How Many Colors are in Your Emotional Crayon Box?
You know how some people only have primary colors in their vocabulary? Everything from maroon to magenta is “red” and everything from Carolina blue to cobalt is “blue.”
At the simplest level, we think of emotions in the binary: “happy” and “sad.” That’s the equivalent of having only two crayons in your crayon box: black and white.
When we are in our darkest emotional states, that’s often what it feels like — there is no color in the world and there never will be again. But negative emotions come in a broader palette than bleak depression, and when we are mentally well, we pass through those darker emotions somewhat swiftly.
Thirty or more years ago, psychology researchers focused on how emotions trigger specific actions. Anger is linked with the urge to attack, disgust is linked with the urge to expel, and fear is linked with the urge to flee, for example.
Add to your crayon box these other dark hues, and consider what action they may be urging: shame, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, guilt, hate, sadness, stress.
Negative emotions are not all bad. Without the shadow, there would not be light. If we never got angry, we wouldn’t stand up for ourselves or others. If we never felt guilt, we would be sociopaths or narcissists.
The Positivity Ratio
Barbara Frederickson’s research on positivity determined that people who flourish and lead the happiest lives have a positivity ratio of 3:1. That is, within a specific length of time, they experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion. If you wonder what your positivity ratio is right now, you can take her survey here.
Enhancing Positive emotions
One way to improve your positivity ratio is to notice the positive emotions you feel, and encourage those feelings to grow. I think of it as taking a tiny spark of happiness and blowing on it lightly to create a steady flame of love.
Frederickson identifies ten positive emotions, each a much more subtle variation of “happy.” Over years of research, she found that these were the emotions that color our days most often.
As you read each of these descriptions, ask yourself:
- When was the last time I had this feeling?
- Where was I?
- What was I doing?
Hang onto your answers to those questions— we’ll come back to them in a bit.
Ten Positive Emotions
- Joy. We feel joy when our surroundings are safe and familiar and things are going our way. Joy can inspire a happy dance, a fist pump, or even happy tears.
- Gratitude. When we appreciate a gift that life gives us. We feel gratitude when someone has gone out of their way to help us, or when we realize that we are lucky to have avoided bad experiences. Genuine gratitude is heartfelt, not just a polite “thanks.”
- Serenity. Like joy, serenity is only possible when you feel safe. Serenity is a more pastel emotion than joy. It’s when everything just feels right. Frederickson calls serenity “the afterglow emotion.” It often comes on the heels of more intense emotions like joy, pride, amusement, or awe.
- Interest. Interest is a more action-oriented emotion than serenity or joy. You’re fascinated and drawn to explore something new.
- Hope. When life is not going your way, hope lifts you out of despair. In desperate situations, hopeful people believe that there will be a different future.
- Pride. You feel pride when you have accomplished something that you can take credit for. You can think of guilt as the flip side of this emotion — you feel pride when you do good; guilt when you do harm. Authentic pride is not to be confused with self-aggrandizing arrogance.
- Amusement. Silly jokes. Surprising outcomes. Positive laughter. True amusement is uplifting in and of itself. When you laugh at someone else’s expense, that’s humor based in feeling superior, not actual amusement.
- Inspiration. “Witnessing human nature at its very best can inspire and uplift you,” writes Frederickson. When you admire someone else’s accomplishments, you can choose to feel inspiration instead of envy. Envy draws you into a downward spiral, but inspiration calls you to make your own positive action.
- Awe. If inspiration is royal purple, awe is a nearby blue. To distinguish inspiration from awe, remember that inspiration makes you want to take action, while awe makes you feel nearly overwhelmed by greatness and yet part of something much larger than yourself.
- Love. Encompassing the whole rainbow of emotions, love can come from any of the other positive feelings. When good feelings stir us in a safe context, they flame into love. If you want to take a deep dive into the idea of love as an all-encompassing type of connection, right down to your white blood cells, check out Frederickson’s Love 2.0.
Enhancing positive emotions
What feeling did you connect with as you read the list above?
Take a minute to replay those positive emotions, evoking as many sensory memories as you can. Research indicates that reminiscing like this increases happiness in much the same way as experiencing those emotions.
My memory is standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking out over that huge gash in the landscape, amazed by the colors, wind in my hair, feeling the quintessential emotion of awe.
What else gives you that feeling?
For me, I feel awe in sacred spaces, in nature, and when listening to certain types of music. It’s seldom as big an emotion as the Grand Canyon evoked, but it is still awe.
Take the colors with you
It’s easier to remember something when you have a label to apply to it. When you have a positive experience, metaphorically reach into your emotional crayon box and attach the experience to one of Frederickson’s 10 emotions. That mindful reflection will help you retain the experience to lift your spirits in the future.
Happiness is not a magical thing some people have and some people don’t. Unless you are clinically depressed (and sometimes even then), there are ways to improve your positivity ratio. You can seek out experiences that will evoke positive emotions, savor positive emotions while you are experiencing them, and vividly reminisce about times when you have felt those emotions in the past.
Whatever you do, pay attention to each of the colors in your crayon box. Awareness of emotions — whether positive or negative — is a key element of emotional intelligence and self-awareness.