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June 15, 2017
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We have a natural bias to notice threat and negative emotions. Maybe that’s why there is so much written about them.


What’s the purpose of positive emotions?

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We have a natural bias to notice threat and negative emotions. Maybe that’s why there is so much written about them.


We have a natural bias to notice threat and negative emotions. Maybe that’s why there is so much written about them. Most of it looks at how we respond; the emotional and physiological impact and the reasons we evolved to have a bias to notice threat.  Basically this threat or negative bias kept us alive and even today it stops us from walking under a bus, taking too much risk or getting into fights, physical or verbal, with someone more powerful than us.

There is less agreement, and less written about positive emotions. This is being addressed by the positive psychology movement and is even beginning to impact business through work by firms like Zappos who set out to create a happy culture. You can read more about the benefits of happiness at work here.

When we think about positive emotions like joy, happiness, and gratitude on the surface they may seem to have little purpose other than to balance out the negative. But there are other theories. Maybe the best established and researched is the Broaden and Build theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson.

When you experience a positive emotion it can be rather fleeting and it tends not to come with the same urge to take action (an action urge in the jargon) as a negative emotion does. Try this short exercise. Remember a time when you were angry or scared notice how it feels in your body and the urge you have. It is probably to stop thinking about the emotion or to get away and do something else. OK shake that off. Now think about something positive a lovely sunny day or your child smiling or whatever works for you. Again notice the physical feelings and the action urge.  If you are feeling joy it may lead you to be playful if gratitude to want to return the help.

Fredrickson says we have positive emotions because they build action urges to connect with others, and to be open to learning. Her theory also says that whilst they are fleeting they build and this building creates resilience and makes us more resourceful.

Studies by Fredrickson and others have shown that people in a positive mood or state have a wider breadth of attention. They notice the “the big picture,” they are more open to new ideas and learning, solve more problems through insight and make more connections across bits of information.

One of the most interesting findings is that although it is known that people have a tendency to recognize people of their own race easier than those of a different race. We all have "Own-Race Bias" in face perception, results of research show that when people are in a positive mood the own-race bias is eliminated. This goes some way to explaining why race relations tend to be better when people are in a safer, economic environment.

So although positive emotions may be fleeting and we tend to notice them less they are powerful in helping us learn, connect, and be resilient. Fredrickson uses the metaphor that they are a bit like vegetables; you know eating greens once a month won’t do much for your health. You need your five a day. It is the same with positive emotions you need to have a regular dose and you need to tip the balance of the negativity bias by making sure you notice the positive and saver it. The best methods for doing this are to create new habits like journaling the positive things in your day or recalling them before sleep. And setting yourself up each day to experience a number of positive emotions will train your brain to notice even more.

I decided to experiment with this. Using B.J. Fogg’s method of Tiny Habits to set myself a goal of noticing two positive things a day. Of course once you start to notice the positive it just goes on and one. The crisp cold and bright sun, the joy in my daughters voice when she got a new job, the positive feedback from a client for the work we did….

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