So, Huey Lewis made some pretty bold claims in “The Power of Love”– including the fact that love can save your life. Sure, they’re just lyrics from a song in one of the most totally awesome 80’s flicks EVER (that’s Back to the Future for those who have been living under a rock). But could Lewis actually be on to something??
For years, researchers have understood negative emotions as an important part of the human survival tool kit: pain, fear and suffering are red flags that something is wrong and requires immediate attention. For our ancestors, that red flag may have literally meant the difference between life and death. Although feeling negative emotions can be really awful, clearly they serve a valuable function. But what about positive emotions? Of course feeling warm and fuzzy is lovely and all, but is there really a scientific explanation for why we feel such feelings?
Good news! It turns out that Lewis was on to something: there are tremendous (and potentially live-saving) benefits from experiencing love and a whole host of other positive emotions including joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe.
In her latest book, Positivity, Barb Fredrickson offers a ground-breaking explanation for the purpose of positive emotions in her Broaden and Build Theory. Fredrickson posits that positivity expands one’s outlook and imagination to a wider range of possibilities while building the psychological, social and physical resources that are necessary for overcoming everyday challenges. So what exactly does that mean?
1. Positivity changes how your mind works: not just the contents of your mind, trading bad thoughts for good ones, but it actually broadens the scope and boundaries of your mind, widening the possibilities that you see. This is crucial for everyone, ranging from teens who tend to have blinders on and only see their own problems, to executives seeking creative solutions to work-related problems.
2. Positivity transforms your future: positive experiences build all of your resources, including good mental habits (like increased mindfulness), psychological strengths (like increased optimism), social connections (via acts like increased expressions of gratitude) and even physical health (like reduced stress-related hormones and YES! Even a longer life!)
3. Positivity is the secret to resilience: there are 2 basic responses to hardship, hope and fear. Fear can morph into stress, hopeless sadness and even worse, shame. Such despair actually smothers and snuffs out all forms of positivity. Hope, one of Fredrickson’s ten forms of positivity, acknowledges negativity but further kindles positivity by creating an upward spiral that empowers you to bounce back from tragedy. According to Fredrickson, “…resilience and positivity go hand in hand. Without positivity, there is no re-bound,” (p. 102)
4. You can increase your positivity: Fredrickson offers some great tools and strategies for both decreasing negativity and increasing positivity in order to maximize beneficial outcomes! Some of her ideas include:
1. Dispute Negative Thinking: instead of trying to suppress negative thoughts, examine the facts thoroughly, checking them against reality and dissolve them.
2. Break the Grip of Rumination: continually obsessing and questioning fans the flames of negativity. Instead, search for healthy distractions that can absorb your attention and lift your mood– call a friend, read an article, work on a project.
3. Go on a Media Diet: media is a double-edged sword– it informs and entertains, but also often depletes your positivity as implicit messages about beauty, violence, etc. can be downright depressing! (In fact, research shows most TV viewers are in a state of mild depression while watching the tube!) Consider taking a TV break or getting your information from the newspaper.
1. Find Positive Meaning: meanings are interpretations or the sense you make of your current circumstances. You always have the freedom to choose what meaning you assign to any given situation- so choose wisely! Casting small experiences in a positive manner can help pave the way for streams of positive emotion to follow.
2. Savor the Good Stuff: whether people savor is often a matter of self-esteem, about whether or not they feel they “deserve” the good things that are happening. Savoring, like any other habit, can be developed with intention over time, by slowing down and attending mindfully to life’s big and little joys.
3. Count Your Blessings: time and time again, research has shown that keeping a gratitude journal can produce positive outcomes like prosocial behaviors and stronger social bonds. Expressing gratitude not only boosts your positivity, but creates a ripple effect of positivity in those around you.
One final important point: I frequently find myself saying, “the quickest way to feel better about yourself and your life circumstances is to go do something good for someone else.” Fredrickson seconds that point by highlighting that those who are truly flourishing are also “doing good- adding value to the world. People who flourish are highly engaged with their families, work and communities,” (Fredrickson, 2009, p. 17).
So there you have it folks: the REAL power of love (and 9 other positive emotions). What will you do today to increase YOUR positivity??
*Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.