Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Positive emotion

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Positive emotion:
What are positive emotions, why do we have them, what are their effects, and how can they be enhanced?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Positive emotion is much more than just "happiness". There are a range of positive emotions we experience, and each are important in maintaining a healthy well-being. Positive emotions have motivational, social, and psychological purposes which help us achieve this healthy well-being. Fredrickson (2009) identified the 10 most common positive emotions as joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. However, different psychological perspectives have different opinions on the number of positive emotions we have.

The Broaden-and-build theory of positive emotion suggests that positive emotions broaden our awareness and encourage exploratory thoughts and actions, which later build our personal skills and resources. This process leads to increased well-being. Positive emotions also have motivational purposes as every emotion aims to satisfy a different motivational urge, which is important as without this, we wouldn't have enough motivation to flourish and grow.

Research has identified many psychological and social benefits that come from positive emotions, with the reward pathway aiming to physiologically explain one mechanism within the brain that contributes to experiencing positive affect. However, this reward pathway has also been shown to decrease well-being in the long-term as it can lead to the development of unhealthy behaviours and addictions.

Positive emotion can be enhanced through the use of positive psychology interventions (PPIs) which are strategies that focus on increasing overall happiness, well-being, and positive cognitions and emotions (Keyes et al., 2012). There are many different types of PPIs, each showing support for an increase in positive emotion. Previous research has primarily focused on negative emotions rather than positive emotions. Therefore, more research is needed within this area to better understand why we have positive emotions and how these emotions function physiologically.

Focus questions:

  • What are positive emotions?
  • Why do we have positive emotions?
  • What are the effects of positive emotions?
  • How can we enhance positive emotion?

What are positive emotions?[edit | edit source]

"We cannot choose our emotions, but we can modify, interpret, and vary their implication" (Lovoll et al., 2017).

Emotions arise in response to a specific event, motivate specific adaptive behaviours, and are short lived. They help us adapt to opportunities and challenges we face during important life events, motivate us to achieve a particular goal, and indicate how well our personal progress is tracking. Positive emotions are emotions that we typically find pleasurable to experience. There are many different perspectives on the number of positive emotions we have, which has sparked a debate that has led to a multitude of research. Fredrickson (2009) identified the 10 most common positive emotions (see Table 1).

Table 1

10 Positive Emotions (Fredrickson, 2009)

Joy Joy is one of the most common positive emotions to be identified and is commonly sought after. It facilitates our willingness to engage in social activities, has a "soothing function", and also creates the urge to play and to be creative. It is often short-term appearing and fades quickly.
Gratitude Gratitude is a positive emotion that arises after receiving something of value and is a strong correlate with happiness. By feeling grateful, you are focused on the positives rather than the negatives, which is why gratitude interventions are commonly used to enhance our mood. Gratitude also has two components known as exchange relationships (benefits are given in a contingent "with strings attached" way) and communal relationships (benefits are given in a non-contingent "no strings attached" way).
Serenity Serenity is commonly explained by the feeling of being calm and content with what you have.
Interest Interest is the most prevalent emotion in day-to-day functioning (Izard, 1991). It creates the urge to explore, investigate, seek, manipulate, and extract information from the objects that surround us. It motivates environmental engagement and also helps replenish personal resources. Having interest in something also creates inquiry arousal which is the state of arousal where we seek to find more, typically after a stimulus has piqued our curiosity.
Hope Hope arises with a wish that a desired goal might be attained (Bruininks & Malle, 2005). It is known as a positive feeling of an assumed future in which good things happen. It typically goes hand-in-hand with other positive emotions such as joy and is also associated with optimism. It also helps people stay motivated and focused on a particular goal.
Pride Pride is a sub-category of joy and is known as a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure derived from one's own achievements or the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated with, such as pride in one's work or one's team. Pride can help boost self-esteem and alert the self and others that one is worthy of acceptance and status.
Amusement Amusement is also a sub-category of joy and happens when we find something funny. It is a helpful way of connecting with others socially through shared amusement, and can also help us to not take things too seriously.
Inspiration Inspiration is the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something. People who are inspired often feel engaged, uplifted, and motivated by something they witnessed.
Awe Awe is an emotion that is evoked when you witness something that is spectacular or breathtaking which sparks a sense of overwhelming appreciation. It is correlated with openness to experience and trying new things and can also be a very spiritual experience.
Love Love is an extremely powerful emotion which we first experience as an infant from our parents or carers. It is also very complex as there are different types of love such as unconditional love (seeking to give but not to receive) and romantic love (seeking to give and receive). Love can be directed at an individual, a group of people, or even all of humanity.

