suppress depressive symptoms in Army wives (Dolphin, Steinhardt, & Cance, 2015).
3) Increase Performance and Engagement
Positive outcomes from the experience of positive emotions have been witnessed in improvements in work life, physical and mental health, social relationships, community involvement, and even in income (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).
Schutte (2014) found that positivity at work led to enhanced self-efficacy, which in turn increased job and relationship satisfaction and mental health. While another researcher discovered that positive emotions improve organizational citizenship and work engagement in employees, while decreasing negative attitudes like cynicism and deviance (Avey, Wernsing, & Luthans, 2008).
4) Make Healthy Choices
Herzenstein (2009) conducted research confirming that different positive emotions lead to different positive outcomes; for instance, happiness led to increased risk and variety seeking and enhanced gain-focused behavior, while contentment led to increased risk avoidance and loss-focused behavior. This research also showed that doctors experiencing positive emotions towards their patients tended to overestimate the health risk they were facing and offered a wider range of treatment options.
Positive psychology research has offered numerous examples of the positive outcomes associated with the application of positive emotions. It’s not always well understood how these outcomes are achieved, but Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory is promising theory to explain the impact of experiencing positive emotions.
More to Come
While we have ample studies that show the impact of positive emotions in a wide range of contexts, in some areas we have merely scratched the surface. The mechanisms and processes underlying positive emotions and their positive outcomes are not yet comprehensively understood and more research is needed on the mediating and moderating effects on positive emotions.
Fortunately, the future of the application of positive emotions is bright; with positive psychology booming we should expect an increase in evidence supporting of how positive emotions can be applied to enhance human flourishing and well-being.
There is a world of positive emotion out there, waiting to be discovered and applied in psychological research and practical settings. Positive psychologists are hard at work on these tasks and it will be interesting to see the new challenges and benefits that are revealed.
How are you applying positive emotions in your life? Have you noticed the difference? Let us know in the comment box below.
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