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Positive Emotion & How To Access It

Accessing and sustaining positive emotion is one of the five key mind-body skills I presented in my Stress Resilience Blueprint, as the foundation of well-being and optimal performance. Accessing positivity is a relatively distinct skill – positivity is not just the absence of negative emotion, or even the opposite of negative emotion. Research suggests you can access greater positive emotion but not necessarily experience any less negative emotion. What matters for resilience is positivity ratio, i.e. the ratio of positive to negative experiences – but more on that later.

What Is Positive Emotion?

We generally think of positivity in terms of feeling good. But it's more than simply pleasure – though it's related (I return to this point later).

Emotion in general evolved to serve a function, and that's true of positive emotion too. One of the defining characteristics of emotion is that it moves us to act and behave in certain ways. In the case of positive emotions, they help us build social resources. For example gratitude helps us maintain and deepen social bonds – friendships, etc. - which are vital for our well-being.

Another dimension of emotion is attention – emotions dispose us to pay attention in certain ways and to certain things. Positive emotions broaden our outlook so that we literally perceive more.

There's evidence that positive emotions benefit physical health and longevity.

Ten Primary Positive Emotions

I'm often surprised that my clients struggle to name more than two or three specific positive emotions when asked, suggesting a widespread lack of “positive emotional literacy”. I suspect it's because we don't pay too much attention to them (we aren't very mindful of them). Emotional literacy is the ability to consciously experience, understand, and name emotions, and it's an important foundation for self-control.

Positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, in her book “Positivity”, presents what she believes to be a fairly comprehensive list of ten positive emotions:

  • love
  • joy
  • gratitude
  • serenity
  • interest
  • amusement
  • pride
  • hope
  • awe
  • inspiration

There are other words but these tend to be either close synonyms (e.g. curiosity = interest) or combinations of two or more, or not quite purely emotions but mixed with beliefs, values or states of motivation (e.g. confidence is a belief about capability). On the whole I think Frederickson has come up with a pretty comprehensive list.

Knowing what each of the ten refers to, understanding the differences between them, and knowing what they feel like individually, represents a good start towards positive-emotional literacy.

How To Access Positive Emotion

The first thing to say is that positive emotions can't be forced. 

In another article in this series I discussed a model of the mind, borrowed from Positive Psychology writer Jonathan Haidt, as consisting of two parts: the elephant and the rider. These are metaphors of course: the rider is the conscious, rational mind: the thinker, the planner. The elephant is the doer, and of course it's the emotional mind. The image of the elephant conveys the great strength of emotions: if your rational mind is at odds with your emotional mind, there's no doubt who'll win out in the longer term.

My point is, positivity comes from the elephant, and the rider can't simply dial up positive emotions on demand.

Have you ever been told you should be grateful? If so, did it successfully bring forth gratitude? Probably not. Irritation or guilt, maybe, but not gratitude. It's the same when we tell ourselves inwardly how we should be feeling. It probably makes things worse – it's an example of the “quicksand trap” that I've mentioned in other articles.

Instead, we need to focus on setting up the conditions for positive emotions to arise – giving the elephant what he or she needs and wants. We need to look for triggers, and also favourable “background conditions”.

Positive Emotion and Pleasure

Emotions are distinct from appetites and desires, but neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out that the neural basis of emotion is built on the same brain circuits as appetites and other feelings – i.e. there is a lot of overlap between emotion and body regulation.

The experience of pleasure in the body represents a favourable state from which positive emotions can emerge. For example, you can experience pleasure when eating good food, which is a short step from appreciating good food, which is a short step from feeling gratitude towards those who provided good food.

Pleasure also can't be forced, but it will arise (albeit perhaps fleetingly) often enough, and it's a good practice to savour pleasure. Savouring means welcoming without grasping or craving.

Reflecting on the ten positive emotions

Another beneficial practice is to reflect or meditate on Fredrickson's list above. Bring each to mind, asking yourself: what does it mean? Can you remember times when you felt it? Can you imagine situations where you might feel it? What does it feel like in the body? What happens in your face? What happens to your thinking? What do you feel like doing? Treat this as an exercise in imagination – look to really explore sensory details. But be accepting of your mind's responses – savour but don't grasp or crave.

Loving-kindness Meditation

This is a traditional practice from Buddhism (as is mindfulness meditation). I won't go into details on how to do it, but Frederickson's research showed it works – creating enduring benefits.

Gratitude Diary

This is a mainstay of positive psychology. Evidence of its efficacy is well established. In its simplest form, once a day (bedtime is best) write down three good things that happened to you, for which you might feel some gratitude. They can be relatively trivial things. Don't force gratitude if it isn't really there, but keep the practice general and write three things that went your way in any sense.

At first it might be hard to think of things, without repeating yourself a lot. But I think the value of the exercise is that it conditions us to notice the good things in the first place (so many of us are conditioned to notice the bad).

Put kindness into action

This is another positive psychology keystone – research shows that the good feelings that follow committing a random act of kindness are more intense and enduring than treating yourself to something pleasurable such as a good meal.

Positivity Ratio

Experiencing positivity doesn't eradicate negative emotions or difficult feelings, but it can displace them in our awareness. (The trouble is we tend to narrowly focus on negative emotions to the point that they dominate our awareness – but at any time we can take a step back and realise there's more going on.)

When it comes to emotional well-being, what matters is not getting rid of negative experiences but making sure they are more than balanced by positive experiences. Research suggests a “positivity ratio” of about 3 to 1 in favour of positive emotions is needed for humans to really thrive and flourish. Again, the strategy is not to avoid negatives (although it helps if you can allow them to dissipate rapidly) but to accentuate the positives as they arise, or make the most of the triggers that are there.

In conclusion, I hope this article has been useful in getting you to think about positive emotion, your positive emotional literacy, and how you might develop your positivity.

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