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The feeling of being calm and content with what you have describes which positive emotion?


Why do we have positive emotions?[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Broaden-and-build theory[edit | edit source]

Diagram of the Broaden-and-Build theory proposed by Barbara Fredrickson
Figure 1. Diagram of the Broaden-and-Build theory proposed by Barbara Fredrickson.

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, proposed by Barbara Fredrickson in 1998, was created to explain the conditions under which people flourish and grow, rather than flounder and stagnate. The theory suggests that positive emotional experiences first broaden an individual's momentary thought-action repertoires, and this greater open-mindedness then leads to actions that build or grow their personal resources, such as physical (facilitates health), intellectual (facilitates learning), and social (facilitates relationships) resources. This process increases the likelihood of an individual experiencing positive emotions in the future, which then leads to a greater well-being as portrayed within the diagram in Figure 1 (Ackerman, 2020).

The theory also helps individuals foster positive emotions and use them to better cope with negative emotions and everyday challenges they may experience. By increasing the probability of an individual focusing on the positives in future situations rather than the negatives, both positive emotion and psychological resilience increases (Fredrickson, 2011). Over time, the broaden-and-build theory has shown that positive emotions broaden people's thought-action repertoires, undo lingering negative emotions, fuel psychological resilience, and trigger upward spirals toward enhanced emotional well-being (Fredrickson, 2011).

Research that has examined the broadening effect of thought-action repertoires has shown that those experiencing positive affect display an increased preference for variety and accept a broader array of behavioural options (Kahn & Isen, 1993). Studies that use global-local visual processing paradigms to assess biases in attentional focus have found that negative states (anxiety, depression, and failure) predict local biases consistent with narrowed attention, whereas positive states (optimism and success) predict global biases that are consistent with broadening attention (Fredrickson, 2011). Due to this broadening effect that positive emotions have on our thought-action repertoires, they have been used to undo lingering effects of negative emotions. By using positive emotions to broaden an individual's momentary thought-action repertoire, negative emotions may be loosened by undoing preparation for a specific action. The theory also suggests that individuals who are higher in psychological resilience have the ability to "bounce back" quicker from adverse experiences, as their resilience may be fuelled by positive emotions. This increase in psychological resilience due to positive emotion has been shown to trigger an upward spiral toward enhanced emotional well-being. A study by Stein et al. (1997) examined this upward spiral and showed that people who experience positive emotions during bereavement were more likely to develop positive long-term plans and goals.

Motivational purposes[edit | edit source]

Each emotion has a motivational urge or action tendency that it is aiming to satisfy. For example, joy motivates an individual to continue striving towards a goal or continue engaging in social interaction, as it provides a feeling of satisfaction. Alternatively, interest motivates an individual to explore, seek, or acquire new information which promotes learning (Reeve, 2018). Positive emotions help motivate individuals to keep doing a particular task. For example, when someone who likes playing basketball plays a game, they generally experience high levels of enjoyment. This provides the individual with positive reinforcement as they are enjoying themselves which keeps them motivated to continue playing, as they want to experience that feeling over and over again. In organisational settings, research has shown that employees' positive mood states predict task performance. A longitudinal study among insurance sales agents from Taiwan demonstrated that the positive moods of the employees predicted task performance indirectly through interpersonal and motivational processes (Tsai et al., 2007). Employees in more positive moods may perform better by helping other co-workers and providing support (interpersonal), and by increased self-efficacy and task persistence (motivational). This relationship of co-worker support might be caused by the fact that individuals who are in positive moods often use cues (such as smiling) to draw co-workers into interaction and make them believe that helping a person in a positive mood will increase their own happiness (Tsai et al., 2007).

