Are Emotions The “Tiny Engines” of Positive Psychology?

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Emotions are not just feelings but tendencies towards certain actions, physiological reactions, and cognitive appraisals, beliefs, and interpretations. Whereas negative emotions signal that we are at risk (e.g., feeling anxious) positive emotions seem to do the opposite. They indicate that we are not a risk; that we are safe. Additionally, positive emotions open us to new experiences and connections with others.

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Our day-to-day positive emotions function as nutrients for our overall well-being.

Barbara Frederikson, University of North Carolina

In the decades following World War II, psychology as a science made notable strides in diagnosing and treating pathology (e.g. severe depression). For over a hundred years the spotlight was on understanding and alleviating the emotional pain caused by negative emotions (e.g. anxiety, depression, sadness). Little attention was paid to the more positive emotions associated with happiness and well-being.

From Minus Five to Zero

On his first day as president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Martin Seligman and colleague Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “Positive Psychology.” Although some researchers, including Csikszentmihalyi, had already studied happiness, optimism and flow, the pair warned that psychology had become unbalanced with an over-emphasis on studying negative emotions and that the absence or reduction of these painful emotions did not necessarily result in human flourishing and happiness. In Dr. Seligman’s words: “I realized that my profession was half-baked. It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, what are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?” ¹

Seligman was thinking big.

The “Tiny Engines” of Positive Psychology

In the last several years Positive Psychology has brought about a revolution in a renewed research focus — the study of human well-being and the conditions, strengths, and virtues that allow people to thrive.

Sometimes referred to as the “tiny engines” of Positive Psychology, positive emotions last for prolonged periods as their pleasure does not diminish over time, unlike negative emotions which wear off or worsen over time. Positive emotions improve physical health, foster compassion, buffer against depressive symptoms, and help people recover from stress. They can even “undo” the unwanted effects of negative emotions. Moreover, positive emotions foster better social connectedness, resourcefulness, and resilience.

Examples of positive emotions include:

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

The Bottom Line

Mental health is more than the sum of functioning or “malfunctioning parts.” Mentally healthy people feel good about themselves, are comfortable with other people, and have confidence in their ability to meet the ups and downs of life.

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Cited References

1. Seligman, M. (1998). The President’s Address. APA 1998 Annual Report. American Psychologist. Retrieved October 31, 2018 from: https://www.sas.upenn.edu/psych/seligman/aparep98.htm

Other Sources

1. Azar, B. (2011). Positive Psychology, advances, with growing pains. APA Monitor. 42(4): 32.

2. Tiller, W. (2013). Positive Psychology. Retrieved October 31, 2018 from http://www.positivedisintegration.com/positivepsychology.htm

3. Holmes, L. (2018). The Characteristics of Mental Health. Retrieved October 31, 2018 from: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-mental-health-2330755