Imagine you are walking alone in a forest. You look to your right and then you see a footprint in the mud. It’s not a human footprint. It’s a bear’s footprint.
This is not a fictional scenario I made up to introduce you to the psychology of emotions. I was that person on a hike in Yellowstone National Park. The surge of adrenalin fuelled by fear prepared me for what’s known as the fight-or-flight response.
That’s the reason that negative emotions impact us so viscerally. Now the problem with bears is that what my body really strongly compelled me to do is just not such a great idea when dealing with bears. Fighting a Grizzly was clearly not on my bucket list but I was in no position to outrun this bear or any other bear for that matter.
Instead the signs throughout the national park said that you had to be loud and make sure the bear hears you from far enough to be able to walk away. In case the bear decided to check you out you should make yourself huge and stand your ground.
There probably never was and never again will be a more terrified rendition of the Beatles’ song Yellow Submarine because despite my karaoke prowess when your body tells you to shut up and make yourself small it’s quite hard to sing. I consoled myself with knowing that at least I had a way of solving my underwhelming physical height: a tripod that I could hold over my head and make me into a weird and big mutant in the eyes of the bear.
This example is pretty typical and illustrates what happens when a brain is soaked in negative emotions: you zero in on one problem, in this case how to fend off a bear attack. You feel alert and nothing but the present matters. But what happens with positive emotions? Why do we have those?
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How About Positive Emotions?
Experiencing positive emotions according to Barbara Fredrickson, the most prominent expert in the field of positive emotions, has the opposite effects of what I just described:
you feel good and your mind broadens instead of focusing on one issue.
This has physical effects, which can be measured by examining changes in breathing, pulse, blood pressure and hormone levels among other things.
These physiological changes impact how your brain works and help you prevent or reduce negative emotions and more importantly the physical effects of experiencing negative emotions. This has consequences for the present moment as well as for the future.
Positive Emotions Change Your Brain
Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory states that positive emotions change your brain in two ways: at the moment of experiencing the emotions and in the future. In the moment positive emotions broaden your mind: you become more creative and more open to different options. Depending on the specific emotion there are more momentary benefits such as relaxation, feeling invigorated or playful.
These feelings propel you to engage in particular behaviours, such as exploring your surroundings or engaging in relationship building. As a result you learn something new, forge new relationships or deepen existing ones, all of which become resources, which build upon each other to form psychological resources.
You might be thinking that this is all very well but you are not that kind of person to easily feel positive emotions. Maybe you can’t help but notice the things that go wrong and because you care, things bother you. The good news is that positive emotions can be cultivated in an authentic way.
This is an important point: it’s not about fake-smiles, swallowing down your anger or pretending there is hope, when you feel anything but hopeful. Instead positive psychology exercises aim to make you more aware of existing positive emotions, teach you how to appreciate and as a result savour them. Sometimes you can even decide to consciously return to these moments by looking at pictures or reading letters.
If you still feel some resistance towards the idea of trying exercises to feel more positive chances are that you:
- Feel at some level that happiness is shallow and happy people are annoying.
- Don’t believe that you can really change.
- Might be afraid what other people think.
A Common Misconception About Happy People…
Happy people don’t bounce to work high-fiving everyone who passes them. Happy people feel down too. The annoying people are the ones hiding behind smiley masks. Engaging with your emotions through the lens of positive psychology means that you become better at noticing whispers of gratitude and serenity, the honesty to enjoy feelings of pride without fearing that this will turn you into a narcissistic jerk and the confidence to chose hope.
It’s about a whole range of positive emotions and that does not get boring. Consider the range of positive emotions that exist: serenity, amusement, interest, pride or love are just a couple of examples. What triggers each of these emotions, how they feel and how they are expressed differs. Happy people can experience all of these emotions and more, more often and with more intensity.
If you think about changing yourself and it seems hard, chances are that you have forgotten lots of ways that you have changed for the better and instead keep reliving the few things where you failed to change. Change can be hard because your brain is wired to do very efficiently what it has practiced over the years.
Try making your tea in a completely different way than you normally do. It’s likely that it will be surprisingly challenging. However your brain cells have no inbuilt resistance to doing certain behaviours. It is about building new pathways while slowing down existing ones. You don’t expect to be able to run a marathon after training for three days and the same is true for working on your emotions.
Another common problem that keeps people from attempting all kinds of change is the fear that people might perceive you as faking it. But that’s how humans learn. You were faking to walk before you could actually walk. You scribbled before you could write. And there was a time when you had no idea what to do with your mobile phone.
If you are still unsure you can maybe try out your new improved emotional responses and expressions with people you meet. They don’t know how you acted before so to them it won’t be weird.
Top 10 Positive Emotions
The first step towards working with your emotions is identifying them. Fredrickson mentions ten positive emotions:
Which emotions do you experience frequently? Can you remember one instance for each positive emotion mentioned? Where are you and who is with you when that happens? Which emotions do you trigger in others? Knowing what’s going on is always helpful to make sure that you can use what’s working when expanding your skill-set.
One fun way of working with your emotions is listening to music. Music is often used in research to put people in a particular frame of mind. Try it yourself. Go through your favourite playlist and figure out which emotions your top 10 songs trigger in you. If you are feeling really energetic you could make emotions playlists, based on the ones mentioned above or others.
Which Emotions Would You Like to Experience More?
Did you try the suggested exercise or a similar one? If yes write your comments below, I would love to hear from you.