Talking about positive emotions can be tricky. On the one hand, they’re obviously an enjoyable part of life, and so we want more of them. On the other hand, intentionally using the science of positive emotions feels somehow…clinical. Positive emotions are just a thing that’s supposed to happen naturally, right?

Well, not exactly. In fact, our brains have actually evolved with a strong bias toward negativity. Negative images and events catch our attention more readily and hold our attention for longer than their positive counterparts. What’s more, this effect is more exaggerated in some of us, leaving us all with different “setpoints” for positivity.1

With that in mind, is there merit to overcoming our natural negativity bias?

Study after study has shown that we not only feel better, but we also perform better when we’re in more positive states. These benefits of positive states can be divided into three main categories:

  1. Subjective experience (how we feel)
  2. Biological health
  3. Our objective performance, in just about every area of life

If you’ve ever scoffed or rolled your eyes when someone told you to “be more positive”, keep reading. Once you’re acquainted with the benefits below, you may realize there’s something to this positivity thing after all.

How Positive Emotions Make Us Feel

This first point is rather self-explanatory — positive emotions feel good. But it’s worth mentioning that “positive” means a lot more than “happy”. In fact, Barbara Fredrickson has identified 10 distinct positive emotions in her research:2

  1. Joy
  2. Amusement
  3. Gratitude
  4. Pride
  5. Hope
  6. Interest
  7. Love
  8. Inspiration
  9. Awe
  10. Serenity

We often refer to these ten emotions as JAGPHILIAS, which we then turned into this pretty graphic:

JAGPHILIAS icons graphic

You’d be hard-pressed to name an event or situation you enjoyed that didn’t rest on at least one of those ten emotions. And when you consider that list, you can start to see the value of “being more positive”. Some of those emotions are closer to the idea of “feeling good” meaning pleasure (joy, amusement, etc.). But some of them are about your satisfaction with your current life (pride, gratitude, etc.). Some have to do with your feelings of connection and belonging (love, gratitude, etc.). And some are about your vision of your future (inspiration, hope, etc.).

Taken together, “be more positive” is really a statement about finding a way to enjoy every aspect of your life a little more. Maybe that means changing your perspective, or maybe it means changing your behavior. Either way, after seeing this list, most of us would agree that we’d love to “be more positive”.

That all being said, there are a couple less obvious points worth making here.

Positive Emotions Are Contagious

We’ve probably all heard the phrase “laughter is contagious”. Well, it really is true. Positive emotions have a “broadcasting component”, meaning we feel compelled to share them.2 And when we do share them, they tend to catch on.3 Not only will more positive emotions cause us to feel good, but it will cause those around us to feel good as well!

Positive Emotions Promote Better Relationships

There’s a fascinating tool used in the study of human relationships called the “Inclusion of the Other in the Self” scale, or the IOS scale.4 Essentially, you’re asked to describe your relationship with another by selecting a pair of circles from the following diagram:

image of progressively more overlapping circles, showing the effect of positive emotions on our inclusion of the other in the self scale

What’s even more fascinating about the IOS scale is that it’s a great predictor of relationship success.5 People who selected circles with more overlap had relationships that were more satisfying and lasted longer. Further, people in more positive states report greater feelings of self-other overlap.6

To bring it all home:

  1. Experiencing more positive emotions causes you to score higher on the IOS scale
  2. Scoring higher on the IOS scale predicts relationship success
  3. Therefore, experiencing more positive emotions leads to relationship success

Positive Emotions Improve Our Biological Health

It seems like everyday someone publishes a new study about the effects of positive emotions on our health. As a disclaimer, this does not mean positive emotions can in any way replace actual medical treatment. However, it does mean that in a lot of cases, experiencing more positive emotions will help.

Here are a few effects of positive emotions on our biological health:

    • Less likely to have hypertension, diabetes, or stroke
    • Lower levels of pain (higher circulating levels of opioids and dopamine)
    • Fewer colds 7

There many more profound impacts still being researched. However, one thing is clear: positive emotions can play a role in a preventative medicine program.

