Positive emotions are so much more than simply happy states of mind.
They expand the bandwidth of our attention and cognition, helping us surface new thoughts, solutions, and actions to tackle our most challenging situations (Fredrickson, 2010).
Experiencing love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, and other positive emotions builds lasting psychological, social, and intellectual capital, boosting our resilience and psychological wellbeing (Paakkanen et al., 2021).
This article explores the many benefits of positive emotions across multiple life domains and situations and shares worksheets that create opportunities to boost our wellbeing and our performance.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.
Perhaps the most valuable research-based model for positive emotions is Barbara Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory.
In 1998, Fredrickson, an early pioneer of positive psychology, introduced her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. It was to dramatically affect our understanding of how such feelings shape our thinking and our response to our environment (Fredrickson, 2001).
What is the broaden-and-build theory?
Fredrickson (2001, p. 218), a long-term researcher of emotions, recognized that “moments in people’s lives characterized by experiences of positive emotions—such as joy, interest, contentment, love, and the like—are moments in which they are not plagued by negative emotions—such as anxiety, sadness, anger, and despair.”
This realization of the power of emotion is crucial to what came next.
Fredrickson (2010, p. 219) proposed that certain positive emotions (joy, pride, contentment, etc.) “share the ability to broaden people’s momentary thought–action repertoires and build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources.”
Rather than focusing on specific action tendencies (as most models did at that time), Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory extends our potential repertoire of thought–action responses to situations.
And this contrasts with our default negativity bias.
When we dwell on negative emotions, such as resentment, frustration, and anxiety, our momentary thought–action repertoire is significantly reduced. Our attention and the options we have to choose from narrow.
We yell at the driver who took our spot in the car park.
We hit the enter key repeatedly (to no effect) on the keyboard while the web page is loading.
Positive emotions give us options.
So, let’s look at some benefits that the theory suggests we experience in response to positive emotions and “positivity,” as Fredrickson (2010) later referred to it:
Positivity feels good.
Positive emotions, such as joy, hope, and gratitude, make us feel good now and in the future.
Positivity changes the working of our mind.
In a very literal sense, swapping bad thoughts and emotions for good ones helps us see options. We see opportunities rather than limitations.
Positivity transforms our future.
Fleeting positive feelings accumulate over time, building up more psychological resources and, ultimately, making tomorrow a better day than yesterday.
Positivity reduces negativity.
Negative emotions (just think of anger and fear) are bad for our health, increasing blood pressure and releasing stress hormones. Positive ones calm us, physically and psychologically.
Positivity has a tipping point.
Contrary to what we might think, the association between positive emotions and their benefits is not linear. Small changes in our experience of positivity can significantly improve how we feel and react to situations.
Positivity is learnable.
We are in no way fixed. While our potential for life-draining negativity is never far away, so too is our capacity to use positivity to make a significant difference in our lives.
The Importance of Positive Emotions for Wellbeing
Dating back to 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has produced an incredible volume of data on what it means to live a happy, fulfilling life where wellbeing is a priority (Waldinger & Schulz, 2023).
Based on this study (which, as of writing, was still running) and others begun more recently, relationships are seen as the most significant predictor of happiness and psychological wellbeing (Mineo, 2017; Waldinger & Schulz, 2023).
Positive emotions help as well. “Positivity can uniquely revitalize your worldview, your mental energy, your relationships, and your potential” (Fredrickson, 2010, p. 14).
For example, love can keep us deeply interested in what another has to say, as can gratitude and shared hope.
Research backs it up. Experiencing our own and other’s positive emotions (for example, sharing joy) reinforces connections that “lead to many positive outcomes, for example, subjective wellbeing, lesser negative affect, greater trust, and better relationship quality” (Paakkanen et al., 2021, p. 2).
Therefore, positive emotions indirectly benefit wellbeing, supporting the building and maintaining of solid relationships. There are direct impacts too. Positivity can improve psychological and physiological wellbeing “by cultivating experiences of positive emotions at opportune moments to cope with negative emotions” (Fredrickson, 2001, p. 222).
Such emotional experiences can reduce chronic stress, helping individuals cope with adversity and build resilience.
The effects of positive emotions are widespread, and their benefits are seen across multiple areas of our lives.
“As an integral part of feeling and strengthening social connection, expressions of positive emotions at work can benefit the individual expressing them as well as the coworkers, the customers, and the entire organization” (Paakkanen et al., 2021, p. 2).
The nature of reactions to such expressions is vital. Asymmetrical responses — for example, a lack of positive recognition — can harm the volume of positive emotions experienced and relationship quality. It seems empathy has a part to play in responding to a coworker’s positive experiences and feelings (Paakkanen et al., 2021).
Ultimately, if the experience of positive emotions is not tempered, such pleasurable emotional states can be a significant factor in supporting wellbeing. In a 2021 study involving teachers, positive emotions were the most predictive factor in job satisfaction and staff retention (Dreer, 2021).
For your mental health
The experience of positive emotions predicts decreased symptoms of depression and a lowering of perceived stress. In fact, research shows an association between negative emotions and poorer mental health (Tugade et al., 2014).
However, it is essential to note that the size of such effects does appear to vary across cultures (Tugade et al., 2014).
The beneficial effect of positive emotions on our wellbeing is perhaps unsurprising. “Positive emotions motivate us to pursue important goals, allow us to savor important experiences, and reinforce adaptive behavior patterns” (Tugade et al., 2014, p. 432). All of which, according to positive psychology’s PERMA model (along with engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and achievement) have a favorable effect on our wellbeing (Seligman, 2011).
To relieve stress
While the experience of positive emotions is vital to managing and relieving stress, so too is its timing (Tugade et al., 2014).
