We all know the experience of positive emotions make us feel good with ourselves and others. But could they have another function other than just that? Evolutionary speaking, what are positive emotions for?
Up until recently, research has been extensive on the so-called negative emotions and their role in evolution. It is posited that negative emotions were key in survival, where the “fight or flight” mechanism was crucial to our species endurance. The stress induced when facing a large animal where a decision had to be made if it dangerous or “potential food”, made our ancestors react, propelling them to action.
But what about positive emotions? What good are they for?
In 1998, researcher Barbara Fredrickson proposed the Broaden-and-built model of positive emotions. Feeling that research wasn’t paying enough attention to the role of positive emotions in human life, she set out to find out why we need positive emotions as much as the negative ones. She suggested that positive emotions broaden our scope of action-thinking and have a major role in physical, cognitive and social resources.
Mainly, positive emotions are essential resources in resilience, serving as reserves to help us cope with adversity and promote health and well-being. Her research suggests that the more positive emotions people experience throughout their day and their lives, the faster they can react when faced with negative emotions.
One of her most fascinating discoveries has to do with the fact that positive emotions can counteract the effects of negative ones. Meaning that the prolonged effects of negative emotions on cardiovascular diseases and cancer, for instance, can be counteracted with the experience of positive emotions. So if you lead an extremely stressful life, you might want to consider balancing the odds in your everyday life by introducing space for positive emotions.
Are people who experience positive emotions at a greater level different from the rest of us?
Not quite. People who experience positive emotions at a great level tend to pay a great deal of attention to positive emotions, and their reserves of positive emotions function as an upward spiral of positivity (Fredrickson, 2001). Consciously or unconsciously, positive emotions seekers tend to find positive emotions even in neutral situations and view the negative ones as part of a necessary personal growth (Diener & Biwas-Diener, 2008).
Are people who experience more positive emotions happier?
In his 2002 book Authentic Happiness, the “father” of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman states that happiness (or well-being is now the correct term to use) can be achieved through:
- The seeking of pleasure;
- The seeking of engagement activities;
- The search for meaning in life.
In a research done in 2005, researchers Peterson, Park and Seligman set out to answer what makes a full life so different from the empty life? Mainly they were interested in knowing whether the experience of positive emotions through pleasure, engagement or meaning contributed to a sense of greater well-being and life satisfaction and if those 3 experiences were any different between themselves. They found evidence that all 3 types of positive experiences where key in building up a sense of general well-being and higher levels of life satisfaction. However the 3 types of experiences seemed to have no difference between themselves.
Nonetheless, the authors still state that a life of eudemonia – the search for personal improvement and fulfillment – versus a life of hedonism – a constant seek for pleasure may result in a more enduring happiness. The idea that a life based on the search for meaning entails a happier life finds resonance in Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy theory, where the key to leading a full life is a meaningful one.
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