Positive Emotions Improve Our Performance

Perhaps the most important benefit of positive emotions is their ability to improve our performance in life. Their effects are far-reaching; there are few areas of our lives that aren’t improved by positive emotions.

As an example of this, positivity improves facial recognition across race — they cause us to abandon divisive group identities in favor of more inclusive ones.8 And the effects go far beyond that. In fact, a meta-analysis of positivity studies showed that, regardless of whether success was measured as a satisfying marriage, larger salary, or better health, positivity mattered. Positive affect promotes skills and behaviors that create positive results, such as sociability and activity, altruism, liking of self and others, strong bodies and immune systems, and effective conflict resolution skills.9

How does positivity create these effects? One of the major mechanisms is by broadening our awareness.

Negative emotions can give us tunnel vision. When we’re angry or scared, we narrow our focus and our thinking. Our eyes fixate on small details, missing the larger picture. What’s more, our thinking becomes narrowed to a very short list of specific actions.10 In contrast, when we’re feeling positively, our awareness and thinking greatly expand.

When given a set of images, those of us in positive states scan the entirety of the selection.11 And when asked to brainstorm possible courses of action in response to a stimulus, people in positive emotional states are much more creative and open-minded, coming up with longer lists of possibilities.12 You can imagine how profoundly this could impact our ability to solve problems, where creative thinking is often critical.

Conclusion

Whether you want to feel better, be healthier, or find more success in life (however you define it), research has shown positive emotions to be a key factor. That doesn’t mean that negative emotions aren’t necessary — just that they have a time and a place. And nature has left us with a negativity bias that often works against us in modern life, which means actively developing the positive end of the spectrum will take time and effort.

Positive emotions can strengthen our immune systems, promote healthy cardiovascular systems, deepen our connections with those around us, and make us resilient to stressors. They give us a future-oriented to focus, and arm us with the open-mindedness and perspective we need to create better futures.

So we won’t tell you to “be more happy”, but we will certainly recommend that you put some effort into generating a little more JAGPHILIAS in your life.

For more information on applying positive emotions in your life, check out our previous article: What is Positive Psychology?

References

  1. Norris CJ, Gollan J, Berntson GG, Cacioppo JT. The current status of research on the structure of evaluative space. Biol Psychol. 2010;84(3):422-36.
  2. Fredrickson B. Positivity. Harmony; 2009.
  3. Wild B, Erb M, Bartels M. Are emotions contagious? Evoked emotions while viewing emotionally expressive faces: quality, quantity, time course and gender differences. Psychiatry Res. 2001;102(2):109-24.
  4. Gächter S, Starmer C, Tufano F. Measuring the Closeness of Relationships: A Comprehensive Evaluation of the ‘Inclusion of the Other in the Self’ Scale. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(6):e0129478.
  5. Aron A, Aron E, Smollan D. Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale and the Structure of Interpersonal Closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1992;63(4):596-612.
  6. Waugh CE, Fredrickson BL. Nice to know you: Positive emotions, self-other overlap, and complex understanding in the formation of a new relationship. J Posit Psychol. 2006;1(2):93-106.
  7. Pressman SD, Cohen S. Does positive affect influence health?. Psychol Bull. 2005;131(6):925-71.
  8. Johnson KJ, Fredrickson BL. “We all look the same to me”: positive emotions eliminate the own-race in face recognition. Psychol Sci. 2005;16(11):875-81.
  9. Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E. The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?. Psychol Bull. 2005;131(6):803-55.
  10. Harmon-Jones E, Gable P, Price T; Does Negative Affect Always Narrow and Positive Affect Always Broaden the Mind? Considering the Influence of Motivational Intensity on Cognitive Scope. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2013;22(4):301-307.
  11. Wadlinger HA, Isaacowitz DM. Positive mood broadens visual attention to positive stimuli. Motiv Emot. 2006;30(1):87-99.
  12. Fredrickson BL, Branigan C. Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cogn Emot. 2005;19(3):313-332.