Positive Emotions Heal!

   by Peter Hampton, Ph.D.

Psychologists have long known the damaging effects of negative emotions but recent research has begun to reveal the benefits of positive emotions on emotional wellbeing, social adjustment and even physical health.  The research of Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has not only shown that positive emotions have an important role to play in promoting and maintaining our wellbeing, it has also shown that there are things we can do that will increase the frequency with which we experience those positive emotions and that doing those things will bring about the benefits. In other words it isn’t just that people who are healthy tend to be happier and feel more positive emotions nor is it that those people who naturally feel positive emotions are able to reap the benefits of those positive emotions.  The evidence shows that all of us can actively make changes in our daily lives that will generate those positive emotions and all of us can benefit from the effect of those positive emotions on our overall health!

In her book Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life Dr. Fredrickson identifies a palette of positive emotions which includes gratitude, joy, serenity, hope, interest, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe.  She describes the research she and her colleagues have conducted in the Positive Emotions Psychophysiology Laboratory (PEP Lab) over the past twenty years and highlights the observations they have made about the function of these emotions.  The conclusions she has arrived at are summarized in her Broaden and Build Theory which posits that the positive emotions have evolved in humans by helping broaden our perspectives and encouraging behaviors that build our resources.   Specifically she has demonstrated through numerous ingenious experimental studies that when people are experiencing a positive emotion we have a broader and more flexible or creative perspective on our circumstances.  Moreover, when people are experiencing positive emotions we tend to engage in exploratory and collaborative behaviors that build our environmental, social and intellectual resources.      

In Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Hope in Moments of Connection Dr. Fredrickson describes the physiology of the emotion of love which she calls “the supreme emotion”.   She focuses on three physiological processes that are involved in what she describes as “micro-moments” of connectivity that bring about the emotion of love.  First, when a person connects with another person with love they experience a mirroring of the emotions of that other person in their own brain, specifically the areas of the brain associated with positive feelings of wellbeing.  Second, the emotion of love triggers the release of a hormone called oxytocin which is associated with increased prosocial behavior.  Third, the emotion of love tends to promote increased activity in the vagus nerve resulting in increased vagal tone which is associated with better health outcomes.   Amazingly, Fredrickson’s current research is even beginning to identify physiological activity associated with positive emotions that occurs at the molecular level.

Fredrickson’s research meshes well with a new field of psychological research which has emerged in the past fifteen years called Positive Psychology.  This movement has sought to promote research into the psychology of resilience, wellbeing and flourishing.  Numerous researchers in this field have identified adaptive behaviors that promote health and help people to thrive.  Some practical strategies for promotion of wellbeing that have come out of this line of research are the use of personal strengths for the furtherance of virtue, achieving and maintaining a focused state of arousal and engagement called “flow”, building relationships through empathic interactions, and developing routines involving gratitude. 

One of the strategies that Fredrickson suggests in Positivity involves the development of a portfolio of albums, one for each positive emotion, with items that help you to generate that emotion.  For example, an album for serenity might have pictures of places you have been where you felt serene or poems that capture the essence of serenity.    In Love 2.0 Fredrickson recommends the development of meditation practices based on what is called “Loving Kindness Meditation”.  In this activity you reflect on yourself, your loved ones, your friends, your neighbors, your community and all of creation with compassion and good will.    Her research shows that engaging in these activities not only generates positive emotions that feel good but also results in improved social interactions that generate virtuous cycles of positive behavior and has beneficial effects on physical health including improved immune function and improved cardiovascular health.

As a psychotherapist I have found that these and many more techniques identified or developed by Positive Psychology research can be incorporated into the therapy process with significant positive results.  They are particularly helpful adjuncts to the tools used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Specifically, I tend to supplement the use of affirmations designed to counter thought distortions with activities that generate positive emotions.   This helps the development of new patterns of thought and behavior that will replace the anxious or depressive patterns with healthy and adaptive ones.  It also gives my patients a leg up on starting down the path of emotional flourishing.



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