I recently spoke to a friend of mine about how we sometimes seem to gain something from being negative, sad or angry. Although we might be aware that our negativity doesn’t serve us, we feel as if it was easier to stay there than to make the effort to get out of this state and enjoy the good life. Furthermore, the thought of feeling light, happy and successful can also scare us. In a state of prolonged frustration and negativity we might feel that we at least have a map for this terrain, at least we know how to steer ourselves through it. The thought of living up to our potential, in comparison, can feel daunting. We become comfortable being uncomfortable.
Being there, one can pose the question of why we should make the effort to try and change? What is there to be gained in feeling good? Recent research findings reveal amazing answers to this question, illuminating the role of emotions and how they affect us. Read on and be inspired.
Why do we feel negative emotions?
Negative emotions usually go alongside with a physiological response and a desire to take some sort of action. When we are scared for example, we might start sweating and feel an urge to escape. When we feel angry, our heart beats faster and we feel an urge to attack. When we feel disgust, we get goose bumps and feel the urge to expel whatever is the source of this feeling. In this way, negative emotions show us that something is wrong. They make us aware that we need to take action so that we can restore or maintain our well-being.
Throughout human evolution, these reactions to negative emotions enabled us to survive. If prehistoric people were scared and didn’t run away, they might have been killed. If they didn’t activate the resources to fight, they might have been eaten by another predator. If they didn’t spit out disgusting food, they might have died through poisoning.
When negative emotions signal a threat, the rational part of the brain (Neocortex) shuts down, while the instinctual reptilian complex of the brain takes over. This leads to only a few fast, automatic reactions. We simply do not have the time to explore and think for too long when things are not right. If you remember having tried to solve a problem under high pressure, like in a job interviews for example, you will know how that feels. You can not think clearly, only to get the answers right after the interview (in other words, when the danger is over).
In modern society where life and death situations are rare, undealt negative emotions usually have long-term consequences. If we do not act, fear and anxiety can lead to phobias, anxiety disorders or stress-related illnesses. Anger which is not dealt with is a factor leading to heart disease and even some cancers.1,2 Sadness and grief can develop into a depression with all its negative effects, the worst one being suicide. In one way or another, the price to pay is high.
Why do we feel positive emotions?
To date, the role of positive emotions has been studied far less than that of negative ones. The consequences of psychological suffering seemed much more of a pressing problem than the potential benefits of happiness. In the 1990’s, Barbara Fredrickson was one of the pioneers of exploring this field.
In one of her experiments, she placed medical doctors randomly in one of three groups. Group 1 received candy as a gift from her, group 2 read an article about medicine and group 3 was simply a control group. Then she presented all of them with a case of liver disease which was very hard to diagnose. She asked them to think out load as they were making their diagnosis. Looking at the results, she realized that the group which had received the candy did best: they named the liver disease earliest and got to their conclusion through the most efficient thinking process. She proposed that this effect was due to the fact that the candy brought those doctors in a good mood, which, in return, improved their thinking abilities.
Across countless studies, she was able to show that feeling positive makes people think differently in comparison to those who felt negative. She proposed that positive emotions improve our thinking since they are not linked to threats requiring quick action.
If we want to understand how this makes evolutionary sense, we can start by looking at children and the offspring of other mammals. A positive emotion, like joy for example, makes children want to play and to be playful. Although it might look aimless sometimes, play drives brain development and promotes the learning of skills. Physical skills are developed and practised in rough-and-tumble play, cognitive skills are developed when they play with objects, and social skills are developed in their interactions with each other. Over time, play builds children’s physical, intellectual and social resources.
Whether we are aware or not, as adults we are actually not far off. When we are in a good mood, we often get creative and do things we enjoy, such as drawing, reading, learning a language, gardening, making music or doing sports. These are forms of intellectual, social and artistic play through which we too learn new skills and strengthen bonds.
Modern Neuroscience proves this today and declares that a playful, relaxed environment is most ideal for the brain to learn2 (a realisation which is unfortunately still ignored in most traditional training and education).
Now, how did feeling positively lead to a reproductive advantage in evolution? Because the resources we acquire through play are durable, and can be used long after the experience of joy is gone. Think of the ability to outmaneuver a predator, having a mental map for way finding, or the option to turn to someone for help when in distress. Those of our ancestors who played and learned most, were the ones most likely to survive and to couple with the best suitable mates.
The Broaden and Build Theory
Based on these observations, Fredrickson formulated the Broaden and Build Model4. In summary, this theory proposes that positive emotions lead to flexibility in thinking and creativity, which helps us to see more options for action in our current situation (broadening). The purpose of positive feelings is to build a person’s intellectual, physical and social skills and resources in successful times when there are no imminent threats. Simply put, positive emotions open us up to new thoughts and behaviours which we can use later, in other contexts and emotional states. In this sense, feeling positive emotions does not only feel good, but also causes better interaction with the world. We simply function better.
This is an overview of the effects of positive and negative emotions:
Looking at the table, it becomes clear that positive emotions do not only let us feel better in a passing moment. The feeling of happiness has the potential to improve who we are in each area of life. Everything we do to experience joy, perhaps through play or socialising, can yield psychological benefits that help us to builds resources for life’s challenges. Most recent studies even indicate that positive emotions undo the effects that past negative emotions had on us5. In this way, they protect us against psychological disorders and promote mental health.
In western culture, historically, hard work and self-discipline have been seen as values, while leisure and pleasure were seen as sinful. This might be a reason why we know quite little yet about this potential for personal growth that lies in positive emotions.
What is crucial to recognize though, is that positive and negative emotions are fundamentally incompatible because we can not feel both at the same time. We have a choice in every moment. Seeing that we are meant to build resources in safe times, by playing, exploring and socialising: Do you life in safe times currently? Then ask yourself what can you do to uplift your mood and schedule it into your diary or start right away. Shift towards feeling joyful by seeing life more as a game. There is much less to fear than we think, and much more to gain than we can imagine. We need to overcome our fears and laziness. And please share your experiences in the comment’s section.
1 Eysenck, H. J. (1994). Cancer, personality and stress: Predictions and prevention. Advances in Behavioral Research and Therapy, 16, 167–215.
2 Greer, S., & Morris, T. (1975). Psychological attributes of women who develop breast cancer: A controlled study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 19, 147–153.
3 Davachi, L., Kiefer, T., Rock, D. & Rock, L. (2010). Learning that lasts through AGES. Neuroleadership Journal, 3, 1-11.
4 Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300–319.
5 Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effects of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion, 24, 237-258. Read here.
Fredrickson, B. Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being. Prevention and Treatment, Volume 3, Article 0001a. Read here.