The Power of Positive Emotion

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

What if I told you that there is a pill you could take that would make you smarter, healthier, happier, have more friends, and live longer?

…. Ok, there’s no pill. This is the power of positive emotion.

Have you ever wondered what positive emotions do for us? One of the founding mothers of positive psychology, Barbara Fredrickson, asked that very question. Fredrickson developed the Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotion which states that specific emotions evoke specific action tendencies and physiological responses. For example, when we feel disgust, we tend to expel, saving us from potential toxins. When we feel fear, we tend to run away and escape from potential predators. When we feel anger, we tend to fight and defend ourselves, and when we feel guilt, we tend to want to make amends.

“Positive emotions broaden our focus and actions.”

Fredrickson identified that negative emotions tend to narrow our focus and actions, whereas positive emotions tend to broaden our focus and actions, and the effects of positive emotion accumulate and compound over time creating a reciprocal upward spiral. For example, when we are curious, we tend to explore, which leads to discovery, which leads to pleasure, which leads to repetition, which leads to mastery, which leads to increased confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy, which leads to more exploration, and up and up the spiral goes.

“Positive emotion enhances our prosocial behaviour.”

Moreover, when we feel positive emotion, we expand our social capital, as we are more likely to seek out and enjoy the company of others, and others are more likely to seek us out. Studies indicate that positive emotion enhances our prosocial behaviour, meaning we are more sensitive, generous, helpful, and kinder toward others. We are more likely to build friendships, social connections and seek social support. Positive emotion has also been shown to increase behaviours of extraversion, openness, and adventurousness, prompting us to seek out social and environmental interaction, increasing empathy and a sense of closeness to others, as well as positive feelings of the self. Positive emotion also enhances our sense of purpose and meaning, as well as our ability to adapt and cope with adversity, enhancing our resiliency, optimism, well-being, life satisfaction, and psychological functioning.

Positive emotion also increases our knowledge and intelligence, as the more we explore and discover, the more we learn, the more knowledge we accumulate, and the more skills we master. Studies show that positive emotion is associated with enhanced attention, problem-solving, creativity, play, motivation, openness, perspective taking, and impulse control. Positive emotion has been found to significantly enhance success in major life domains.

“Positive emotion enhances our physical health.”

Additionally, the research shows that positive emotion can also enhance our physical health, as we are more likely to eat better, sleep better, and exercise more when we feel happy. Research shows that positive emotions increase our energy levels, activity, and physical arousal. Not only that, research demonstrates that positive emotion significantly increases our autonomic, metabolic and immune functioning, independent of age, gender, health behaviour and negative emotion. Positive emotion has also been associated with reduced inflammation, cortisol levels and the negative effects of stress, and symptoms of illness and pain, as well as a decreased risk of disease, disability, morbidity, rumination, self-criticism, anxiety and depression.

“Positive emotion is a stronger predictor

of longevity than smoking!!”

And if I haven’t convinced you of the power of positive emotion on all life domains yet, let me share a rather brilliant and famous study on the effects of positive emotion and longevity! Danner, Snowdon, and Friesen (2001) conducted a study to assess potential associations between positive emotion and longevity, noting that basic emotions, such as happiness, fear, sadness and disgust, have distinct autonomic responses, potentially forming lifelong patterns affecting health and longevity. The authors scored the emotional content from handwritten autobiographies of 180 Catholic nuns written between 1931 and 1943 at a mean age of 22. The emotional scores were compared to longevity of the nuns during a mortality follow-up period six decades later between November 1991 and September 2000. Their study showed a strong significant association between positive emotional content and longevity, indicating a difference of 10.7 years between individuals scoring within the lowest quartile and those scoring in the highest quartile for the number of different positive emotional expressions. That is a stronger predictor of longevity than smoking!!

So, what influences our emotion?... Very simply, our perceptions and our thoughts.

The ability to experience positive emotion relies on our thought processes, specifically, the capacity to recognize, regulate, manipulate, and maintain positive emotion. Research shows that we have between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts per day, and 80% of those thoughts are negative. Moreover, 95% of our thoughts are the same thoughts we had the day before, almost half of our thoughts are about the past or the future, having nothing to do with our present moment, and 85% of our worry thoughts never happen at all. So, while the ability to predict future events and contemplate about past events is a magnificent cognitive achievement that enables us to learn, reason and plan, you can see how this negatively-biased wondering mind does not serve us. In fact, research shows that it can increase depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, and generally negative emotion.

So, if we are biologically wired to think negatively, how do we bring more positivity into our lives?

