The majority of individuals enjoy feeling happy, and positive feelings are simply enjoyable.
They don’t necessary require a reason or cause for us to enjoy them; we simply do.
Happiness, enthusiasm, joy, hope, and inspiration are all important feelings to experience if you want to live a happy and healthy life.
Fortunately, you don’t have to experience good emotions all of the time to reap their benefits. These ephemeral moments can be the ones that make all of your hard work and struggles in life worthwhile, the spice that gives your life taste.
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What are positive emotions? A Definition
Before diving too deep into positive emotions, we should start by making sure we’re all on the same page about emotions—and positive emotions in particular.
Positive emotions are not simply “happy feelings” that we chase to feel momentary pleasure; like more negative emotions, they play a significant role in everyday life.
There are many ways to define “emotion,” but they generally fall into one of two camps:
- Emotions are a state or feeling that cannot be conjured up at will, or;
- Emotions are attitudes or responses to a situation or an object, like judgments (Zemach, 2001).
Most contemporary researchers are of the second camp, seeing emotions as the outcome or result of something, triggered by action or being on the receiving end of action.
The implications of adopting one viewpoint over the other are fascinating, but choosing between the two camps isn’t necessary for understanding positive emotions and their role in psychology; whether we can consciously choose our positive emotions or whether they are a direct result of some action or experience, the positive psychology practitioner is mostly interested in their effects.
When it comes to good feelings, there are two prevalent definitions that roughly match to the two groups mentioned earlier.
They’ve been described as “multicomponent reaction tendencies” that endure a short time (Fredrickson, 2001), which aligns with the second view, and as intense and pleasurable mental experiences (Cabanac, 2002), which aligns more closely with the first view.
Regardless of the description you like, the most important things we need to know about them are (a) what emotions they are, (b) what function or point they serve, (c) how we may improve our experience of them, either in number or quality, and (d) what consequences they have on us.
Positive Emotion Words People Use
Let’s dive right into Point A: which emotions are positive.
The list of positive emotions that people experience is nearly endless. Not all of these words refer to emotions as scholars understand them, but they are the words most often used by people in describing their own emotions, which gives us a good foundation for positive emotions as they are commonly experienced.
- Joy is a feeling of elation, happiness, and possibly even excitement that comes on suddenly as a result of something excellent happening.
- Gratitude is a feeling of thanks, frequently accompanied by humility and even respect, for something specific or all-encompassing.
- Serenity is a quiet and tranquil sense of self-acceptance.
- Curiosity or fascination that demands and captures your attention is referred to as interest.
- Hope is defined as a feeling of optimism and anticipation for a better future.
- Pride is defined as a feeling of self-satisfaction and pleasure in one’s accomplishments, skills, or personal characteristics.
- Amusement is a cheerful pleasure and enjoyment that is frequently accompanied by smiles and easy laughs.
- Something you saw inspired you and made you feel involved, uplifted, and driven.
- Awe is a feeling that you get when you see something magnificent, spectacular, or breathtaking, and it makes you feel overwhelmed with gratitude.
- Elevation is the feeling you receive when you witness someone acting with compassion, generosity, or intrinsic goodness, inspiring you to do the same.
- Altruism is commonly defined as a selfless and generous deed toward others, but it can also relate to the feeling you experience when you help others.
- Satisfaction is a feeling of joy and fulfilment that comes from completing a task or meeting a desire.
- Relief refers to the joy you feel when an uncertain situation turns out well or when a harmful consequence is avoided.
- Affection is defined as an emotional attachment to someone or something that is accompanied by a fondness for them and a pleasure in their presence.
- Cheerfulness is defined as a sensation of brightness, being upbeat and clearly pleased or cheery, and having the impression that everything is going your way.
- A feeling of joy experienced when someone unexpectedly provides you happiness or when a scenario turns out to be even better than you had planned.
- Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance and belief in oneself that might be unique to a circumstance or activity or more universal.
- Admiration is defined as a warm emotion of approval, admiration, and gratitude for someone or something.
- Enthusiasm is defined as a feeling of anticipation accompanied with motivation and participation.
- Eagerness — a feeling of eagerness and excitement for something, similar to a milder kind of enthusiasm.
- Euphoria is a strong and all-encompassing feeling of excitement or delight that is commonly felt when something really pleasant and exciting occurs.
- Contentment is a low-key, serene, and comforting sensation of happiness and well-being.
- Enjoyment is a feeling of delight in what is happening around you, particularly in situations such as a leisure activity or social gathering.
- Optimism is a good and hopeful emotion that inspires you to see a bright future ahead of you, one in which you believe things will largely turn out.
- Happiness – a broad sense of happiness and excitement for life; a feeling of satisfaction and contentment in the way things are going.
- Love is a sense of profound and enduring devotion for someone, as well as a readiness to put their needs ahead of your own; it can be directed toward an individual, a community of individuals, or even all humanity.
This list captures a good deal of the positive emotions we experience, but it’s certainly not an exhaustive list—I’m sure you can think of at least one or two more!
Now that we have an idea of the kinds of emotions we’re talking about, we can move on to another important question: what’s the point?
