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Update September 2016: It’s important to keep in mind that this article does not promote the elimination of negative emotions. Negative emotions have a very important role to play in our lives, as do positive ones. A healthy balance would be something to strive for. Eliminating all negative emotions isn’t realistic or healthy.
For optimal brain functioning and wellbeing to exist, positive emotions and experiences should overshadow negative emotions and experiences.
Experimental evidence suggests that although positive and negative emotions are incompatible, they are both necessary for optimal brain functioning.
This article contains:
Positive and negative emotions
We speculate that when individuals suffering from depression and or anxiety increase their positivity ratios, an upward spiral process is set in motion, opening up an array of potential coping mechanisms.
Self-generating more frequent positive emotions over the course of 7 weeks was found to reduce depressive symptoms in a randomized control trial undertaken by Frederick et al. (2008). An affective balance that over time exceeds a 3-to-1 ratio might also override and prevent the irrational effects caused by stressful life events and mood. However, this ratio is arbitrary at best, as shown by Nick Brown, so take it with a grain of salt.
Faced with suffering and death
So we need to experience both positive and negative emotions while the positive emotions overshadow the negative ones. This brings us to the following question:
Can we experience both negative and positive emotions when faced with suffering and death?
The University of California San Francisco found, with its Coping Project, that partners who were caregivers of men suffering from AIDS, experienced both negative and positive emotions. These emotions occurred alongside each other in both the caregiving and the bereavement periods.
The project identified these four categories of positive emotion coping techniques:
- Positive reappraisal.
- Goal-directed problem focused coping.
- Spiritual beliefs.
- Practices and the infusion of ordinary events and positive meaning.
These findings have led to the need of further discussions on the coping theory. The effects of positive emotions should also be considered along with the negative emotions, the coping theory should include the negative and positive aspects rather than just focussing on distress.
The article proposes that this can be achieved through the use of three pathways:
- Meaning-based ways of coping with stress
- The functional relationship between negative and positive emotions
- The appraisal and coping techniques used to achieve the positive emotions
Be sure to check the references list below this article for further reading on this subject matter.
Intermezzo: Barbara Fredrickson on positive emotions:
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discusses her new book, “Positivity” that focuses on what positivity is, and why it needs to be heartfelt to be effective.
Also, check out Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’ s broaden-and-build theory page.
3 Tips to apply in your daily life:
- Use hope as an alternative for fear by coming up with creative solutions for fearful situations in your life. It will open up your mind and heart, instead of shutting it down.
- Track your positivity ratio daily, discover what makes you come alive and give those activities higher priority. We need 3 positive emotions for every negative emotion to stay in balance.
- Keep your negativity in check by questioning your mental habbits that fan the flames, like jumping to conclusions or ruminating.
Losing your cool
Losing your cool in a strenuous situation may inhibit your ability to cope effectively.
We all feel positive and negative emotions at some point in our lives. However, in addition to making us feel good, research suggests that experiencing positive emotions can actually improve our attentional capacity, while experiencing negative emotions can reduce it.
In comparison to experiencing neutral emotions, positive emotions broaden our scope of attention and thought-action urges, allowing us to make more informed decisions as well as providing better coping mechanisms to tackle adverse and stressful situations, as already discussed.
Known as the broaden hypothesis, a study conducted in the United states investigated this by comparing groups of students experiencing induced positive emotions and negative emotions, against students experiencing neutral emotions, respectively. Groups were individually subjected to a visual processing choice task, and results showed those experiencing positive emotions scored higher than both neutral and negative individuals.
Moreover, the effect has also been shown to be at it’s most effective when we’re feeling amused or content, which provides good news for the optimists and light hearted.
You might also like to read about Resilience in Positive Psychology.
Garland, E., Fredrickson, B. 2010. Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, pp. 849-864. View here.
Feldman, S. (1997). Positive psychological states and coping with severe stress. Social Science Medicine, 45, 1207 – 1221. View here
Frederickson, B. & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19(3), 131-332. doi: 10.1080/02699930441000238. View here.