Positive emotions have a long-lasting effect on your psychological well-being and lead to flourishing – the ability to thrive and grow. Not only do they feel good in the moment, but they are worth cultivating as a way toward improved well-being.
“Positivity opens us. The first core truth about positive emotions is that they open our hearts and our minds, making us more receptive and more creative.
“Positivity transforms us for the better. This is the second core truth about positive emotions. By opening our hearts and minds, positive emotions allow us to discover and build new skills, new ties, new knowledge, and new ways of being.” [Fredrickson 2009]
Broaden and Build
Barbara Fredrickson was one of the first Positive Psychologists I encountered. Martin Seligman referenced her work a number of times in Authentic Happiness and described the profound impact she had on his thinking about positive emotion. She was the first recipient of the $100,000 Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, awarded for the best work in Positive Psychology by a scientist under 40. [Seligman] Based on Seligman’s reference, I immediately purchased and read Barbara Fredrickson’s book, Positivity. It was an excellent introduction for me to the concept of building the skills that help you flourish.
Fredrickson’s seminal work is the “broaden and build” theory. The two “core truths” of the theory are presented in the opening statement. Negative emotions narrow our focus to a specific set of behaviors – fear makes us want to run, anger makes us want to fight, disgust makes us want to throw up. These emotion / behavior connections likely had an evolutionary effect, giving us a better means of survival in a hostile environment. [Fredrickson 2001]
How Positive Emotions Improve Us
Positive emotions, on the other hand, have the capability to broaden our perspective, allowing us to develop creative solutions, enhance our relationships, and bounce back quickly from adversity. Rather than evoking specific behaviors, positive emotions open us to a wide array of possible thoughts and actions. Fredrickson’s theory is that the ability to express positive emotions also has an evolutionary effect. Our ancestors who developed these positive qualities and skills built emotional reserves that they could draw on when faced with threats. They were thus more likely to thrive, to procreate and pass along their genetic traits.
Positivity is not merely the notion of being happy in the moment. The positivity we are considering comprises the deeper emotions of joy, contentment, interest, achievement, and love. The ones that lead to a state of thriving and flourishing. These emotions “broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, widening the array of the thoughts and actions that come to mind.” [Fredrickson 2001]
The resources that we build during times of positive emotion are durable. They last far longer than the emotions themselves. This allows us to build reserves that we can draw on later when we need them.
Positive Emotions Lead To Flourishing
Evidence from research into the Broaden and Build theory shows a number of ways positive emotions are beneficial and lead to flourishing and heightened well-being.
- “Positive emotions broaden thought-action repertoires.” [Fredrickson 2001] We become more creative and our focus broadens.
- “Positive emotions undo lingering negative emotions.” [Fredrickson 2001] This includes quicker recovery from physical symptoms, for example shallow breathing and rapid heartbeat, brought on by negative emotions.
- “Positive emotions fuel psychological resiliency.” [Fredrickson 2001] This allows us to build reserves to draw on during times of adversity and helps us to cope better and bounce back more quickly.
- “Positive emotions build psychological resiliency and trigger upward spirals toward improved emotional well-being.” [Fredrickson 2001] Studies indicate that positive emotions lead to better coping skills. And better coping skills increase positive emotions such that this building on each other creates an upward spiral, increasing and enhancing well-being.
Choosing Happiness And Positivity
How can you put these ideas to use to build your own upward spiral of positivity? We can influence our happiness / positivity – a better term is “well-being” – by taking specific actions.
Here’s one way to begin. Take the Person Activity Fit Diagnostic It’s a bit complicated so follow the instructions carefully.
Once you have your top 4 activities with the highest Fit scores, go to TheExceleratedLife.com and download The Happiness Hundred: 100 Things You Can Do Right Now To Increase Your Feelings Of Happiness.
You can choose from your top 4 Fit scores and find suggestions for activities to improve your positivity in those areas. (Alternately, skip the diagnostic and select from the 100 items the ones that appeal to you right now.)
Aim to do one new activity each week. This keeps the positive feelings growing and avoids hedonic adaptation, the tendency to drop back to your happiness base line.
Take Control Of The “Forty Percent”
Any of the activities help boost your positivity but the diagnostic pinpoints areas that you are already inclined to. Research shows that you can boost your positivity by as much as 40% by engaging in activities that increase positive emotions. [Lyubomirsky]
Consider the benefits accrued from experiencing positive emotions that the Broaden and Build theory demonstrates: enhanced creativity and a broader focus, better resiliency and quicker recovery from negative emotions, improved coping skills and deeper psychological and emotional reserves. Time invested in these activities, a little each day or each week, provides a great return.
Re-Wiring For Positive Emotions
You and I are seemingly “wired” toward negativity – it is what helped our ancestors survive in a hostile world. Today, however, there isn’t a large possibility that we’ll be eaten by saber-tooth tigers or attacked by a warrior tribe.
We are also “wired” to crave fat and sugar to avoid starvation in lean times . . . although today starvation is seldom a threat to most of us.
These are evolutionary practices that no longer serve us. Fortunately, we can use the executive function of our brains to override these tendencies from the more primitive parts.
As the Broaden and Build theory states, experiencing positive emotions and their effects has an evolutionary basis as well. “Positivity opens us.” And “Positivity transforms us for the better.” We can’t avoid the negative emotions that are part of our lives, nor do we want to. They sometimes provide a necessary and useful function. But we can take steps to counter the downward pull they have on us.
What steps can you take today to begin building your own positivity reserves? Positive emotions produce flourishing and well-being. And that is embracing the Excelerated Life™!
Excelerated positivity ™ — building the skills in positivity that help you flourish — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Fredrickson, Barbara. “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions.” The American Psychologist, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2001, April 5, 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122271/.
Fredrickson, Ph.D., Barbara, L. Positivity. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2009
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How Of Happiness. New York: Penquin Books, 2007
Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002