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.

How to Cope with the Holidays

Problem #1 – “I Feel Overwhelmed!”

There is rarely enough down time during the holidays and we often feel pulled too thin. We may feel compelled to do and be everything all at once, which often leads to feeling immense pressure. This can be compounded by television and social media depicting everyone else seemingly effortlessly enjoying themselves. So what do you do?

First, know that almost everyone experiences high levels of stress during the holidays. Some feel overwhelmed financially and others feel unable to meet all the expectations thrust upon them. Know that you are not the only one.

Consider making a list of all of your to-dos. Write each down and decide which ones fit in each category:

  • Things that I have no control over and need to accept as they are
  • Things that will work themselves out with time
  • Things that I can do something about right now
  • Things that I can work on but need to wait until later

Pick the top two or three that you can work on right now and make an action plan for yourself (i.e.: what small steps can I take to address this today?)

If your worries persist, set aside a specific time each day to worry for half an hour and if your worries try to get your attention outside of that time tell them that they need to wait for their appointment.

To limit your stress, limit your commitments. Consider shortening your gift buying list or spending less time at the office party. Give yourself more time to breathe. Choose to attend just the celebrations that you are really looking forward to so that you allow yourself more time to enjoy the people and activities that you care most about.

Problem #2 – “The Holidays are Sad for Me”

For many, the holidays are a reminder of something that is lost or missing in life. This may be the first year that you spend without a loved one or you may feel far away from the people you love. Coping with loneliness and loss is a struggle for a lot of people during this time of year.

If the holidays remind you of pain or loss, it is essential to allow yourself ample time to grieve. Consider giving yourself a break from the merriment to remember the person or thing that you miss. Write a journal entry or speak to a friend who also remembers that person fondly. Don’t force yourself to feel joyful if you don’t, allowing space for sadness and absence.

Reconnect to the people with whom you do feel close. If you know that a particular day is challenging for you, consider making plans to be with people who love you on that day. If your loved ones are far away, schedule a few phone calls or write emails. You can also connect with meaningful experiences that may include prayer, meditation, or quiet reflection.

Problem #3 – “I Just Don’t Feel in the Spirit”

There’s nothing wrong with feeling like the holiday spirit eludes you. Some people just aren’t “holiday people” and sometimes even the most festive of us have a year that feels less than merry. When this happens, consider doing a quiet holiday. This might involve making minimal plans with only the most important people, not participating in gift exchange, or taking the holiday as an opportunity for quiet reflection.

If you want to feel in the spirit but you just don’t, consider turning your attention towards others in need. Call a relative who you know tends to be lonely or volunteer for an entire day at a soup kitchen or animal shelter. If you feel like you could use a fresh start in preparation for the new year, go through your clothes, shelves, and cupboards and find items to donate to charity.

There’s no one way to participate in the holidays so find what works for you.

The Season of Gratitude

This is the time of year when many of us pause to reflect on the parts of our lives that we are most grateful for. Why do we practice gratitude just once per year? How can we make this experience part of our regular lives?


Most people think that you need to be happy in order to feel grateful but, amazingly, it’s the other way around. Those who regularly practice expressing thanks tend to, over time, become happier. Gratitude can be expressed in many ways and leads to noticing the beautiful things that we may ordinarily miss, encouraging us to linger on them.

Gratitude even lessens the symptoms of anxiety and depression. When we focus on feeling grateful the parts of our brains that control stress and positive emotions are activated leading us to feel a decrease in stress and an increase in pleasure. When we act grateful we also tend to be better communicators. People like talking to you when you are gracious and it is a great way to diffuse those who are angry or resentful.

Outside and Inside

When we think of expressing gratitude we typically call to mind an image of expressing thanks out loud to another person. This is called external gratitude. When we write a letter to a loved one, say ‘thank you’ to a stranger, or smile at someone who was helpful, we are expressing gratitude externally.

There is another form of being grateful that is just as important: internal gratitude. Internal gratitude is a momentary reflection on anything we are thankful for, a chance to put the spotlight on our gifts, accomplishments, and opportunities. Internal gratitude can include taking a moment to name three things that we appreciate about our lives and noticing beautiful experiences during our day.

What’s great about internal gratitude?

  • It’s quick – take five seconds to name something that’s great in your life right now
  • You can do it anywhere
  • It’s a quick pick-me-up when you are feeling down

What’s great about external gratitude?

  • It’s a chance to do something kind for another person
  • It builds relationships
  • It takes us out of our internal worlds and builds empathy for others

The Big and the Small

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what we are thankful for. To make gratitude a part of your daily life, start small. When you are about to go to sleep, write down three things that you are grateful for from your day (internal gratitude). Some days, thinking of three things is really difficult. Here’s a starter list:

  • My ability to breathe (try taking a deep, slow breath and appreciating that feeling)
  • That I can walk and use my hands
  • My hearing and vision
  • The sun rises every morning
  • There is another person who loves me
  • My home is safe and warm

Items both big and small count. Notice that you have friends and family, access to work, and that you live in a country of opportunity and prosperity. Also notice that you saw an awesome subway performer, the sunset was incredible, and you remembered your wallet every day this week. No item is too small.

We can practice being grateful for the small things externally, too. Start to get in the habit of writing one email/text/letter every morning to someone who you love reminding them why they are special to you or thanking them for something they did. Consider making sure to thank the first stranger you come in contact with: thank the lady who held the door for you or the barista who made your coffee. If available, give to those who are less fortunate than you.

Practicing gratitude daily improves your emotional health and the lives of those around you.

gratitude, coping, depression, anxiety, positive thinking

Read more in a recent New York Times article on the topic here.