Rediscovering Positive Emotions
Updated: Jul 2
We can’t underestimate the power of positive emotions in growing our resilience. We need to be experiencing as many as possible when we are facing challenging times. But when we are faced with pressures and demands, or feelings of overwhelm it can be hard to notice and connect with positive emotions. In this blog we help you to find ways of rediscovering positive emotions.
Why positive emotions are important during tough times
Traditionally, psychological research on emotions has been concerned with understanding negative emotions and psychological disorders. But over the last 30 years or so, psychologists have taken more notice of positive emotions, trying to understand what they are and why we have them.
A key researcher in the field of positive psychology, Barbara Fredrickson was researching positive emotions in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. At a time when 50-70% of the general public were experiencing symptoms of depression, she found that the people who noticed and experienced more positive emotions, like hope, gratitude, and love, were protected from developing depression.
This, along with other research, highlights the role of positive emotions in generating optimism through difficult times, creating a sense of hope, and confidence that however bad the situation is, it will pass.
Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of Emotions describes the evolutionary importance of both positive and negative emotions for survival.
Negative emotions have an immediate survival advantage, protecting us from threat, by stimulating our bodies’ energy reserves and preparing us to fight or flee.
The experience of positive emotions, on the other hand, calms our bodies, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and leading to feelings of safety and contentment. At these times we are better able to innovate, to be curious and interested and engage in other activities that make us feel good. From our evolutionary past, this is when our ancestors would have created stone tools or the hunting strategy that we see in cave paintings.
How to rediscover positive emotions
So what can you do to rediscover and hold onto positive emotions during challenging times?
Something as simple as taking a walk in the local park provides a wealth of opportunities to rediscover positive emotions. For example, try noticing and appreciating the small things: the beauty of some wildflowers, the fresh air, and sunshine on your face, exchanging a smile with another walker, hearing music playing through an open window, enjoying the company of your dog or noticing how the wind moves the trees. These small details can act as an antidote to anxiety and worry and bring moments of contentment, gratitude, and joy. Making the most of them is so important. The positive emotions that we get at these times make us feel good and produce a sense of hope, reminding us that however tough and uncertain the times we are experiencing may be, they will pass.
You may also want to try out these other ideas that have been shown to grow positive emotions:
Celebrate what’s right
See if you can notice what is right with the world or in your life at this moment, even if the only positive you can see is that this low moment will pass.
Experience and express gratitude
Try to take a moment to move your focus away from the many challenges you may be facing currently and notice or write down what there is to be grateful for. Expressing gratitude to someone else is also important and has been shown to significantly improve happiness and reduce symptoms of depression.
Open your mind
Try changing your routine, sit in a different chair, take a different route on your walk. There is always something to discover and be interested in.
Be more mindful
Practising mindfulness or just connecting with the present moment opens your mind.
Be kind to others
Random acts of kindness however small, have been shown to grow our positive emotions and they make other people feel good too. There is plenty of opportunity to link into local initiatives aimed at supporting the elderly or those in need.
Connect with friends and family
Take time to savour and reflect on positive experiences together. Make plans for sharing pleasurable activities in the future. Anticipating and looking forward to these
events will help to maintain a sense of hope and excitement.
Write down three good things
Each day try writing down three good things. Perhaps keep a notebook by your bed and end your day with a reflection on what has gone well. Include any of the small things you have noticed and appreciated on a walk, at home, online. It might include funny things that you have heard or watched, or moments of kindness that you have offered to others or received. It might be just having a chat with the person at the supermarket checkout or a neighbour that you haven't seen for a while.
Doing this will help to shift your spotlight of attention to the positive things that are happening, however small. Particularly at times when life feels more difficult, this journal of daily positives will act as a reminder that there are always moments of joy to be had.
And remember that we actually experience more positive emotions than negative, we just aren’t used to noticing them. Our negative emotions are important for self-protection, so they naturally grab our attention more.
So see if you can just start noticing your positive emotions whenever they arise, and as you do this you will start to feel better.
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