The importance of positive emotions for performance optimization, mental health, and strong relationships

Many people believe that positive emotions such as love, joy, gratitude, and happiness are luxuries without purpose. Sure, they make you feel good, but what else do they do for you? You can probably identify ways in which negative emotions serve a purpose in your life. Stress drives you to prepare. Anger helps you protect yourself. Guilt can enable you apologize and make amends. But what’s the purpose of positive emotions?

Five scientific benefits of positive emotions

The “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions helps you see how positive emotions are critical to thrive in everyday life and build military wellness. Positive emotions help you broaden your perspective and experience. They can also build important skills and relationships crucial to optimize performance. Here are 5 important benefits of positive emotions. 

  • Enhance performance. Positive emotions can help you be more creative. If you’ve ever been stuck trying to solve a problem for a long time, positive emotions can help you get outside the box and think more creatively about how to come up with a solution. Positive emotions also make you more open to new ideas, opportunities, and challenges. You often experience these emotions throughout the process of learning something new or developing a new skill.
  • Help you calm down and reset. Think about the last time you felt really angry. What happened? Your heart rate sped up, you felt flustered, or maybe you broke into a sweat. Positive emotions can help bring your body back down to baseline quicker after you experienced the physical impact of negative emotions. Positive emotions are important to help you rejuvenate and stay energized.
  • Build resilience. Positive emotions put money in your stress-coping bank. If you find ways to experience a little goodness each day, you can stay more robust in the face of challenges when they arise. A healthy diet of positive emotions helps buffer against stress so you can effectively handle adversity.
  • Develop new relationships. Have you ever walked into a room where everyone is laughing and you started laughing too­—even if you didn’t know what they were laughing about? Positive emotions are contagious. They help bring people together. When you experience positive emotions, you are more open to other people, but it also helps other people to become more open to you.
  • Strengthen your current relationships. Other people matter when it comes to positive emotions. Think about what brings you love, joy, and contentment. Is it spending a few uninterrupted minutes with your kid playing on the floor? Sharing a funny video with a teammate over coffee? Going for a walk after dinner with your partner? Other people can also be a source of positive emotions for you, but sharing positive emotions is critical for a strong relationship too. Every relationship is different. While there is no definitive magic number, some researchers suggest that thriving relationships have a 5:1 ratio of time experiencing positive emotions to negative emotions.

What makes experiencing positive emotions hard? The negativity bias!

The human brain has evolved to be good at identifying threats and challenges, which allows you to navigate through a dangerous world successfully. This ability helps Warfighters, family members, and teammates stay vigilant and safe. But it also can skew your perception of life toward the negative.

This hardwired tendency, called “negativity bias,” causes your brain to prioritize, seek out, and lock on to negative information like a heat-seeking missile. Your brain is more likely to latch on to negative events than positive ones. Negative emotions hang around longer than positive emotions. And when you get home at the end of the day, you’re more likely to mull over the one negative comment someone made about your work than remember the many positive comments. It’s just the way your brain works.

Negativity bias is adaptive and helpful, but the key to maintaining good mental health is to find balance. Try these two strategies to notice, savor, and amplify positive emotions.

StrategyStrategy 1: Create a “positive-emotion portfolio.”

When the stresses of life overtake your time and attention, create a “positive-emotion portfolio” as an active approach to boost your mood.

  • Choose an emotion you’d like to feel more in your life, such as gratitude, joy, serenity, curiosity, pride, awe, hope, humor, inspiration, optimism, confidence, or love.
  • Next, create a playlist of songs or a collection of pictures, videos, letters, or poems to help you feel the emotion you want to boost. Store them in a folder on your computer or phone, or make a scrapbook or an idea board.
  • For one week, practice an 8- to 15-minute daily ritual of reviewing your positive-emotion portfolio.
  • At the end of the week, reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Adjust and add new items to your portfolio or try HPRC’s gratitude calendar.

Use your positive-emotion portfolio as often or as long as you want, reflect on it daily, any time you need a pick-me-up, or when you just want to experience a positive feeling. You can create portfolios for other emotions you want to experience more. This is a great activity to do with your family.

StrategyStrategy 2: Amplify positive emotions with others.

Positive emotions and relationships have an important connection. People are a great source of positive emotions, and experiencing positive emotions with others is crucial to having a healthy relationship. Therefore, it’s important to make the most of sharing positive emotions with others to reach that 5:1 ratio. Unfortunately, you might stifle these opportunities without even knowing it.

When someone shares a positive emotional experience with you, there are different ways you might respond —positively or negatively. The first page of the handout below explains the 4 different ways you might respond. One of these—Active Constructive Responding (ACR)—can magnify the positive emotion the person shared with you. It also boosts your own overall well-being and reduces conflict. But when stress is high, you’re more likely to fall into one of the 3 other patterns that stifles the positive emotion—which can damage your relationship over time.

On the 2nd page of the handout is a worksheet to evaluate how you tend to react to those who mean the most to you. Use the worksheet to self-reflect if you’re optimizing your experience of positive emotions with others.

Finally, notice any trends. Are there certain situations or events that make it difficult for you to practice ACR? Write down what gets in your way and identify how you can practice ACR to build your relationships with others.

Link to ACR worksheet PDF

To learn more strategies to create, maintain, and enhance positive emotions, read HPRC’s article Savoring: Your strategy to total fitness or try HPRC’s gratitude calendar.

Also, if you want to build positive emotions and gratitude in those you lead, your family members, or a battle buddy, visit HPRC’s Leader Guide for more information.

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