What are the effects of positive emotions?[edit | edit source]

Image of boy laughing
Figure 2. Young boy showing positive emotion.

[Provide more detail]

Psychological and social benefits[edit | edit source]

Positive outcomes in multiple domains such us health, relationships, and work has been linked to increased well-being in correlational, cross-sectional, and experimental studies. These effects are often found to be mediated by positive emotions, which are being physically portrayed within Figure 2. (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). We experience positive emotions in response to many different situations, and experiencing these emotions has many positive psychological and social effects. According to Reeve (2018), people who experience positive emotions and positive affect are more likely to:

  • Help others
  • Act sociably
  • Express greater liking for others
  • Be more generous to others and to themselves
  • Take risks
  • Act more cooperatively and less aggressively
  • Solve problems in creative ways
  • Persist in the face of failure feedback
  • Make decisions more efficiently
  • Show greater intrinsic motivation on interesting activities
  • Have increased cognitive flexibility

An example of just one of these benefits is demonstrated in a study by Isen et al. (1987) which used the candle problem created by Dunker (1945). A participant is given a pile of thumb tacks, a box of matches, and a candle, and are instructed to attach the candle to a wall (corkboard) in a way so it can burn without dripping wax on the floor. The participants who were in the positive affect group were exposed to a comedy film or received a small bag of candy and the control group were exposed to a neutral stimulus. The results showed that the positive affect group solved the candle problem in a more creative or unusual way, and the task stumped the neutral affect group. This result shows that there are inherent information-processing advantages brought about by feeling good and experiencing positive emotions (Reeve, 2018).

The reward pathway[edit | edit source]

The reward pathway is a circuit within the brain that is connected to areas which control behaviour and memory. It acts as a highway for the neurotransmitter dopamine which is important as it rewards us for beneficial behaviours, which then motivates us to repeat them. Dopamine is produced and released from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) when we first experience a pleasurable feeling. It gets released to the amygdala which is responsible for processing emotions, the nucleus accumbens which helps control the body's motor functions, the prefrontal cortex which helps us to focus attention and planning, and finally the hippocampus which is responsible for the formation of memories. An example of this pathway can be seen when we eat a delicious piece of food as the amygdala first recognises a pleasurable emotion and processes it as a pleasurable sensation. The hippocampus then remembers everything about the environment so we can experience the sensation again. This then causes the nucleus accumbens to move parts of the body such as the hand to continue eating the delicious piece of food, with the prefrontal cortex helping us to focus in and divert attention towards the piece of food. As dopamine increases within these areas in the brain we feel pleasurable emotions such as joy or happiness. While this is happening, the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is partly responsible for feelings of satiation decreases, which causes us to continue activating this reward pathway again and again.

While this reward pathway includes the experience of positive emotions as it physiologically increases happiness, it has been linked to long-term negative outcomes and a decrease in well-being through the development of an addiction. At first, smoking a cigarette or ingesting cocaine produces liking. However, because dopamine release occurs mostly with unexpected reward, the liking and pleasure associated with the cigarette or cocaine starts to fade as the reward becomes expected, rather than unexpected. Due to this process, wanting can occur without liking and the individual develops a physiological need (addiction) for the stimuli even though it no longer produces pleasure (Reeve, 2018). When an individual is suffering from negative feelings such as loneliness or stress, they may look for temporary relief and a quick boost in positive emotions (which the reward pathway creates) by using alcohol or drugs, which can later develop and unhealthy addiction (Baker, 2004).

Alternatively, positive emotions also have positive physiological effects on the body as people who experience positive emotions tend to experience less pain and disability related to chronic health conditions, fight off illness and disease more successfully (Cohen and Pressman, 2006) and even live longer (Danner et al., 2001). These positive findings may be due to positive emotions playing a role in helping people out of stressed and aversive states or experiences mentioned in the broaden-and-build theory.

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What area of the brain is dopamine made and released from?

