Taking a positive approach

Positive emotions – like joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration, and pride – are not just great at the time. Recent research shows that regularly experiencing them creates an ‘upward spiral’, helping to build our resources. So although we need to be realistic about life’s ups and downs, it helps to focus on the good aspects of any situation – the glass half full rather than the glass half empty.

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Positive emotions that broaden and build

For a long time, the purpose of positive emotions has been a puzzle. Although these feelings are nice to have it didn’t appear they were vital for our survival as a species. Negative emotions on the other hand, were essential – helping us when we face threat by triggering by our ‘fight or flight’ response.

When we see a ferocious animal charging at us, we feel fear and rapid changes occur in our bodies and brains. Our focus of attention instinctively narrows onto the source of danger and escape routes, and drives us to immediate, specific responses, in this case to get the hell out of the way.

But now ground-breaking scientific work is showing that positive emotions have the effect of broadening our perceptions, in much the same way that negative emotions narrow them. This broadening helps us to see more, respond more flexibly and in new ways and be more creative. It makes us more open to different ideas or experiences and we feel closer to and more trusting of others.

And it doesn’t just stop there. Feeling good in the short term can also help us feel good in the long run. The new experiences and greater openness that result from positive emotions can lead to lasting changes in our lives.

Let’s take a few simple examples:

  • A feeling of interest in something we read can lead us to learn more about a subject, leading to a fulfilling hobby or even a rewarding life’s work.
  • Finding the same things funny as someone else can lead to them becoming a close friend or even a partner.
  • Feeling joy from seeing beautiful trees in the park can put us in a positive frame of mind and make us more enthusiastic about an opportunity that comes our way.
  • So over time, positive emotions help us to build the resources that lead to happier lives, such as friends, knowledge, better problem solving and even better health. What’s more they can act as a buffer against stress and help us cope when we face difficulties. There is also evidence that positive emotions can help us recover more rapidly from, or even undo, the effects of negative emotions.

Our Positive Ratio

So just how much positive emotion do we need to get the long term benefits? Should we aim for never feeling bad? Well no, it isn’t realistic to expect never to feel negative emotions, indeed these are part of life – maybe even part of each day – but we need to get the balance right.

One useful way of thinking about happiness is that overall we need to have more positive emotions compared with negative ones. This is called our positivity ratio.

And science is now giving us some clues as to a good balance to aim for. It seems that to get the benefits of positive emotions in the longer term, we need to aim experience around three times as many of these as we do negative emotions. These don’t need to all be huge surges of joy; small instances of gently positive feelings also count.

But of course it’s not so easy. Our brains were wired the way they are a long, long time ago, when we still living in caves. Those were dangerous times and we had to be on the constant alert to even the smallest sign that our safety or survival was at risk and so we developed strong negative emotions as our internal warning system that something could be wrong.

These days most of is have lives that are significantly less dangerous than they were for our ancestors. But unfortunately our brains have not yet caught up. So we need to put conscious effort into the positive side of life. The good news is that small efforts over time can make a lasting difference. Recent research even suggests that this might even lead to lasting changes in our brains, which help to maintain the increase in our wellbeing.

Getting the balance right

Feeling positive emotions is good for us, so we can benefit by findings ways to build more of them into our lives. There’s also evidence that positive emotions are contagious and when we feel good it can also have a knock on effect on those around us. So by doing things that help us feel good, we can do others good too.

But this doesn’t mean we should just put all our energy into having fun in the here and now and forget about the stuff that takes more effort. We need a healthy balance between enjoying the moment and doing things that bring meaning and fulfilment in the longer term.

Certainly evidence shows that enjoying the moment can increase how happy we feel overall. But there are lots of different positive emotions and not all of them come from “having fun”. For example, some are feelings we get when we’re truly interested in something or have put our best effort in to achieving something. Others come from quiet moments, like a few minutes of peace and calm in an othersiwe hectic day.

Also, doing things that are fun at the time can sometimes leave us feeling bad afterwards – like those last few drinks that we regret the next morning! And often we choose to do things that can leave us feeling frustrated at the time but where we know the end result will bring us fulfilment. So we need a balance between feeling good in the short term and findings activities that bring greater happiness in the long run.