Why do We Need Positive Emotions? What Good are They?
Aside from simply feeling good, positive emotions are also an important piece of the happiness puzzle.
While temporary, hedonic pleasure will almost certainly not bring you lasting happiness and well-being, positive emotions are often the foundation for those fleeting but meaningful moments that make life worth living; for example, the joy of saying “I do” to your significant other, the love that overwhelms you when holding your newborn for the first time, or the immense satisfaction you get from accomplishing something great in your career.
Although positive emotions may seem to have little purpose besides making us “feel good,” they actually do a few very important jobs.
The Role of Positive Emotions in Psychology
The “point” of positive emotions depends on who you ask; you will likely get a different answer from experts in different fields.
An evolutionary psychologist might respond “to enhance human beings’ chances of survival and reproduction.”
A social psychologist might say “to form the bonds that connect us to others.”
Or, she might say “to broaden our awareness and build our inner resources.” That is the gist of Barbara Fredrickson’s groundbreaking “Broaden-and-Build Theory” of positive emotions. Read on to learn more about this theory.
A positive psychologist may say “to make life worth living.”
A Short Summary of Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory
Fredrickson introduced the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions in 1998. The theory provides a convincing explanation of the “point” of positive emotions: to open our minds, broaden and expand our awareness, and facilitate the building and development of resources, including knowledge, skills, abilities, and relationships.
In the words of Fredrickson herself:
“…these positive emotions broaden an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire: joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savour and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within safe, close relationships.”(2004, p. 1367).
Negative emotions, or those felt in a risky circumstance (e.g., fear, terror, anxiety), have the effect of narrowing our concentration and limiting our many options to the one or two that are best suited for survival.
These reflexive responses are critical in such instances to ensure our survival; nevertheless, in situations that aren’t life-threatening, we don’t require such a restricted perspective or restriction of possibilities.
Positive emotions are more useful in this situation because they broaden our horizons rather than narrowing them, allowing for more creative thought and action.
Instead of confining our concentration to one or two responses, they broaden our awareness to include the far larger range of options available to us.
This broadening of our horizons allows us to play, to learn, and to acquire lasting knowledge and skills that we can carry with us throughout our lives.
These resources may be physical, emotional, psychological, social, or even mental, but no matter what kind of resources we acquire through this broadening, they are enduring.
These resources acquired and developed through experiencing positive emotions have been shown to result in many benefits throughout the several domains of life.
In the all-encompassing domain of physical and psychological health, positive emotions can have fantastic effects.
The Health Benefits of Positive Emotions
A reduction in stress and an increase in overall well-being are among the many health advantages of pleasant emotions. Positive emotions can function as a buffer between you and difficult life situations, allowing you to cope better and maintain your mental health (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004).
Furthermore, studies proved in 2006 that having good emotions helps you manage your stress response and recover faster from the detrimental effects of stress (Ong, Bergeman, Bisconti, & Wallace).
Positive feelings may also help you avoid catching a cold. When compared to students who wrote about a neutral topic for three days, 20 minutes each day, students who were randomly allocated to write about intense, positive experiences made considerably fewer visits to the student health centre for symptoms of illness (Burton & King, 2004).
Experiencing positive emotions may also encourage individuals to make healthier decisions, indirectly contributing to better health. Herzenstein (2008) found that several positive emotions lead to a variety of health benefits, including:
- Happiness resulted in increased risk- and variety-seeking and gain-focused behavior and,
- Contentment resulted in increased risk avoidance and loss-focused behavior.
Positive emotions can also help with more effective coping, which improves health by acting as a buffer against depression symptoms (Dolphin, Steinhardt, & Cance, 2015).
Furthermore, being mindful and taking the time to relish good feelings can act as a second line of defense against depression symptoms while also improving psychological well-being and life satisfaction (Kiken, Lundberg, Fredrickson, 2017).
Pleasant emotions may also help you have a healthier heart; Kok and colleagues (2013) discovered a link between a healthy heart rate and the feeling of positive social emotions.
Similarly, a meta-analysis of multiple research indicated that happiness was linked to good cardiovascular health, general health, and overall longevity (Howell, Kern, Lyubomirsky, 2007).
How Positive Emotions Foster Resilience and Improve Memory
In addition to promoting good physical and psychological health, positive emotions have been found to relate to both resilience and memory.
Positive emotions and resilience are positively connected, according to a study by Peng and colleagues (2014), indicating that one leads to the other or that they have a bi-directional relationship.
We also know that emotional regulation is linked to resilience, implying that some people can “bounce back” better than others after experiencing a wide range of good emotions (and managing negative emotions) (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).
Finally, Cohn and colleagues discovered that happy emotions have a direct impact on resilience, which aids in the development of a strong sense of life satisfaction (2009).
Happy emotions seem to generate a “broadening and growing” effect; the more positive emotions a person experiences, the greater their impression of a positive baseline condition to “bounce back” to after failure or tragedy.
Furthermore, consistently pleasant feelings may drive a person to seek out a diverse range of sources of meaning and fulfilment, ones they can rely on to help them get back on their feet when they fall.
