The power of positive emotions

Positive Psychology Coach and RB Mind Trustee, Monika Waller, looks at how we can unlearn some of our patterns of negative thinking and nudge positive emotions forward.

There are many different components (or ingredients) to resilience. Resilience is not static and is something that can be developed.  But is there anything we can do when our resilience is running on empty?

Topping up on positive emotions will gradually enhance our resilience and help replenish our resources. When it seems like there is nothing positive in the current circumstances, we can explore the situation using the following approaches:  

  • checking if we have stopped paying attention to anything good and are ignoring any positive experiences  

  • taking action and creating new positive experiences 


Paying attention to good vibes

There is power in positive emotions. Unfortunately, our brain is not built to let happy feelings multiply unless we put some effort in making it so. Human awareness is skewed towards the negative and to describe it the scientists use the term ‘the negativity bias’. Therefore, focusing on the positive is important and brings benefits.  

The purpose of positive emotions is to broaden attention and not to allow good events to go unnoticed. A step in the right direction is to recognise a positive emotion when it occurs or at least acknowledge that it has occurred. Can you name at least three positive emotions?  

Here’s a list of 10: 

  • Amusement

  • Joy

  • Interest

  • Awe

  • Love

  • Serenity

  • Gratitude

  • Hope

  • Pride

  • Inspiration

Are you surprised to see any of them on the list? We may have an expectation that positive emotions should be vibrant, intense and long-lasting. In reality, these are often micro-moments, subtle and delicate. And sometimes they appear less clearly hidden in combinations – inspiration with joy or interest accompanied by amusement. Let’s embrace positive feelings no matter how short-lived.  


Open to opportunities and less overwhelmed

When we feel content, we become more curious and will start regaining balance – become open to opportunities and be less overwhelmed. The prolonged state of forgoing positive emotions isn’t good for our mental health. Research compiled by a psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, indicates that depression is a syndrome distinguished by a deficit of positive emotions – no joy, no serenity, no hope. The lack of positivity is evident in how a depressed person thinks about the future and the past.

The problem isn’t so much about the anticipation of bad things and if these are likely to pass; it’s more about the belief that good things won’t happen. Also, it’s more difficult to recall anything pleasant that has recently taken place. The recovery from depression could be jump-started by positive events and the ability to notice a wider number of positive experiences in life. There is healing power in positive emotions. 


Savouring – an important coping strategy  

We can wait for better times or we can take action and cultivate some joy and interest and all other positive emotions. For example, relishing good memories and reminiscing with friends and family could boost mood and bring about amusement and even pride. In Positive Psychology savouring is known to be an important coping strategy. Sharing good stories from the past with others allows us to immerse ourselves in that pleasant experience for a few moments. Savouring means having thoughts or engaging in behaviours capable of generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment. We can savour present and future too.  

Reading a good book gets more enriching if we allow ourselves to truly follow the story without distractions and be just in the moment. Can we then pause and even briefly admire the genius who has put these words together? Soaking up the present moment is a form of savouring. We are moving from the passive act of reading into the positive and engaging experience of being a reader. By shifting from a passive to an active mode we invite the positivity to surface. And it’s all our doing and it’s achievable with a bit of patience and practice.  


Reinforcing our resilience

Finally, we can savour the future by anticipating upcoming positive events. Rather then reacting to positive events when they happen, we can indulge in a bit of daydreaming and gain pleasure from looking forward and imagining future happy times. When our attention gets bombarded with intrusive tomorrow’s to-do lists, we can gently redirect our mind to positive moments that seem to be on the horizon. The idea isn’t to just replace any unpleasant things in life with dreams. The aim is to make a bit of room for these dreams and inject hope and interest into the days ahead.  

Let’s take a break from bad news from time to time to reinforce our resilience. A dam leaks if nobody maintains the structure. By creating some pleasant experiences we are able to generate positive feelings, too. What we practise grows stronger. Negative emotions can overwhelm us if we ignore the positive ones. True, it takes effort and even courage to unlearn some of our patterns of negative thinking. Nudging positive emotions forward is a new activity worth trying as it will help us bounce back from setbacks.