Why Be Happy?
What are the actual benefits of positive emotions besides making us feel good? Is it even worth it being happy?
These are the questions I hope to answer in this post.
It took a while for psychologists to recognize the long-term benefits of positive emotions. For a long time, psychologists have been focusing on negative emotions and their effects. It’s been known that negative emotions are vital to our survival. Ever heard of “fight or flight” from biology class? Anger leads to our tendency to attack, and fear leads to our tendency to escape (1). These negative emotions are our first line of defense against external threats; it is there to protect us (2). Think about it: we might not be here without these emotions. Our ancestors would’ve gone extinct! Moreover, negative emotions help us minimize distractions in dangerous situations (1). Imagine you’re hiking in the woods and encounter a coyote. Would you be running away from it while looking and appreciating how beautiful the trees look? No. Now that I’ve told you about why negative emotions are important, you’re probably wondering — Why do we even need positive emotions then?
The answer is — the “broad-and-build” theory of positive emotions by Barbara Fredrickson. Fredrickson claims that positive emotions broaden our intellectual, social, and physical resources and build resilience when we encounter a threat (3).
- Positive emotions broaden our thinkings and attention. According to Fredrickson’s research, when people experience joy or interest, they are more creative, see more opportunities, more open with their relationships, and more open-minded.
- Positive emotions cancel out negative emotions. In an experiment Fredrickson did, they showed students a movie scene where someone is on the ledge of a high rise. At one point, the person loses grip and hangs above the traffic. The heart rate of these students watching increases with the blink of an eye. Then these students were shown one of four clips: “waves,” “puppy,” “sticks” (yes, sticks), and “cry.” Can you guess which ones made the heart rate go down? Puppy and waves. Which made the heart rate go up? Cry (4).
- Positive emotions build resilience. Emotions like enjoyment, playfulness, satisfaction, love, etc., enhance our resilience, AKA ability to cope. On the other hand, negative emotions decrease resilience. Positive emotions can help us cope with a problem the right way or see the best in negative situations (1).
Positive emotions build a psychological reservoir. These emotions help build important physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources that are enduring (1). For example, joy makes people playful, and play is associated with building physical strengths (2).
- Positive emotions can lead to an upward developmental spiral. Like negative emotions can trigger downward spirals of depression, positive emotions can trigger upward spirals towards better well-being, leading people to the “good life” (1).
This “broad-and-build” theory reminds us that positive emotions not just bring momentary benefits but bring long-term benefits leading us to the “good life” (1). It’s a win-win situation! Developing more positive emotions in our lives benefits each individual and causes greater commerce with the world. They build friendship, love, better health, and greater achievements (2). So remember this: It is worth it to put more positive emotions in your life, even if you have to try hard.
You can increase positive emotions by engaging in relaxation practices, such as yoga and imagery exercises. Meditation helps achieve mindfulness, which brings other benefits as well (3).
- Ilona Boniwell (2012). Positive Psychology In A Nutshell: The Science of Happiness. Open University Press.
- Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. (2004). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Atria Paperback.
- Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226.
- Fredrickson, B., and Levenson, R. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 191–220.