Prefrontal cortex
Ventral tegmental area (VTA)

How can we enhance positive emotion?[edit | edit source]

Positive emotion can be enhanced through the use of positive psychology interventions (PPIs). Positive psychology is "the study of conditions and processes that contribute to flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions" (Chowdhury, 2020, p.1). PPIs are a set of strategies or tools that focus on increasing an individual's overall happiness, well-being, and positive cognitions and emotions (Keyes et al., 2012). They also help individuals learn how to better cope with negative events or moods they may experience (Seligman et al., 2006). Examples of just five of the common PPIs that have been used to enhance positive emotions are;

Savouring PPIs: Savouring PPIs focus attention and awareness on a specific experience and in doing so, prolong its pleasurable effects. They encourage the individual to grab every little aspect of an experience (physical, sensory, emotional, or social) and intentionally process all parts of that experience. Research within this area has shown that people who practice savouring PPIs report an increase in happiness and life satisfaction, as well as experiencing fewer depressive symptoms (Bryant, 2003). Schueller (2010) conducted a study in which participants were asked to reflect on two pleasurable experiences every day for 2 to 3 minutes, and to try and make them last as long as they could. After a week, the participants who practiced this savouring task showed improvements in the level of their well-being. Another example of a savouring PPI is "mindful photography" where participants are instructed to take pictures which have meaning for them for at least 15 minutes a day. Kurtz (2012) used this intervention and found that participants who engaged in this task showed more positive emotions after just two weeks.

Individual practising meditation, a common positive psychology intervention.
Figure 3. Individual practising meditation, a common positive psychology intervention.

Gratitude PPIs: Gratitude PPIs aim to evoke feelings of gratitude towards someone or something, which in turn creates positive events or feelings within an individual's life. The main form of gratitude interventions are self-reflective practices such as a "gratitude journal" which includes an individual writing down the things they are grateful for each day. A social component can also be included through expression in which the individual writes a "gratitude letter" addressed to a particular person. These methods have been shown to improve well-being by increasing positive emotions, improving health, increasing life satisfaction, and decreasing depressive symptoms (Reeve, 2018; Wood et al., 2010).

Kindness interventions: Kindness interventions promote happiness by getting participants to perform deliberate acts of kindness towards other people. The acts can be small and simple such as buying a coffee for a colleague, or carrying a heavy bag, with research noting that acting kindly is a common characteristic of happy people (Aknin et al., 2012). An example of a kindness intervention is "prosocial spending" or spending money on others. Spending money on others has been shown to lead to an increase in positive emotions and overall well-being (Dunn et al., 2008). When participants are asked to do kind acts for other people, they experience an increase in happiness, however these acts of kindness need to be quite regular each day in order to see the benefits.

Empathy PPIs: Empathy based PPIs focus on strengthening positive emotions in interpersonal relationships through the use of mindfulness practices. An example of an empathy PPI is loving-kindness meditation. In this activity, participants use meditation techniques (seen within Figure 3.) to create positive feelings and emotions towards themselves or someone else. Research on this technique has found that this activity leads to an increase in life satisfaction, decreases in depressive symptoms, and it also promotes positive emotions and behaviours in general (Fredrickson et al., 2008). Empathy based PPIs have also been used to promote forgiveness as the two are closely tied together (McCullough et al., 2006).

Optimism interventions: Optimism interventions focus on getting people to think about the future in a positive way and create positive outcomes by setting realistic expectations. A common activity used is the life summary technique, which is where an individual writes a 1-2 page summary of their life as they would like it to be replayed. They then examine how they currently spend their time in their everyday life and consider whether they might need to adjust their daily routine to match up with their ideal life (Seligman et al., 2006). This activity can lead to significant improvements in subjective well-being, and is also connected to less illness (King, 2001).