Research in positive psychology has some great ideas! The research shows that increasing gratitude and self-compassion, writing down three goods things each day and how we contributed to them, performing random acts of kindness, and using signature strengths in a new way can significantly increase our positive emotion, well-being, and life-satisfaction.


“A sense of thankfulness and joy

in response to receiving a gift

whether the gift be a tangible benefit from a specific other

or a moment of peaceful bliss evoked by natural beauty.”

(Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 554)

Gratitude has been shown to increase positivity, enhance experiences, promote savouring, and decrease stress. Savouring past events and positively anticipating future events can enhance people’s perspectives and behaviour, as well as enhance memory, problem-solving, and emotional intensity. We can increase our sense of gratitude by writing down three things you are grateful for every day for two weeks.

3 Good Things

Studies show that the capacity to recognize and sustain even small positive events enhances one’s ability to achieve optimal functioning. This exercise has been widely researched, and is proven to increase positivity by increasing gratitude. It is easy to do, and doesn’t take more than 10 minutes. Try this exercise every day for 2 weeks.

· Start by writing down the event. Give it a title.

· Be as specific as you can as you recall the event.

· Include how you felt at the time of the event, and how you feel as you write about it.

· Describe how you contributed to this event happening.

· Writing it down, as opposed to just thinking about it, significantly increases levels of positivity.


“Self-compassion is the permission to be human.”

According to Kristen Neff, the leading researcher on self-compassion, self-compassion involves treating ourselves with kindness, sharing a common humanity, and building mindfulness. Neff points out that we say the most horrible things to ourselves, far worse than what we would say even to someone we didn’t like, much less to someone we love. Self-compassion advocates that we treat ourselves and talk to ourselves the way we talk and treat our closest friends. Self-compassion is the permission to be human. It empathizes that we all make mistakes sometimes. We all feel badly sometimes, and it’s OK to be human with all the experiences that come with humanity. Additionally, when positive emotion enriches perceptions of the self, it can enhance connectivity and positivity with previous memories. However, in order to treat ourselves with kindness and share a common humanity, we must first develop an awareness of the stories we tell ourselves. We must develop mindfulness.

Studies show that mindfulness and the use of cognitive imagery can increase the intensity and frequency of positive emotion. For example, mindfulness not only focuses on being present in the moment, but also teaches mood regulation and maintenance through nonjudgmental awareness, and the understanding that choice is a possibility. It teaches individuals to consider their personal needs, recognize their mental states and disturbances, and to observe and feel before expressing behaviour. So, the next time you notice that you’re beating yourself up for something, stop! And instead, tell yourself what you would tell your closest friend.

Random Acts of Kindness

The research shows that performing random acts of kindness can significantly increase our levels of positivity. Try to perform one random act of kindness every day for two weeks. Alternatively, you could perform as many acts of kindness in a single day as time will allow once a week for four weeks. The more acts of kindness you perform in a day significantly influences levels of positivity.

Using Character Strengths in New Ways

Positive psychology has identified 24 character strengths that fall within 6 categories of virtues that are universal across nations, cultures, and religions. We all have these strengths within us in varying degrees, demonstrating how we uniquely impact the world. Strengths are natural, moral, and buildable. When we use our strengths, we feel energized, empowered, and at our best. Research indicates that using our strengths in different ways every day can significantly increase our levels of positivity.

· Go to the Values in Action (VIA) website and take the free survey.


· Read about your strengths.

· Think of a time when you were at your best. What strengths were you using then?

· Consider what strengths you use together more often or in different situations.

· Use one strength in a different way every day for two weeks.


Positive emotion has been identified as a psychological strength offering significant health, work, family, and economic benefits. Positive emotion may have a long-term adaptive function by expanding cognitive, behavioural, and social resources, optimizing functioning, and allowing for continued growth. Neurological structures and networks associated with positive emotion represent an extensive array of emotion, cognitions, and behaviour, linking limbic areas to autonomic processes, visceral organs, sensory processing, and high-level executive functioning. A large body of research has also demonstrated that positive affect increases longevity, and cardiac and immune function, while decreasing stress, disease and disability. Moreover, positive affect is associated with enhanced cognitive function, coping, social support, and health behaviours, as well as reduced depression and anxiety. While socioeconomic factors and personality influence positive affect, the capacity to recognize, regulate, manipulate, and maintain positive affect relies on one’s thought processes, memories, future plans, and self-reflection. Several interventions have been developed to increase positive emotion, including gratitude, kindness, compassion, mindfulness, and character strengths.

End Notes

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