The power of positive emotions

Experiencing positive emotions is more than just “a nice feeling.” Science is demonstrating that positive emotions have a hidden value that directly affects (and improves) your well-being on a day-to-day basis. To learn more, BeWell spoke with Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, who earned her PhD at Stanford, is currently Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with appointments in Psychology and the Kenan-Flagler School of Business. She also directs that university’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) Lab and is the author of several books, including Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection and Positivity.

Much of your work involves the study of positive emotions. Can you tell us a little about this, and about why positive emotions are so beneficial and important?

We are learning that positive emotions act like nutrients. While experiences of joy, gratitude, or serenity may seem fleeting and inconsequential, science is showing that these experiences influence how our brains work, opening our mindsets to become more encompassing and flexible. The more we experience such moments of broadened awareness, the more we build up our resilience and resourcefulness. I have called this the “broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions” — which explains the hidden value of positive emotions and how even small moments that uplift us add up to help us become better versions of ourselves.

What prompted your interest in the study of positive emotions?

Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when I was a graduate student at Stanford, and later a post-doc at UC Berkeley, the science of psychology was just “rediscovering” emotions. For decades before then, they were considered too slippery, too inconsequential to be targets of serious scholarship. Although that was beginning to change, I noticed that nearly all the scientific attention was going toward investigations of negative emotions: anger, fear, sadness, even disgust. My attraction to uncharted areas drew me to puzzle over the positive emotions. I wanted to understand why they, too, were part of our universal human experience.

What does love mean and what makes it a positive emotion?

Love means so many things! As a scientist who studies the value of positive emotions, I define love as a micro-moment of positive connection — that sliver of time when you and another share a smile or a laugh, and move to the same hidden beat. Love has many forms, of course, but what makes it an emotion is that we experience it in waves, like when our heart is touched by someone else’s experience. Emotions are transient experiences that infuse both mind and body. Although we most commonly use the word “love” to describe the strong bonds we have with our inner circle, I think it is also useful to see love as these transient micro-moments of positive connection with another. Having more of those micro-moments is what builds and strengthens our bonds. Simply knowing that can be useful. It sheds light on the mystery of how to strengthen our most cherished relationships.

What is the most interesting or surprising conclusion you have reached about positivity over the course of your research?

What I find most surprising is that day-to-day experiences of positive emotions add up to make our physical hearts healthier, more resilient. Often, when we think of love and positivity, images of cartoon hearts come to mind. Yet when we share a laugh or a smile with another, we each may be getting a miniature tune-up of our cardiovascular systems. More broadly, beyond these benefits for physical health, micro-moments of shared positivity contribute to feelings of safety within our communities. Little by little, these moments help to build trust and loyalty.

How can we use positivity to improve our psychological well-being and social relationships?

One way is simply to develop a habit of reflecting on connection. Each evening, think of the people you spent time with that day. Did you feel close to them, in tune with them? My team and I have found that simply reflecting on connections in this way raises people’s emotional well-being and contributes to cardiovascular health. Another way is to practice ancient forms of meditation that center on cultivating kindness and compassion. The website for my book, Love 2.0 offers several free, guided meditations that people can use to explore this simple, yet powerful practice:

How can we make the most of the benefits of positive emotions?

Simply recognizing that each day holds countless opportunities for positive emotions and positive connections can make a difference. What matters is that you see these micro-moments of positivity as nourishment for your own — and even others’ — health and well-being. If you don’t appreciate these opportunities, you’ll likely pass over them and miss out. It makes a difference when we prioritize positivity on our daily lives.

Dr. Fredrickson gave two consecutive talks at Stanford on May 12, 2016 at Stanford Health Promotion Network’s Summit VI: Crafting your Culture.

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