Positive emotions: A guide to increase your quality of life

Positive emotions: The pursuit of your favorite activity, hearing a great speech that inspires us or simply laughing with your friends all cause an increase in positive emotions in the person experiencing these situations. The same emotions can be felt, when you witness your friends, your partner, your family or even strangers being exposed to such emotions. You help someone carry the heavy shopping bags, and you harness the positive emotions from the person you are helping as well. Today we know positive emotions to also having beneficial effects on your body. In this article, we will show you how anyone can enhance their positive emotions kicking off an upward spiral leading to a variety of beneficial consequences.

Positive emotions felt when looking at a sunset or sunrise
Positive emotions

What are positive and negative emotions?

For many years, psychology has devoted time to studying negative emotions including depression, anger, sadness, anxiety, and stress. Negative emotions are interesting as they are a good indicator of the development of psychological disorders. The dedication to studying positive emotions has however been neglected as they are thought to not produce long-term effects. According to research, however, long-term effects are indeed seen, if we are exposed to positive effects. Only recently have psychologists begun to study the consequences of positive emotions on our personality.

To give an overview of which emotional states are considered positive emotions, take a look at this list:

  • Joy: a general feeling of great pleasure and happiness
  • Gratitude: the quality of being thankful
  • Serenity: a state where an individual is calm and peaceful
  • Interest: the desire to learn about something or someone
  • Hope: an expectation and desire for something to occur
  • Pride: when a person experiences pleasure from his own achievements or from others
  • Amusement: a state when someone finds something particularly funny
  • Inspiration: a process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something
  • Awe: a state of feeling respect or amazement when you are faced with something wonderful
  • Love: to be romantically or sexually attracted to a person
  • Altruism: to show unselfish concern for other people’s welfare
  • Satisfaction: the pleasure when you got something you sought
  • Relief: the feeling when something unpleasant has not happened or is not happening anymore

Health and positive emotions

Positive emotions not only make us experience happiness but also have positive effects on our body and the mind. How does this work and how did we find this out?

To answer this, a study was performed investigating how positive emotions affect physical health. The hypothesis was positive emotions to have, just like a healthy diet, positive consequences for our physical health.
One group was asked to perform the so-called loving-kindness meditation. The other group, the control, was told to be on a waiting list. Past research has shown this kind of meditation to trigger positive emotions in the individuals while this technique is performed. Feelings such as love, compassion, and goodwill were generated by the practitioners themselves.

The way both groups differed was in vagal tone. Vagal tone measures the activity of the vagal nerve, an indicator of the body’s ability to relax. It is a crucial element in the parasympathetic nervous system being in charge of controlling our internal organs (the lungs, the digestive tract, the heart, etc.) on a subconscious level. This delicate control of our organs is essential if one wants to achieve a feeling of calmness and bliss. Such state can only be achieved if the vagal tone of the individual is high, then positive emotions are also felt.

Coming back to the two groups, where one performed the meditation and the other waited, an improved vagal tone and more positive emotions were seen in the meditation group when compared to the control group. Additionally, the meditation group reported to be generally happier with their lives and showed fewer depressive symptoms than before the meditation training began.

The impact of feeling positive emotions on our behavior

As we saw, positive emotions trigger both physiological and psychological effects, therefore it is not surprising to hear that these feelings also have a large effect on how individuals behave. If we all were to experience positive emotions, we would all be able to broaden our mind with the consequence of turning our attention away from us but toward others. As humans, we are very prosocial creatures and we can use our qualities to increase social, cognitive and physical resources. This is especially advantageous when it comes to dealing with general problems (e.g. threats) we might encounter in the future. At the same time, not only do positive emotions affect behavior but vice versa. We generally experience happiness when we engage in prosocial behavior such as doing work on a voluntary basis.

How are positive emotions created in the brain?

The positive state which one can achieve when feeling positive emotions has its origin in the ventral striatal dopamine system in the brain. As the name implies, the main area to consider when we look for positive emotions is the ventral striatum where the neurotransmitter dopamine takes a prime role. Not only is the striatum crucial, but also brain areas like the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex are involved. In animals, both ventral and dorsal striatum is responsible for processing positive and negative emotions. In humans, on the other hand, a distinction is seen regarding the two emotions. According to neuroimaging techniques, positive emotions arise from the ventral part whereas negative emotions are perceived by the activation of the dorsal part. This finding is supported by experiments with early Parkinson’s patients whose dopamine becomes depleted only in the dorsal part making them unable to process the negative emotions, but not the positive ones.

“The best way to overcome undesirable or negative thoughts and feelings is to cultivate the positive ones.” ~ William Atkinson

Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions

Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher on positive emotions, claims the positive effects to arise from the “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions also playing a role in positive psychology. In essence, it means, people experiencing such emotions have a better outlook on life, build personal resources more easily and enhance their overall well-being. An upward developmental spiral is triggered in these individuals that regularly experience positive emotions which contributes to emotional well-being.

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In addition, those people were found to widen their arrays of thoughts and actions that come to mind. For instance, if we look at the positive emotion joy, we regularly observe a higher urge to play, push the individual’s limits more frequently and more creativity. Finally, a higher resilience can be seen in happy people meaning a better ability to cope with negative situations.

Positive Emotions and the Workplace

Here is a list of how experiencing positive emotions can be useful at your job:

  • More engagement of workers: If employers make the effort in raising their employee’s happiness levels, productivity and engagement also increase.
  • Lower medical costs when workers are satisfied: They are less likely to be depressed, stressed or anxious which enables companies to save a good amount on these extra costs.
  • Higher salary: According to psychologist Martin Seligman, happy workers get paid a higher wage and a better performance assessment.
  • Positivity fosters teamwork: happier workers will be more easily forgiving, more optimistic and caring about their peers.

Tips to increase your positive emotions!

Incorporate actions of kindness into your everyday life. Acts of kindness were shown to raise levels of happiness. The individual will experience more positive emotions if he/she is kind to others by being generous with time, money or other resources than if that person would spend the money only on his/her needs. The increased amount of positivity which comes from kindness will subsequently lead to more kind actions. A virtuous cycle.

Compassionate living. Closely related to acts of kindness is to help others if they are clearly seeking help. If for example we are seen or heard in our job, we will be more committed to being more productive and will generally feel happier. This is a consequence of compassion your peers give you. Even simple things such as smiling or looking someone in the eye during a conversation will trigger feelings we enjoy in the other person.

Listen actively. When listening to others, opportunities for a deeper connection to the other person are given. The individual experiences a feeling of being valued and understood, while the other person is showing interest, support, and respect.

Appreciate the positive moments. As humans, we tend to remember the negative facets and neglect the positive ones. However, actively thinking and appreciating positive events or even just good circumstances (being healthy is a good circumstance) should deserve a higher priority. Try to make a list of all the positive events that have occurred to you recently and in the past! You will be surprised at how many good things you can list which haven’t crossed your mind earlier.

Eliminate negativity. Make a plan for your day and ask yourself which circumstances/activities create the most negativity. Try to avoid those situations as best as possible. Obviously, evading all negativity is impossible however looking for positive solutions is not. In the end, what matters for a happy life is a positive ratio of positive- and negative emotions. The higher this ratio will be, the more happiness you will experience in your everyday life.

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