Case study Sam is an active 20-year-old who loves playing basketball. Recently, he injured himself during a game by rupturing his ACL and meniscus in his right knee. Because of this, he had to have a full knee reconstruction and can't play basketball for 12 months. This has made Sam experience negative emotions such as anger and sadness, and has also made him very short tempered towards his girlfriend who is trying to help him with his physio rehab. His girlfriend confronts him about the way he has been acting by saying that she doesn't feel appreciated and is upset. A few days later, Sam starts keeping a gratitude journal and writes his girlfriend a gratitude letter. After a few weeks of doing this, he notices that he is less short tempered, experiences more positive emotions, and is more optimistic about this physio rehab journey.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Positive emotions encompass a wide range of emotions, such as the 10 positive emotions identified by Frederickson (2009), all of which are important in maintaining a healthy well-being. The broaden-and-build theory explains why we have positive emotions by proposing that positive emotions broaden our awareness and encourage exploratory thoughts and actions, which builds enduring personal resources, and leads to an increased well-being. Each positive emotion also has a motivation urge such as joy motivating us to continue engaging in social interaction by providing us with a pleasurable experience. There are many psychological, social, and even physiological benefits that come from positive emotions, however, the experience of positive emotion may lead to the development of unhealthy behaviours or addiction over time, as explained by the reward pathway mechanism. In order to enhance positive emotion many different PPIs have shown a multitude of benefits to individual well-being. Future research within this area should focus more on the physical mechanisms behind positive emotions in order to better understand why we have them and how they work.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ackerman, C. E. (2020). Positive emotions: A list of 26 examples and definitions in psychology. Positive Psychology.

Aknin, L. B., Dunn E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2012). Happiness runs in a circular motion: Evidence for a positive feedback loop between prosocial spending and happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(2), 347-355.

Baker, T. B., Piper, M. E., McCarthy, D. E., Majeskie, M. R., & Fiore, M. C. (2004). Addiction motivation reformulated: An affective processing model of negative reinforcement. Psychological Review, 111(1), 33-51.

Bruininks, P., & Malle, B. F. (2005). Distinguishing hope from optimism and related affective states. Motivation and Emotion, 29(4), 327-355.

Bryant, F. B. (2003). Savouring beliefs inventory (SBI): A scale for measuring beliefs about savouring. Journal of Mental Health, 12(2), 175-196.

Chowdhury, M. R. (2020). 19 best positive psychology interventions and how to apply them. Positive Psychology.

Cohen, S., & Pressman, S. D. (2006). Positive affect and health. Current directions in psychological science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society, 15(3), pp. 112-125.

Cohn, M. A. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positive emotions. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), The oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 13-24). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Danner, D. D., Snowdon, D. A., & Friesen, W. V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5), pp. 804-813.

Duncker, K. (1945). On problem-solving (L. S. Lees, Trans.). Psychological Monographs, 58(5), i-113.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 319(5870), 1687-1688.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3-to-1 ratio that will change your life. Three Rivers Press.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build-theory of positive emotions. The American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226).

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem-solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122-1131.

Izard, C. E. (1991). The psychology of emotions. Plenum Press.

Kahn, B. E. & Isen, A. M. (1993). The influence of positive affect on variety-seeking among safe, enjoyable products. Journal of Consumer Research, 20(2), 257-270.

Keyes, C. L. M., Fredrickson, B. L., & Park, N. (2012). Positive psychology and the quality of life. Handbook of Social Indicators and Quality of Life Studies.

King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.

Kurtz, J. L. (2012). Seeing through new eyes: An experimental investigation of the benefits of photography. Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 11, 345-358.

Løvoll, H. S., Røysamb, E., & Vittersø, J. (2017). Experiences matter: Positive emotions facilitate intrinsic motivation. Cogent Psychology, 4(1), 1-15.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect. Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.

McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., & Cohen, A. D. (2006). Writing about the benefits of an interpersonal transgression facilitates forgiveness. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 887-897.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Seligman, M. E., Rashid, T., & Parks, A. C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. The American Psychologist, 61(8), 774-788.

Stein, N., Folkman, S., Trabasso, T., & Richards, T. (1997). Appraisal and goal processes as predictors of psychological well-being in bereaved caregivers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(4), 872-884.

Tsai, W. C., Chen, C. C., & Liu, H. L. (2007). Test of a model linking employee positive moods and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(6), 1570-1583.

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890-905.

External links[edit | edit source]