The Power of Positive Emotions

The Power of Positive Emotions

Sally Waters

It’s nice to feel good but did you know that positive emotions have big benefits, beyond just putting a temporary spring in our step? Research has shown that feeling positive emotions such as joy, awe or love can actually promote other positive outcomes, including increased resilience, being able to cope better with stress, better health and even higher income.

Much of the recent research on positive emotions centres around a theory called the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions which was developed by US professor Barbara Fredrickson in the late 1990s. In the decades since she published this theory, it has been supported with a large body of empirical studies that demonstrate just how beneficial feeling good really is.

The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions

When we feel any emotion, the result is that we want to take action. Negative emotions narrow down our focus and give us the urge to take specific physical actions. Imagine seeing a bear in the woods. We will most likely feel fear, and our urge will be to run; we don’t think about it, we just do it. We probably won’t remember afterwards what kind of a tree the bear was standing under, because our focus was simply on getting out of there.

When we feel positive emotions, on the other hand, the number of thoughts and actions available to us at that moment actually broadens. Our perspective widens and our ability to think creatively or ‘outside of the box’ increases, encouraging us to choose new ways of thinking or acting that we perhaps hadn’t considered before.

This broadening then has a knock-on effect: as we explore new ideas or different ways of doing things, this exploration causes us to build new resources. These resources can span many areas of our lives, from psychological resources like resilience, to social resources like building relationships or intellectual resources like problem solving. Importantly, these new resources last far longer than the fleeting experience of the positive emotion itself.

Take the positive emotion of joy as an example. When we experience joy, it can lead us to approach things, whether that’s in work, with a hobby or with our family, with a sense of playfulness. Playing is one of the best ways to learn and, in doing so, we acquire new skills – perhaps we master a new song on the guitar after a long time of trying (intellectual and/or psychological resources), bond more with our family (social resources) or develop more strength in our body after experimenting with sport or exercise (physical resources).

Importantly, these resources are durable; they stay with us long after we’ve experienced that original fleeting feeling of joy. Even better, as we broaden our thinking and develop new resources over time, we feel more positive emotions as a result – Fredrickson calls this phenomenon an ‘upward spiral’. Positive emotions have even been shown to ‘undo’ the negative after-effects of negative emotions by helping our bodies return to their normal state faster afterwards.

Health warning: toxic positivity

There are many benefits to positive emotions. However, it is important to note that this doesn’t mean we should only be feeling positive emotions, or we’re somehow failing if we can’t conjure up any joy or awe about a situation. Negative emotions have an absolutely vital role in our lives and should not be denied. We don’t have to be happy all the time, just recognise that feeling good does benefit us when it happens.

Positive emotions in coaching and mentoring

With positive emotions helping us access more big picture thinking, come up with innovative solutions, think more creatively and be generally happier, it stands to reason that they can also play a valuable role in helping clients achieve their goals, overcome challenges and improve their performance (which will in turn produce more positive emotions, in that upward spiral). Here are three ways in which coaches and mentors might help clients to make the most of the benefits of positive emotions:

  • Noticing. When it’s appropriate, encouraging clients to identify any positive emotions in a situation. Positive emotions are generally harder to spot than their negative counterparts – humans have an in-built tendency to focus on the negative*, and physical cues like facial expressions are more subtle when we experience positive emotions, so it’s easy for them to go unnoticed. We can ask, what went well? What was good about that? What are you proud of? When were you at your best today? or even, what makes you feel good?
  • Labelling. Getting more specific with clients around what that good feeling actually is – giving it a name or a label. Again, this is slightly harder with positive emotions as there are fewer of them but Fredrickson has developed a list of the top ten to help us. Getting more specific or granular allows us to understand and engage more fully with the emotion, enabling us to spot it (and reap the benefits of it) more easily next time.
  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love
  • Cultivating.

Offering our clients some simple techniques to actually create more positive emotions. This could include a gratitude practice such writing down three good things that happened each day**, which is effective even in the short term. Alternatively, asking clients to really intentionally focus on, or savour, specific positive experiences from their day has been shown to promote positive emotions (as well as helping to protect us from stress).

Further reading

  • If you fancy getting stuck into the research and have access to an academic database, look at Fredrickson’s original theory: Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What Good Are Positive Emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300–319.
  • Or read Fredrickson’s review of her theory and the 15 years of empirical research supporting it: Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1–53). Elsevier.
  • Alternatively, check out Fredrickson’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) Lab: *Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370. **Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.

Sally Waters uses coaching and positive psychology to help individuals who have been dreaming of doing something different in their working lives. She is undertaking an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology and is currently researching the lived experience of career changers who want more meaning in work. You can contact Sally at [email protected].

Image credit: elaudioch