Positive Psychology’s relationship to emotions

One criticism of Positive Psychology (PP) has been that it focuses too much on positivity and neglects the reality of suffering as part of human experience. This results from a misperception of what PP is really about. The emergence of PP was indeed a reaction to a historical overemphasis in psychological research, theory and practice on psychopathology or what goes wrong with us. However, examining and promoting what goes right with us does not mean we aim to all go around grinning like Cheshire cats all the time. That would be unrealistic and we know this kind of expectation that can hamper rather than promote happiness. The term PP does lend itself to such an image but in this blog I argue that both positive and negative emotions are an essential part of PP and that true thriving is often found is often found in the dialectical balance where they meet.

What good are negative emotions?

We need negative emotions, without them we wouldn’t have evolved and we wouldn’t survive today. Negative emotions like fear, anger and disgust are a necessary call to action. They tell us something is wrong, they marshall our attention and narrow our focus to solve the problem. They are associated with the flight or fight response of the sympathetic nervous system which produces the physical changes the body needs to respond to a threat often before we’ve cognitively assessed the challenge. These responses were developed through natural selection because those who could respond better to the threat of physical harm lived longer and reproduced.

In modern society we fortunately face threat to life and limb less often but negative emotional responses remain important indicators that shouldn’t be ignored. If we feel regret it can tell us we need to put right something we have done. We may need to feel anger to stand up to unfairness or frustration to make us keep trying. All emotional states have an adaptive value including “negative” ones. Problems can arise if the physical stress responses to such situations are not dissipated through action. There aren’t too many sabre toothed tigers to run away from today and most of our fears relate to how we might be perceived by others which we then ruminate on or suppress rather than resolve, when what we need to do is ascertain what the emotion is telling us, work out if an action is needed and then either act on it or allow the emotion to dissipate.

One further complication is the negativity bias. Due to the evolutionary importance of negative emotions they carry more weight in the moment than positive states do. Simply “bad is stronger than good”. If you miss one beautiful sunset it’s not the end of the world, if you miss that snake you’re about to step on it could be. So that is how we’re programmed negative emotions, evaluations, words and even smells have a bigger effect on us and draw our attention more than their positive equivalents.

The functions of positive emotions

Positive emotions are quite different from negative emotions. They arise in times of safety and rest rather than threat and are not associated with particular physiological responses or a need to act. In fact research suggests positive emotions are linked to a broadening of attentional focus rather than the narrowing associated with negative emotions. This broadening leads to a state of consciousness where individuals experience a wider than normal range of perceptions, thought and actions. In short positive emotions help us look up and out, be more creative, perceptive, open, inclusive and social. The flexibility of this momentary broadened mindset promotes the development of personal physical, social, intellectual and psychological resources over time. In the long term positive emotions help us build resilience. In the development of complex human societies, where daily survival is less of a struggle these skills became vital for evolution.

Balancing the positive and negative

So both positive and negative emotions have important functions from an evolutionary point of view and remain vital to us in negotiating our human existence. However, negative emotions have a stronger effect. Also some people don’t seem to know how to engage with positive emotions or fear that doing so will jinx them. Research suggests that we need to experience more positive than negative emotions to overcome the negativity bias and enable wellbeing. There is considerable debate about the ratio involved but it seems that being able to enhance our positive emotions when necessary and recognise, appropriately utilise and manage our negative emotions can provide a balance that promotes flourishing. There are many well developed therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy which can help in understanding and managing negative emotions. PP is necessary because we also need to know how and when to access and utilise our positive emotions to best effect.

Second Wave PP

Second Wave PP aims to go beyond the simplicity of “positive” and “negative” emotions. It aims to help us achieve an emotional agility which looks at what emotions are telling us in particular contexts and how to use them and manage them to help us in the circumstances we face. Indeed many emotions such as hope and compassion encompass both positive and negative elements. The reality of human experience is that we all face both joy and suffering and the full range of emotions are necessary to allow us to survive, develop, love, thrive, fail, and grow. Learning to recognise, accept and harness our emotional resources in balance to face the particular challenges of today and seek the meaning that leads us to tomorrow is the path to wellbeing in our nuanced and complex existence.

About the author: Sarah Monk


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’







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