Month 8: Learn to be Positive
In Month 8 of our Happiness Club, we look at the research which says that learning to be positive is a skill we can all learn.
The purpose of positive emotions has long been a puzzle. Although they’re nice to have, it doesn’t appear they’re vital for the survival of our species. Negative emotions on the other hand, are essential – triggering our fight-or-flight response if we face threat. For example, when we see a predatory animal charging at us we feel fear, and rapid changes occur in our brain and body. We instinctively focus on the source of danger and escape routes, driving us to immediate responses – in this case, to get the hell out of the way.
However, recent groundbreaking scientific work is showing that positive emotions can broaden our perceptions, in much the same way that negative emotions can narrow them. This broadening helps us to see more, respond more flexibly and in new ways, and be more creative. It makes us more open to different ideas or experiences and we feel closer to and more trusting of others, says Vanessa King positive psychology expert at Action for Happiness.
Research shows that regularly experiencing emotions such as joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration and pride creates an ‘upward spiral’, helping to build our inner well of wellbeing. But what about when we’re feeling sad, mad and bad? ‘Yes, we need to be realistic about life’s ups and downs, but it definitely helps to focus on the good aspects of any situation – the glass-half-full rather than the glass-half-empty, says King,
‘Feeling good in the short-term can also help us feel good in the long-term. The new experiences and greater openness that result from positive emotions can lead to lasting changes in our lives,’ says King. Here, she gives a few simple examples:
- A feeling of interest in something we read can lead us to learn more about a subject, resulting in a fulfilling hobby or even a rewarding life’s work.
- Finding the same things funny as someone else can lead to them becoming a close friend or even a partner.
- Feeling joy from seeing beautiful trees in the park can put us in a positive frame of mind and make us more enthusiastic about an opportunity that comes our way.
‘Over time, positive emotions can help us to build the resources that lead to happier lives, such as friends, knowledge, better problem-solving and even better health. What’s more, they can act as a buffer against stress and help us cope when we face difficulties,’ she says.
But isn’t it unrealistic to expect never to feel negative emotion? ‘Yes, of course, these are part of life, but we need to get the balance right,’ says King. She suggests that we need to have more positive emotions compared with negative ones. ‘This is called our positivity ratio. And science is now giving us some clues as to a good balance to aim for*. It seems that to get the benefits of positive emotions in the longer term, we need to have around three times as many of these as we do negative emotions. These don’t need to be huge surges of joy; small instances of gently positive feelings count,’ she says.
But, of course, it’s not so easy. Our brains are naturally wired for a negative bias, which stems from when early humans had to be on alert for signs of danger, and we developed negative emotions as an internal warning system to keep us safe. In modern times, we obviously don’t need to be on high alert for animal predators, but our brains have not caught up. ‘We need to put conscious effort into the positive side of life. The good news is that small efforts over time can make a lasting difference. Recent research even suggests that this might lead to lasting changes in our brains, which help to maintain the increase in our wellbeing.’
Other good news is that positive emotions are contagious** and that when we feel good, it can have a knock-on effect on those around us. Which, I suppose, is what our happiness clubs are all about. Have you started yours yet?
What is a Happiness Club?
A book club-style gathering in your own home where you invite friends along to discuss how you can put
happiness – your own and other people’s – at the heart of your life philosophy. With our Happiness Clubs, Psychologies and the charity Action for Happiness
are working together on a shared vision to create a happier and less self-centred world, with far fewer people suffering from mental health problems and
far more people feeling good, functioning well and reaching out to help others.
QUESTIONS TO DISCUSS
AT YOUR HAPPINESS CLUB
Name the three positive emotions you feel most regularly. What triggers them?
What emotional state do you most often find yourself in?
How do you process and deal with your negative emotions?
What is one thing you could do differently every day to help trigger more positive emotions in yourself?
What is one thing you could do differently every day to help trigger a positive emotion in others?