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.
Action for Happiness claim:
“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.”
Fight or flight
We have known for a long time that our negative emotions are essential – helping us when we face threats by triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response. Positive emotions on the other hand have been more hotly debated in their use, as although nice to have they haven’t been proven to be vital in our survival as a human species.
We feel fear when we see a ferocious animal charging at us and rapid changes then occur in our bodies and brains. Our focus of attention instinctively drives us to immediate specific responses, in this case, to get out of the way!
But now some ground-breaking research is showing that positive emotions have the effect of widening our perceptions, in much the same way that negative emotions narrow them. This widening helps us to respond more flexibly and see more. It can open us up to different ideas or experiences and we feel closer to and more trusting of others.
For example, when we find the same things funny as someone else, this can lead to them becoming a close friend or even a partner.
So over time, positive emotions help us to create the building blocks that lead to happier lives with friends, knowledge, 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.
Overall we need to have more positive emotions compared with negative ones to equal happiness. This is called the positivity ratio.
It isn’t realistic to never feel negative emotions, after all, these are part of life, they help us to cope, understand and navigate through what life throws at us. But we need the get the balance right.
Scientists are now giving us some clues as to a good balance to aim for. We should look to experience around three times as many positive as negative emotions. This is to get the benefit of positivity in the long term, they aren’t meant to be huge intense rushes of emotion, but can be small occurrences of gentle positivity.
Life is significantly less dangerous than they were for our ancestors these days of course, however, 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.
Fun, fun, fun?!
It seems obvious that fun is involved in feeling good and therefore positive emotions. However, as powerful and contagious as it is to inject fun into the here and now we should also think about the future and the things that may take a bit more time, like achievements. Fulfillment in the long term brings meaning, pride and deep emotions that help us to feel good about ourselves.
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 into achieving something. Others come from quiet moments, like a few minutes of peace and calm in an otherwise hectic day.
So we need a balance between feeling good in the short term and finding activities that bring greater happiness in the long run.
What makes you feel good?
We asked some of our friends to tell us what made them feel good both immediately and more long-term, here is what they said!
- Dancing around the kitchen when I make dinner!
- Teaching my dog tricks in the park!
- The big hug I get when I pick up my son from nursery!
- Committing to my local dance keep fit class and seeing the results 6 months down the line!
- Organising my Mum’s surprise 60th party and the anticipation of how much I hope she will love it!
- All the hard work I put into my career, from degree level to further educational classes, and what the future will bring because of my dedication!
- Getting together with my girlfriends and laughing all night long!
- Seeing my daughter become a kind, loving and funny young woman and thinking I had a little to do with it!
- Going for a run when I really don’t feel like it at the beginning but feel wonderful achievement at the end!
- Being good all week so I can eat a pizza in front of a funny film cuddled up with my partner!