The Benefits of Happiness and Positive Emotions
Only in recent years have psychologists begun to appreciate the benefits of happiness and positive emotion — benefits that include everything from enhanced creativity to improved immune-system function. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, a leader in the field of positive psychology, posed the question, “What good are positive emotions?” and came up with the following possibilities.
Happiness broadens your focus and expands your thinking
Positive emotions — curiosity, love, joy, contentment, wonder, excitement — expand your focus of attention. When you’re angry, your focus narrows to the source of your frustration and the object of your wrath. Your mind is like a heat-seeking missile, bent on destruction.
Contrast this with what happens when you get excited about something — your mind opens up and there’s a free flow of ideas and intellectual possibility. Curiosity abounds. This is precisely why passion is so essential to artistic endeavors. This is also why you need a high positivity ratio in the workplace if you want a high rate of productivity and a healthy bottom line.
Psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School teaches his patients the art of mindfulness meditation as a means of expanding their awareness of those things they fear most, for example, chronic pain and depression. He has patients relax their bodies while at the same time opening up their minds. The irony here is that the more clearly you think about your pain, the less it distresses you.
When Kabat-Zinn and others studied the brain activity that accompanies this type of meditation, they found that it was the left frontal lobe of the brain that was literally turned on — the part that scientists refer to as the “happy brain.”
Happiness improves your ability to problem-solve
When you’re frustrated and you’re having trouble solving some problem that confronts you, what you need is a good laugh. Laughter unfreezes a “stuck” brain. Think of humor as a lubricant that allows the wheels — your thought processes — to once again move toward a solution. The mechanism that underlies effective problem-solving is creativity, which is your brain’s ability to come up with novel, unique answers to life’s many challenges.
Happiness builds physical, intellectual, and social resources
Positive emotions build the following resources:
Physical resources: People are more playful when they’re happy — they’re interested in golf, tennis, marathon running, scuba-diving, and water-skiing. Happy people are more likely to exercise on a regular basis. Part of this comes from the higher self-esteem seen in happy people. In short, happiness translates into physical fitness — stronger muscles, improved heart-lung function, and increased flexibility.
Intellectual resources: People learn better when they’re in a positive frame of mind.
The most effective schoolteachers are the ones who find ways to make education enjoyable — laughter makes kids pay attention and attention is the key to learning. The same is true when you go to a continuing education experience; you want a speaker who is not only knowledgeable about his subject matter, but who can be entertaining.
Social resources: Human beings gravitate toward positive people and away from negative ones.
Think about the biblical prescription, “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you,” and decide how you want to be treated. If you want to be treated badly, then by all means act badly toward others. However, if you want people to smile at you, you need to greet them with cheer. More often than not, this is what you’ll get in return.
Happiness counteracts negative emotions
Happiness is one antidote to rage. Optimism can be an antidote to fear and cynicism. Joy is the opposite of misery. Humor defuses a desire for vengeance. Positive and negatives emotions can’t exist at the same moment in time. Embracing one negates the other.
The next time you find yourself feeling negative — upset, angry, sad — try replacing that with a positive feeling and see what happens. Think about someone who makes you laugh, something that excites you, some activity that pleases you — it may provide just the escape you need from those negative emotions.
Happiness protects your health
You probably already know that getting upset or angry can raise your blood pressure and, in the worst-case scenario, precipitate a heart attack or stroke. But did you know that positive emotions can lower your blood pressure and risk for cardiovascular disease? Well, they can.
The pioneering work of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson illustrated that when stressed people watched a film that left them feeling amused and content, that led to quicker recovery of heart function. She also noted that stressed subjects who smiled while watching a sad movie had a more rapid heart rate recovery. Her thesis is that positive emotions undo the effects of stress and, therefore, protect a person’s health.
Other studies have shown that something as simple as getting a light touch on your hand from a compassionate friend or the act of petting your favorite animal can also lower your blood pressure — and, neither requires a prescription, gets you into a hassle with your insurance carrier, or has negative side-effects.