Last week’s post on negative emotions got people talking about the intersection of mental and physical wellbeing. It also filled my inbox (a very good thing, in my opinion). True, it’s not usual subject matter for MDA. Living Primally, however, is about taking a full and nuanced view on enhancing our health. That’s what we’re all after, isn’t it? So, if we recognize how negative emotions – when they’re allowed to linger beyond their natural, short-term function – can undermine our physiological wellbeing, why not take a look at the flip-side? Is positive thinking mere psychobabble fluff as some would argue? Does it attract love, opportunity, and other good energies the universe has to offer? I’ll leave these angles for others to explore (although feel free to argue your own perspective on the board). For my part, I’m all about the brass tacks basics. I’m sure you can guess: the physiological impact of positive feelings and their potential evolutionary roots. Call me a simple guy.
Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has spent years researching the role of positive emotions in human health and cognition – and assembling a theoretical picture of their evolutionary value. According to her “Broaden and Build Theory,” positive emotions were selected for over the long-term because they allowed for a “cognitive flexibility” that allowed for the development of a broader “repertoire” of behavioral choices. In other words, positive feelings encouraged our ancestors to consider situations differently and make new and novel choices that ended up enhancing their survival. More open thinking led them to smarter decisions or more effective solutions to problems they and their kin faced.
Mull for a minute your thinking when angry versus happy, dejected versus hopeful. When do you feel more productive and creative? While negative emotions often push us toward knee jerk or at least simplified reactions (which had their immediate adaptive value at some point), positive emotions “broaden” or open our field of vision. They invite musing, play, and invention. Fredrickson and her team have even studied the literal connections among positive emotion, expansive thought, and physical attention. Good feelings, they’ve found, enhance our “global” (i.e. big picture) thinking, and even expands our perception of what’s in our peripheral vision. As subtle as these cognitive benefits can seem, they could mean the difference between life and death in the hard scrabble, unpredictable world of our forebears.
From a physiological standpoint, research has shown that positive emotions as varied as love, compassion, and gratitude encourage “harmonious” heart rhythms. In other words, emotional equanimity fosters synchronized, balanced, and efficient physiological patterns in the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Other research suggests that even more abstract positive emotions like hope and curiosity offer protective benefits from diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. Are correlations like this hard to confirm in the messy, nuanced picture of individual lives? Sure. Nonetheless, there’s clear logic behind the premise. The more time we spend in emotional states that put our body in physiological balance, the better our health will be. Fredrickson highlights the physical power of positive emotions in a theory she calls “undoing.” Aside from the cognitive advantages, the primary physiological benefit of positive emotions is the “undoing” of negative stress induced responses. Good feelings calm our cardiovascular reactivity and sympathetic nervous systems. Positivity, in other words, returns us to physical homeostasis. Hmmm…positivity as a default setting? There’s an intriguing thought.
All this begs the question, what emotions fuel our lives? How much positivity do we experience in a day – and how much negativity do we need to recover from? Fredrickson’s research suggests we need at least three positive emotions to one negative in order to “flourish” within our individual lives and relationships. How do we stack up?
I’d suggest the real point isn’t bean counting our way through emotional interactions each day. Nor is it about forcing a shiny, happy attitude on your life. Living deeply and authentically involves experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion, about discovering the depths of human feeling. There’s a unique magnitude to be found in the more solemn dimensions of our lives. Ultimately, however, it isn’t about the sum of happy, carefree circumstances but the rich as well as positive feelings we cultivate in response to life. Do we find meaning in the overall endeavor? Do we allow ourselves to see beauty in a day? Do we choose experiences and entertainment that move us emotionally? Do we ultimately drink up the positivity of our lives – the possible love, gratitude, inspiration, humor, and contentment?
Allowing ourselves to recognize and relish the positive in life doesn’t diminish the suffering some people endure or justify the injustices of the world. Nor does it undo the heavier burdens we may carry. Nonetheless, when we recognize the power of positive emotion on our wellbeing – indeed, the critical role of positivity in our basic health, it’s a downright shame to deny ourselves the full portion of its benefits.
Thanks for reading today, everybody. Let me know your thoughts on positivity and the role it has in your life.