Positive Emotions: You Think You Know, But You Have No Idea
In an attempt to be completely honest and vulnerable, I want to share that I’m going through a tough time emotionally.
It’s a big transition period for me, which is exciting, but hard. I know deep down that this time of my life is simply the start of something new and exciting. Nonetheless, there are many unknowns ahead. The feelings I’m wading through right now aren’t easy; I have negative emotions far more than positive emotions these days.
I’m sharing all of this because I’m working on being more honest with myself and others about how I’m feeling. I’ve made this honesty part of my awareness practice, which helps me shift my attention from ruminating over what’s wrong and focus on the steps I’m taking to get myself back on track, feel more aligned and reconnect to myself. I know I’m shedding parts of my old self so I can welcome in the new and step into who I’m meant to (and want to!) be.
It’s True: We Teach What We Need to Learn
My recommitment to a strong awareness practice validates the common saying that we teach the lessons we ourselves need to learn. So, in the spirit of this wise message, I want to introduce some relevant positive psychology research by Barbara Fredrickson on positive emotions. Fredrickson’s research provides a “how” for overcoming, or at least lessening, the grip of negative emotions. Before I do that however, I want to remind you that we need to honor both the positive and negative parts of our lives. As Francis Bacon once said, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present”. One can’t exist without the other.
It is often those times of darkness that help us appreciate the light that much more.
Remember: The Good Can’t Exist Without the Bad!
I bring this point up again because I don’t want you to walk away from this post thinking you should only focus on positive emotions. It’s common to receive advice to focus on the good as a solution to our problems, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and a message that I share with others too!), but it has to be taken in the right context.
It can be frustrating – even irritating – to receive advice that implies you should ignore what you’re struggling with and see the world through rose colored glasses. I’ve felt this way a lot lately; I’ve been reminded of how hard it can be to focus on the good when the going gets tough. If it’s hard for you too, I hope my story reminds you that no one – and I mean no one – is perfect. We are all in this together.
Let’s Talk About Our Emotions
Both positive and negative emotions are momentary by nature. Nonetheless, emotions don’t always feel fleeting. They may arise quickly in response to a thought or event, but they can also have a lasting effect on our beliefs, decisions and actions. Our emotions thus directly impact how we live our lives.
Psychology research on emotions has historically been reserved for negative emotions, but the rise of positive psychology has led to a surge in research on positive emotions – what they are, how they work and how we can use them to our advantage. Professor Barbara Fredrickson is one of the pioneer researchers on positive emotions, best known for her Broaden and Build theory.
What the Research Says: Broaden and Build Theory
Through the Broaden and Build theory, Fredrickson explains that positive emotions broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, which build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical (cardiovascular health!) and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources (resilience!). In other words, positive emotions broaden our awareness, which opens us up to more possibilities and sparks our creativity. Positive emotions expand our peripheral vision, helping us see more and capitalize on the opportunities around us.
Research also shows that negative emotions have the opposite effect. Negative emotions cause us to narrow our beliefs and prevent us from seeing multiple outcomes or opportunities when presented with a problem. Consider our fight or flight (survival) mechanism, for example. When your body thinks you’re at risk and signals the negative emotion of fear, your immediate reaction is to run. There’s no time for considering the various possible outcomes or whether or not the risk is real; we experience a tunnel vision of sorts and take immediate action accordingly. This is beneficial (and necessary!) in a threatening situation, but this type of limited thinking holds us back in less dire circumstances.
Positive Emotions and the Power of Possibility
Now that you understand more about the power of our emotions and the way they can shape our outlook and actions, I want to introduce one last principle: The Positivity Ratio. The positivity ratio explains that our negative emotions are more impactful than our positive emotions.
Put simply, we need many positive emotions to outweigh the effects of a single negative emotion.
The initial ratio of 3:1 positive to negative emotions has recently been disproven empirically, but the general premise of the research still stands. In order to fully process and absorb the meaning of the positivity ratio, I like to reference a helpful analogy I picked up from one of my teachers. Think of negative emotions as rocks and positive emotions as feathers. If placed on a scale, you’d need far more feathers than rocks to balance things out or tip the scale in positivity’s favor!
Here’s What You Need to Remember
I’m a big fan of understanding the “why” before I act. In order to make sure you fully grasp the meaning of this research and how you can apply it to your life, I’ve summarized what I feel are the key takeaways below:
- Next time you get frustrated when someone tells you to focus on the positive, remind yourself there’s empirically proven research behind this advice. When done in the right context, focusing on the good causes an increase in positive emotions, which can have a profound impact on your lives and the way you see the world.
- If you feel stuck and can’t seem to find any sort of solution, your emotions may be to blame. Positive emotions help us see that there are many potential ways to deal with a problem, whereas negative emotions do the exact opposite.
- Both positive and negative emotions have a significant impact on our thoughts and actions, yet we have to be aware of the power dynamics between the two. We need far more positive emotions than negative emotions to break the hold of negative emotions, thoughts and feelings (remember, feathers vs. stones!). Finding ways to spark more positive emotions throughout the day (micro-resilience!) is key to maintaining longstanding happiness.
Take some time to let all of this sink in. I’ll share some of my favorite ways to boost positive emotions in my next post; but in the interim, I’d love to hear your favorite techniques!
In the upcoming months, I’ll explain micro-resilience in more detail and show how it can be applied to the six pillars of wellness – thoughts, feelings, actions/behaviors, eating, movement and sleep – in bi-monthly blog posts. Click here or enter your name and email below if you’d like to be kept in the loop for upcoming posts and all things micro-resilience.
About The Author
As a former marketing strategist and avid reader, Sofia Adler is a lover of storytelling (especially the stories we tell ourselves). Sofia graduated from Colgate University with a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and is currently getting a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Education with a concentration in Spirituality and Mind/Body practice from Teachers College, Columbia University (expected December 2018). Sofia is a 200-hour RYT yoga instructor specializing in vinyasa and restorative practices and has participated in multiple yoga philosophy trainings.
Sofia has completed an array of additional courses and workshops on coaching, mindset and the spirit, mind and body connection, all of which have influenced her coaching approach and style.
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