Positive Emotions Create an "Upward Spiral"

Positive Emotions Create an "Upward Spiral"

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Everybody at one time or the other encourages another to be positive, think positive or engage in positive emotions. We all know it's a good idea to be positive, but we don't know exactly how. In this article, I will discuss how positive thoughts and emotions can help all of us.

We recognize that emotions have a purpose. The purpose of negative emotions is to help us survive and that of positive emotions to help us thrive.

Negative emotions such as fear, anger or disgust prepare us mentally and physically to take an immediate action against an object or situation that poses a threat. For example, fear prepares us to run away from a ferocious animal, anger to attack and subdue an enemy and disgust to expel or shun poisonous and noxious substances.

Thus, negative emotions protect us from life threatening situations but when used excessively and inappropriately, these very life saving emotions can become life threatening. To take just one example, they can mess up the function of internal organs including the immune function, which can have serious consequences for health.

Positive emotions such as joy, hope, optimism, love, contentment and gratitude help us to grow as a person, energize us for positive action, solve problems, improve the quality of our relationships and increase our sense of emotional well-being. When we engage in positive emotions habitually, over time, they can become life enhancing. So, it's up to us to avoid life threatening emotions and increasingly engage in the life enhancing emotions.

While positive emotions broaden the range of our thinking and actions, negative emotions may narrow our thinking and actions. When we experience positive affect, we show a greater preference for a larger variety of actions and see and think of more possibilities and options to solve whatever problem we face.

People with positive affect are more likely to take action. They are proactive. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan says that positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment, pride and love broaden the scope of our thinking and actions. We tend to approach and explore novel objects, people and situations under such emotions.

Barbara Fredrickson and Christine Branigan found that people had more ideas regarding things they would like to do when they were shown positive films that aroused feelings of joy and contentment. People who were shown negative films, which evoked the emotions of anger and fear, had fewer ideas regarding things they would like to do. The study suggests that when people experience joy and mild contentment, they are more likely to think of a wider range of action.

People, who habitually experience positive emotions, become more resilient over time and develop a greater sense of emotional well-being. They are more likely to develop long-term plans and goals.

People who are not optimistic or hopeful about the future aren't likely to work too hard planning for it. They might start worrying too much and not take the desired action. They may stop in their track by asking themselves a question such as this, "What's the point?" If the problem still continues, they may personalize their disappointment and say, "I am a failure."

People who find a positive meaning during adversity and keep a positive affect during ordinary events may have a greater ability to cope with adverse circumstances and bounce back quickly from them. Maintaining a positive affect during chronic stress or chronic illness helps us cope with these adversities. In bereavement, people with a positive emotional bent, adapt quicker to loss, set new life goals, reconnect to the survivors and form new relationships.

Negative emotions create a downward spiral. Depressed, anxious or irritated mood saps the energy out of us. Negative mood dampens the spirit of the thought. As thinking narrows down, we might not see solutions that might be right under our eyes. We begin to pay inadequate attention to the environment around us, so we miss the cues and details that could have been helpful to us. As a result, we see our options to be far more limited than they actually are.

Pessimism and hopelessness might discourage us from taking appropriate and timely actions. The feedback from worsening circumstances, breakdown of relationships and deteriorating health, over time, creates a sense of failure and a distorted view of the future.

Positive emotions create an upward spiral. Psychologists say that positive emotions help us to see positive meaning in all events and circumstances. When you feel that everything that happens to you has a positive meaning, you generate even more positive emotions. When thinking and attention are broadened by positive emotions, you begin to believe that there is an opportunity behind every adversity.

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Copyright 2001, Mind Publications 


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