The Power of Positive Emotions

We spend so much time identifying and thinking about our “negative” emotions like fear, doubt, disgust, anger, and sadness. The negative emotions play an extraordinarily important role in our lives but so do positive emotions and the positive emotions don’t get nearly as much screen time. Let’s get to know the “big ten” positive emotions.

Wait, What’s Important About Negative Emotions?

Good question! Most people assume that feeling sad or angry is a problem and it’s best to stop feeling that way and feel something good instead. Not so. The negative emotions give us important information and provide safety when needed. Anger, for example, is a defensive emotion and communicates “back up!” when you want something upsetting further away from you. Sadness elicits empathy and support when we need it most and fear keeps us from getting hit by cars by telling us “run!” when we are in danger. The negative emotions serve so many important functions that maximize safety and promote desirable boundaries. However, if all we ever felt were the negative emotions, we’d feel pretty miserable.

The “Ideal” Ratio

Some research says that people tend to function best when they experience about 3-5 instances of a positive emotion for every instance of a negative emotion. This is not to say that we should be down on ourselves if we tend to feel more frequent negative emotions, quite the opposite. There’s no need to criticize yourself instead lets consider some ways in which you can make more room for positivity.

Beyond Joy

Thinking of positive emotions usually evokes images of joy or happiness but there are ten positive emotions in all! What they all have in common is that they encourage exploration, playfulness, and creativity. The negative emotions tend to tell us to shut down but the positive emotions help us broaden our horizons.

Joy – a buoyant, playful feeling of happiness

Gratitude – recognition of one’s opportunities and gifts that often encourages giving

Serenity – a state of savoring calm

Interest – being intrigued and wanting to explore

Hope – the emotional belief that things will turn out how you want them to

Pride – recognizing accomplishments and feeling driven to dream big

Amusement – laughter at life’s guffaws and surprises

Inspiration – feeling moved to aspire to excellence

Awe – a sometimes-overwhelming recognition of what’s possible (as in noticing nature’s unbelievable beauty)

Love – deep respect and caring for another

Think Positive

If you’d like to feel positive emotions more often here’s an exercise:

Step 1: Choose a target emotion like love or serenity that resonates with you.

Step 2: Collect items (pictures, youtube clips, articles, etc.) that activate that feeling. Keep the collection somewhere that’s easy to access like in a file on your computer desktop.

Step 3: Review the contents of the file periodically and allow the target emotion to wash over you. Consider reviewing it when you are already feeling positively to savor that state. Alternatively, review the contents when you are feeling upset for a way to refocus your attention and boost your mood.

The Difference Between Happiness and Wellbeing (and Why it Matters)

We so often hear “I just want to be happy.” But what is happiness and is achieving it realistic? Furthermore, if we are not aiming for happiness, what are we aiming for?

According to most psychologists, happiness boils down to this:

hap-pi-ness: noun; the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions; synonyms: pleasure, cheerfulness, merriment, glee

Happiness is, by definition, a momentary state of being. It can ebb and flow (and even disappear) rapidly because it is based on how we are feeling right now. Happiness can seem like an objective that is always just out of reach. Merriment and glee are difficult states of being to obtain (and even more challenging to hold on to). Many of us find ourselves frustrated by never quite being able to reach the fabled land of happiness (which can then lead use further down the road of discontentment).

What if, however, we were aiming at the wrong target? Enter: wellbeing. Wellbeing is a more enduring way of experiencing yourself and the world. Wellbeing is a wealth of inner energy, strength, curiosity, perseverance, and compassion. It inspires awe and wonder. Wellbeing also allows for vulnerability, experiencing sadness and loss, taking risks, and feeling uncertain. In fact, wellbeing encourages these states as they are part of the human experience and necessary paths towards growth. Happiness might tell us to stay where we are because “Where we are is nice and why risk losing that?” Wellbeing cries “Forge ahead! There is more to be discovered!” Wellbeing knows full well that this attitude will frequently lead to bumps and bruises but that it will also lead to triumph, discovery, and expansion.

Since happiness is a “right now” state, it will always be superficial. It can be knocked out of view by something as simple as getting stuck in traffic. Wellbeing is a much deeper well from which to draw. Wellbeing allows us to consider the importance and meaning of struggle. Wellbeing encourages us to experience challenging emotions fully (as opposed to trying to avoid them). Wellbeing teaches us to consider the needs of others even when it comes at a cost to us. Wellbeing encourages us to be awestruck by beauty.

Next time we find ourselves despairing about our lack of happiness perhaps we can reconsider where we are aiming. If we embrace vulnerability and striving for meaningful pursuits we are almost guaranteed to have times of frustration, loneliness, and hurt. But we are just as likely to experience profound joy, achievement, and wonder. Wellbeing would tell us “Be patient. Struggle is part of the process.”

Next time: A Roadmap to Wellbeing: What Comprises Mental Health?