Happiness is such a central concept in life that not many people pause to consider what happiness is and why we strive so tirelessly to attain it.
The pursuit of happiness is not just an abstract idea but a tenet integral to humanity. It is encoded in Western culture for centuries and included in America’s Declaration of Independence—on equal footing with life and liberty.
Clearly, it was considered an inherent human right by the founders of America, and to this day, song lyrics on the radio defend their pursuit of happiness.
In one hit song, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” the American rapper Kid Cudi summarizes this sentiment:
I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know everything that’s shine ain’t always gonna be gold. I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good.
That is a deeply ingrained idea that this song references: once we capture that elusive feeling of happiness, all our problems will disappear. As Kid Cudi claims, we will be good. So why is it so difficult to attain? Whether we search for it within ourselves or from external sources, humans are obsessed with the quest for happiness.
It’s no surprise that positive psychology has grown since it is dedicated to the scientific study of happiness and other positive experiences in life. Some humans thrive and experience happiness. How?
To understand happiness, we need to review emotions.
This article contains:
What are Emotions?
Emotions play a significant role in our daily lives. They are hard to define, let alone measure and quantify the emotions.
Recently, some researchers tackled this challenge, although the philosophical consideration of human emotions can be traced as far back as human history. The word “emotion” can mean different things to each individual, but some shared definitions in research include those from psychologists and professors Barbara Fredrickson and Michel Cabanac.
Fredrickson defines emotions as “multicomponent response tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans” that are categorized in emotion families (such as anger, joy, and interest; Fredrickson, 2001). Cabanac explores the ambiguous descriptions and meanings of “emotion” floating in our collective consciousness and defines emotion as “any mental experience with high intensity and high hedonic content (pleasure/displeasure)” (Cabanac, 2002).
While these two perspectives on emotion differ, they both view emotions as complex mental responses to stimuli, with an overarching valence that leans towards the positive or the negative.
Identifying Positive Emotions
If we want to improve our lives and increase our awareness, then we have to attune ourselves with positive emotions.
In Cabanac’s conception, positive emotions are easy to conceptualize: they are mental experiences with high intensity that lean towards the pleasurable end of the hedonic spectrum. Similarly, Fredrickson views positive emotions as good feelings that indicate human flourishing.
We can summarize here that positive emotions, as mental responses, fall within a range of hedonic content and evoke a specific, positive feeling. Fredrickson has outlined ten of the most commonly experienced positive emotions (Henley, 2009):
These emotions are likely to strike you as desirable emotions to experience. Most people agree that striving to increase your experiences of these emotions is a worthy cause. Whether you land in the realm of “happiness,” it might be worth your time to make space and conscious effort to experience one of these emotions more.
Positive Emotions Help Us Grow
The Broaden-and-Build Theory, developed by Barbara Fredrickson (2001), posits that positive and negative emotions play different roles in individual processing and personal development.
Fredrickson (2001) theorizes that positive emotions broaden people’s thought-action repertoires and enables the effective building of personal resources. These resources include physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources.
According to her research, positive emotions are internal signals that encourage “approach behavior,” among us, thus motivating individuals to engage in their environments and explore novel people, ideas, and situations.
When people are open to new ideas and actions, they broaden their horizons, learn, and grow as individuals.
Further research by Fredrickson on the Broaden and Build Theory confirmed that positive emotions both lead to and result from broad-minded coping (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).
For example, the calm of mindfulness increases cognitive flexibility and cognitive scope, thus resulting in a deeper capacity for finding meaning and engaging with life (Garland, Farb, Goldin, & Fredrickson, 2015). The benefits of positive emotions have a direct application in our daily lives.
What We Gain from Being Positive
Positive emotions impact our lives. These outcomes are not limited to one area of life but rather, span across every nook and cranny of the human experience. Studies show that they improve relationships in the workplace, therapy and counseling, classrooms, families, and also help with individual development and fulfillment (Linley, Joseph, Maltby, Harrington, & Wood, 2009).
We’ve summarized the four main benefits of experiencing positive emotions here.
1) Reduced Stress and Boosted Well-Being
Tugade, Fredrickson, and Barrett (2004) found that positive emotions moderate the impact of stressful events on coping ability, and in turn, psychological and physical well-being.
Additionally, positive emotions have been found to moderate reactivity to stress and mediate recovery from stress (Ong, Bergeman, Bisconti, & Wallace, 2006). Have you ever felt relieved, despite a recent stressor, by a good laugh with friends? That’s because joy floods your body with mood-enhancing and stress-reducing hormones.
2) Stronger Resilience
One study showed that resilience improves the effectiveness of emotion regulation in medical students, which is an important skill for professionals who have patients depending on their expert decisi0n-making (Li et al., 2014).
Another study found that increased resilience also had a significant impact on emotional regulation, which allows individuals to bounce back from stressful events and find meaning in negative experiences (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). One program focusing on increasing resilience in schoolchildren experienced enhanced student engagement and social skills, including higher rates of empathy, cooperation, assertiveness, and self-control (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009).
Positive emotions can also lead to better coping skills when life gets hard. These coping skills have been found to decrease depressive symptoms in Army Wives (Dolphin, Steinhardt, & Cance, 2015).
3) Increased Performance and Engagement
Improvements in work life, physical and mental health, social relationships, community involvement, and even in income, can result from positive emotions (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).
Schutte (2014) found that positivity at work led to enhanced self-efficacy, which in turn increased job and relationship satisfaction and mental health. Another researcher found that positive emotions improve organizational citizenship and work engagement in employees, while also decreasing negative attitudes like cynicism and deviance (Avey, Wernsing, & Luthans, 2008).
4) Increased Healthy Choices
Herzenstein (2009) conducted research confirming that different positive emotions lead to different positive outcomes; for instance, happiness led to increased risk and enhanced gain-focused behavior, while contentment led to increased risk avoidance and loss-focused behavior. This research also highlighted how doctors who feel positive emotions towards their patients tended to overestimate the health risk they were facing, and offer a wider range of treatment options.
When humans are content, or happy, the wiring in our brain changes in ways that scientists are still trying to understand. Suffice to say, positive emotions are worth our time in the world of research and everyday reality.
It’s not well understood how these enjoyable outcomes are achieved, but Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory is a promising start to explain the impact of positive emotions.
The Future of Positive Emotions
While we have ample studies that reveal the impact of positive emotions, we have merely scratched the surface.
The mechanisms underlying positive emotions and their positive outcomes need more research. How do positive emotions mediate and moderate the human condition and alleviate suffering?
It seems like a worthwhile research topic.
The future of the application of positive emotions is bright. The field of positive psychology is booming, which means there should be an increase in how we can enhance human flourishing and well-being. There is a world of positive emotion waiting to be discovered and applied in psychological research and practical settings.
How are you applying positive emotions in your life? Do you value contentedness or happiness, and why? Let us know in the comment box below.
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