Positive Emotions + How to Increase them.

Illustration by Ricardo Figuerira

Illustration by Ricardo Figuerira


You may remember from our last post entitled Defining Happiness that Positive Emotions are one of the building blocks of PERMA, which collectively work to build up our subjective wellbeing AKA our happiness. This post will look further into the P of PERMA and shed some light on how we can increase our positive emotions even in times of adversity and challenge.

Most of us are familiar with the term ‘Misery loves company’ , and I am sure just as many of us have probably had our happiness balloon deflated as a result of somebody else’s misery weighing it down. But this is not the only way misery can find company. I’ll bet my last Rolo that I am not the only one to have had one small negative event in my day lead to a domino effect of negative events. Then before you know it that one isolated negative experience has turned into one big angry bag of F***’s I shouldn’t have given. Well, there is good news! We can also experience a domino effect of positive emotions. Yes! And not only that, these accumulating positive emotions can also expand the way we think.

Here is how.

Negative events lead to negative emotions which in the moment can narrow our focus, consequently limiting the actions we take (think fight or flight). However, when we experience something positive that causes us to feel positive emotions the opposite happens. Our positive emotions broaden the way we think, and thus allows us to discover novel and different responses or actions. This theory was put forward by Barbara Fredrickson who referred to it as the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions. According to Fredrickson, feeling joy creates in us the urge to play which, builds physical, socio-emotional, and intellectual skills, and fuels brain development. Interest leads us to explore, which increases knowledge and psychological complexity (Fredrickson, 1998, 2000). What this shows us is that positive emotions can trigger an upward spiral (think of a tornado) that not only enhances our wellbeing, but also broadens our attention and cognition enabling us to be more flexible and creative.

Ok, but how does this help us when we are having a bad day, week, month or year? Well according to researchers such as Aspinall (1998), experiencing positive emotions can help us cope with stress and adversity. So, the next time you are feeling down and are in need of a positivity boost try to summon up the energy to do something that may trigger some positive emotions. Go for a walk and smile at the people you see. Smiling increases serotonin and has been shown to increase wellbeing.  Offer somebody else some help, this can work to distract you from your own negative thoughts and helping others makes us feel better about ourselves because it increases a sense of purpose and meaning. Quite simply try to engage in an activity or pastime that may trigger a positive emotion, and when it does, sit with that feeling, enjoy it and build from it. For instance if a walk in nature helps to relieve brain fog or improves your mood a little, use that time to set yourself some achievable goals. Accomplishing them will also increase your confidence and motivation. Stein, Folkman, Trabasso and Richards, (1997) reported that people who experience positive emotions during bereavement tend to develop long term plans and goals which has positive effects on their wellbeing up to 12 months later. Start small, find one way to be positive and in time you will look back and find a trail of happy dominoes.