Stress is often experienced during times of change or transition, for example, moving to a new house, changing jobs, or welcoming a new baby. When we experience such change, positive emotions can decrease the impact of the stressor (Tugade et al., 2014).
Positive emotion interventions, often combined with mindfulness practices, have been shown to improve quality of life and decrease symptoms of stress (Tugade et al., 2014).
Emotions such as joy, curiosity, and hope are vital counterparts to stress, which is often seen as the quantity and quality of negative emotions (Dreer, 2021). Indeed, it seems that positive emotions can lead employees to seek out increased work engagement and heighten their readiness to face new challenges, which ultimately benefit their stress response (Wang, 2022).
For strong relationships
As we have already seen, positive emotions are helpful in bond formation (Fredrickson, 2010).
“Strong emotional experiences are part and parcel of close relationships” (Tugade et al., 2014, p. 215). They have the potential to motivate the initial engagement (romantic or otherwise), solidify commitment, and protect the relationship from external threats.
In line with the broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions help us pursue opportunities to form relationships to the fullest, process more information from the environment, and expand our focus to include our partner’s perspective (Tugade et al., 2014).
Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory also predicts the beneficial effect of positive emotions on creativity, and it’s confirmed by research.
“Positive emotions allow an individual to process information from the environment in more global, innovative, flexible, and creative ways” (Tugade et al., 2014, p. 218). Faster recovery from negative emotions and their associated stressors and greater resilience supports the continuation of creativity.
Studies with educators have shown that positive emotions increase creativity along with many other benefits (Dreer, 2021).
How to Use Happy Emotions for Performance Optimization
Positive emotions support individuals in optimizing their performances through a combination of the following (Tugade et al., 2014).
They help us build creative and innovative solutions to environmental challenges.
They support us in our recovery from the ill effects of negative emotions.
They increase our resilience and psychological resources.
Together, they form part of the upward spiral of positive emotions that lead to other positive emotions and better performances.
Positive emotions can optimize performance in at least the following two ways.
Firstly, positive emotions help people enter a flow state. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2009), flow is a state of deep engagement and optimal performance where individuals are fully absorbed in what they are doing and experiencing a heightened sense of control, focus, and satisfaction.
Positive emotions can therefore serve as the ideal catalyst for flow. In response to spiraling positive emotions, the individual feels resilient, engaged, motivated, and open to new experiences — the perfect platform for flow. As per the broaden-and-build theory, they are at their most capable, experiencing heightened creativity, improved problem-solving, and maximized cognitive resources (Fredrickson, 2010).
Secondly, positive emotions help us avoid the harmful effects of negative emotions. Positive emotions remove the blockers or brakes in the way of optimal performance. And ongoing positive emotions provide feedback that supports the continued sense of doing well and successfully working toward goals (Tugade et al., 2014).
By promoting a more balanced and positive emotional state, individuals can better manage challenges, maintain motivation, and sustain productivity to enhance their performance and achieve their personal and professional goals (Fredrickson, 2010; Csikszentmihalyi, 2009).
6 Positive Feelings Worksheets
According to Barbara Fredrickson’s (2010) positivity ratio, we should aim for three heartfelt positive emotional experiences for every negative emotional experience.
In doing so, we are creating a path to human flourishing that supports a readiness to make positive contributions to the world in which we live (Fredrickson, 2010).
Sometimes it can help to make a start by becoming better at identifying emotions.
The following is a selection of worksheets that encourage positive feelings.
The worksheet uses the following questions to fact-check situations:
What happened that gave rise to this emotion?
What am I assuming about this experience, or what explanations am I giving myself?
Are my feelings proportionate to the reality of these circumstances? Or are they more related to my assumptions and interpretations?
Fact-checking is a technique for bringing intense (usually negative) emotions back under control.
A Take-Home Message
Positive emotions are more than momentary good feelings; they offer us new ways of thinking, improved problem-solving, boosted creativity, and increased wellbeing.
We can see the benefits in our personal and professional lives, putting us in a place where we can better take advantage of the opportunities that arise.
Equally crucial for our wellbeing, positive emotions are essential for building and maintaining robust and satisfying relationships. They strengthen our abilities to form initial connections while creating an environment for maintaining closeness.
Regularly experiencing emotions such as joy, gratitude, curiosity, and hope also protects us from many of the ill effects associated with negative emotions, such as stress and depression.
Positive emotions play a vital role in positive psychology. As such, they should form a central position in therapy and counseling styles that focus on client flourishing, beyond treatment of poor mental health.
If positive emotions aren’t already a focus in your existing therapy or coaching, it could be time well spent. They will build the psychological capital and resilience to support your clients as they create goal-driven, engaging lives aligning with their values.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Row.
Dreer, B. (2021). Teachers’ well-being and job satisfaction: The important role of positive emotions in the workplace. Educational Studies, 1–17.
Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.
Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to release your inner optimist and thrive. Oneworld.
Mineo, L. (2017, April 11). Over nearly 80 years, Harvard study has been showing how to live a healthy and happy life. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/.
Paakkanen, M. A., Martela, F., & Pessi, A. B. (2021). Responding to positive emotions at work: The four steps and potential benefits of a validating response to coworkers’ positive experiences. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey.
Tugade, M. M., Shiota, M. N., & Kirby, L. D. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of positive emotions. Guilford Press.
Waldinger, R. J., & Schulz, M. S. (2023). The good life: Lessons from the world’s longest scientific study of happiness. Simon & Schuster.
Wang, D. (2022). Daily work engagement and positive emotions in the workplace: Job crafting as a mediator. Social Behavior and Personality, 50(4), 1–9.
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.