What else could positive emotions be for? Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes that positive emotions work differently than negative emotions. Whereas fear, anger, and disgust prompt us to fairly specific behaviours, positive emotions such as joy, interest and love make us feel safe and enable us to broaden our behavioural repertoire, so that we develop new skills and acquire knowledge that may be useful in the future. She calls this the broaden and build theory.
Her experiments have found that people who experience positive emotions have broader attention, greater working memory, enhanced verbal fluency and increased openness to information” (Peterson, 2006). We are better able to solve problems and accomplish tasks if we are “feeling good” than if we are feeling sad, or stressed.
Positive emotions also undo the effects of negative emotions, reducing stress in experimental subjects just by showing them a short film about puppies or waves on a beach. The subjects that got the sad films stayed stressed. This may explain the gallows humour shown by emergency workers under very stressful conditions.
Experiments outside the laboratory are rare at the moment, but you could try some yourself. You may have already done so. Try playing some of your favourite music when you are feeling stressed, or watch a favourite movie or TV show at the end of a long hard day. Play that favourite music before you need to perform some difficult task or when you are trying to solve a tricky problem. If you’ve been struggling with a problem all day, come back to it next morning when you are feeling more relaxed.
A mood is more like a state than a fleeting emotion. We might be in a good mood all day, or we maight have “got out of bed on the wrong side”. A mood is more likely to be described in behavioural terms such as cranky, chirpy, or good-natured, and do not usually have a specific object – something that has caused the mood. Moods are likely to influence what we do and think.
It appears that a person’s capacity to experience good moods or bad moods remains fairly constant. Difficult babies become crabby children and cranky old men and women. It also appears that mood stability remains constant, so moody children become changeable adults.
Good moods, or positive affectivity as the scientists would have it, are more likely to be shown be people who are happily married and enjoy their jobs. We don’t know whether the good moods cause the good marriages and jobs or whether it is the other way around. Religion is another factor in the lives of people with high positive affectivity, although again we do not know which comes first – the religion or the good moods.
It appears from studies of twins raised apart that positive affectivity is influenced in part by your genes. This means that to some extent we get it from our parents, but the glass is also half full – we can influence our general mood by knowing more about what affects our moods; by paying more attention to our actions than our thoughts, and by understanding that striving towards goals gives us more good cheer than achieving them (Watson, 2002).
Christopher Peterson. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Another big thanks to Chris’ marvellous book, which I am reading again as part of a course he is giving on Positive Psychology.