Why do we have positive emotions?
That might seem like a silly question, but really, if you sit down and think about it, how did positive emotions come about?
I mean, we know why negative emotions evolved, right? If our ancestors didn’t have fear, anxiety, or dread, we probably wouldn’t be here because they would have been dinner for the local saber-toothed tiger.
The negative emotions helped generate the fight-or-flight mechanism: the narrowed focus, increased heart rate, and shot of adrenaline that was needed to make a decision and act on it quickly.
But what about positive emotions?
Love, joy, and happiness are wonderful to experience. But, think about the saber-toothed tiger again. Where would feeling love and thinking “what a beautiful kitty” get you?
You know the answer to that.
It turns out that positive emotions have a solid evolutionary background, too. University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Frederickson has done immense amounts of research to show that positive emotions not only feel good, they’re extremely adaptive, too.
When we feel love, joy, and happiness, we calm our cardiovascular systems and expand our mindsets which leads to better problem-solving abilities.
We also feel more socially open, which attracts more friends and people who want to help us.
Frederickson says that positive emotions create an “upward spiral” of increasingly better life satisfaction.
And – get this – you can actually “undo” the physical effects of your negative emotions by feeling more positive than negative emotions.
There’s even a ratio – 3:1.
Three positive emotions to one negative emotion undoes all that stress you put on your heart and the rest of your body when you get all hung up on something.
Since researchers tend to leave no stone unturned, we now know the three ways that can best generate positive emotions.
1. Notice Positive Moments
Ever notice that when you’re walking down the street you either walk with your head down or you’re so far off in your own thoughts that you have no idea what’s happening around you?
Take a look around and notice.
See a stranger smile at you and smile back.
Check out the father cooing over his baby as he gently swings her in his arms.
Look up and notice the cool architecture of that building you walk by every day.
Pause to notice a beautiful sunset.
At work, really take it in when your boss or co-worker gives you a compliment.
Don’t let those positive moments pass you by. Learn to see them more clearly and frequently. Savor them as you would a piece of decadent chocolate on your tongue.
2. Be Mindful
You’ve probably heard this a lot.
What is mindfulness, anyway? Doesn’t that have to do with meditation?
Well, it certainly can. But it doesn’t necessarily have to.
Mindfulness is simply about noticing the present moment without judgment.
One of the reasons negative emotions stress us out is because we not only experience the emotion, but we pile more negative stuff up on top of it.
So, if you notice that you’re frustrated, you might think to yourself, “Ugh, I’m so frustrated! I’ve got to get over feeling this way. If I could just get this project to work right, things would be better.”
And on and on and on…
Mindfulness calls for you to notice that you’re frustrated and… that’s it.
There’s no judgment about what you’re feeling. Only noticing.
“Oh. I’m frustrated.”
No piling on of desperate wishes that you weren’t feeling that way. No berating yourself for feeling frustrated in the first place.
Mindfulness allows you to be in the present without magnifying it. And that helps reduce stress and makes room for positive emotions.
I’ll give you an example.
The other day I was working at my desk and I could feel my anxiety level rising because I had so much to do that I couldn’t see how I was going to get it all done. I wasn’t sure how to prioritize it, so I was starting to reach the point at which I just freeze and don’t do anything.
I remembered to practice mindfulness so I took a deep breath and came back from my catastrophizing and into the present moment.
I felt my anxiety and consciously didn’t add anything to it. Just felt it.
After a few minutes of being aware of my thoughts, I realized that all I could do was what was in front of me, nothing more.
No point in living in the future when the present is here now.
Within a very short period of time, my anxiety dropped and a feeling of peace replaced it as I became aware of how my negative emotions had spiraled out of control because of all the extra emphasis I was placing on them.
Practicing mindfulness through meditation does help, but you can also practice it spontaneously just by coming back to your current thoughts and feelings to just notice them.
3. Practice Acts of Kindness
You’ve probably heard or seen the popular slogan, “Practice random acts of kindness.”
Well, I want you to practice intentional acts of kindness.
Okay, random ones are good, too.
But research has shown that being intentional about acting in a kind way is one of the best ways to generate positive emotions for yourself. So try:
- Volunteering at a non-profit.
- Tutoring at-risk kids.
- Help the woman juggling her purse, her baby, and her shopping bags get her groceries to the car.
A leading researcher on happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky, has found that doing several acts of kindness on one day rather than spreading them out throughout the week provides the greatest bump in positive emotions.
So you may want to designate one day of the week as your “acts of kindness” day and be more consciously aware of how you can be kind to others on that day.
Positive emotions are the way to better life satisfaction.
So get out there and try these three hacks. You’ll end up feeling really good about them.
What do you do on a daily basis to stay positive? What do you tell yourself when you are feeling down?