Overall, there is evidence that good emotions can help protect you from memory loss (MacKenzie, Powell, & Donaldson, 2015). It’s unknown how this defence works, yet it could be described using the Broaden-and-Build Theory.
Positive emotions can help you remember both central and peripheral details by increasing your focus and memory capacity (Yegiyan & Yonelinas, 2011).
Enhancing one’s resilience and improving one’s memory can help in a variety of areas, including the workplace. Positive emotions can, in fact, lead to increased productivity and effectiveness in the workplace in a variety of ways.
How Positive Emotions Can Improve the Workplace
Positive emotions have been shown to improve love, friendship, and family relationships, therapy and counselling results, grades and academic achievements, and personal development (Linley, Joseph, Maltby, Harrington, & Wood, 2009); now we can add the workplace to that list.
Our emotions and personal lives have an impact on our work, no matter how hard we try to keep them separate. Fortunately, this can have both beneficial and negative consequences.
Positive emotions have led to improvements in work life, physical and mental health, social relationships, community involvement, and income (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005), all of which are either directly or indirectly related to work (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).
Enhancing Employee Engagement
Goswami, Nair, Beehr, and Grossenbacher (2016) published a study that confirmed the correlation between happy emotions and employee engagement, as well as demonstrating a link between leaders’ use of humour and staff engagement!
Positive emotions also increased work engagement and encouraged organisational citizenship behaviour (an employee’s voluntary commitment to non-obligatory or non-mandatory tasks that benefit his or her organisation).
They also had a double positive impact by reducing negative attitudes and behaviours that were not in line with organisational values (Avey, Wernsing, & Luthans, 2008).
Improving Job Satisfaction
Positive emotions have been linked to enhanced self-efficacy, job happiness, and overall better mental health (Schutte, 2014). They’ve even been linked to improved job satisfaction in the face of task conflict (Todorova, Bear, & Weingart, 2014).
Interest and gratitude, in particular, are associated to increased contentment with one’s work, while gratitude also has a beneficial impact on satisfaction with one’s coworkers and bosses (Winslow, Hu, Kaplan, & Li, 2017).
The same study that yielded these findings also discovered that an employee’s satisfaction with his or her promotion is influenced by both interest and thankfulness.
Positive emotions not only improve job happiness, but they also minimise turnover intentions and the impacts of stress on employees (Sui, Cheung, & Lui, 2015).
These findings are straightforward; it makes sense that having more good emotions at work, such as joy, curiosity, thankfulness, and happiness, leads to greater job satisfaction.
Greater satisfaction with work has a clear and direct relationship with intentions to stay with the position.
Positive emotions in the workplace can help you lead more effectively and increase your job satisfaction.
A survey of followers was conducted in 2013 to assess the relationship between transformational leadership and positive emotions on the one hand, and their impact on task performance on the other. The study discovered that transformational leadership and positive emotions have a positive effect on task performance (Liang & Steve Chi, 2013).
Positive emotions were found to boost not only transformational leadership’s effect on performance, but also its impact on work engagement (Wang, Li, & Li, 2017).
When authentic leadership is combined with happy emotions, followers are more likely to innovate effectively (Zhou, Ma, Cheng, & Xia, 2014).
When positive feelings like enthusiasm, optimism, pride, happiness, and inspiration are combined with intellectual stimulation leadership, it is more effective in increasing employee job satisfaction, effort, and effectiveness.
Enhancing the company’s bottom line
When employees experience positive emotions at work, they experience a broadening of perspective and may be able to build important resources.
Early studies on the benefits of positive emotion on employee accomplishment and productivity discovered that the more positive emotion an employee felt on the job, the higher their salary and the better their supervisor evaluations were 18 months later (Staw, Sutton, & Pelled, 1994).
Staw and colleagues also discovered that MBA students who experienced more happy emotions performed better on a decision-making task than those who experienced less positive feelings (1993).
Increased positive emotions were found to result in increased clarity around role expectations, effective and value-congruent use of organisational resources, fulfilment in one’s role, better relationships at work, and a general increase in the ownership employees feel over their work and the creativity that drives innovation and contributes to organisational success, according to additional research (Harter, Schmidt, & Keyes, 2002).
Furthermore, whether pleasant feelings are directed at coworkers or superiors, the expression and amplification of positive emotions can lead to increased goal achievement (Wong, Tschan, Messerli, & Semmer, 2013).
Finally, positive emotions (such as hope, optimism, and resilience) were found to improve employee performance, as evaluated by both self-report and organisational performance appraisals, in addition to increasing job satisfaction, work happiness, and organisational commitment (Youssef & Luthans, 2007).
A Take-Home Message
There has never been more interest in positive emotions and their effect on our lives—and for good reason!
Positive emotions are linked to numerous benefits in relationships, one’s health and well-being, and in the workplace. Keep an eye out for news on positive emotions, and you will be keeping up with a bright and vibrant area of research.
Thanks for reading. If you have any comments on positive emotions or want to suggest further reading, please let us know in the comment section below.