Let's say you start to brainstorm a list of all the emotions you've ever experienced. Just for fun, try it now.
What's on your list? Chances are, you included things like happy, sad, excited, angry, afraid, grateful, proud, scared, confused, stressed, relaxed, amazed. Now sort your list into two categories — positive emotions and negative emotions.
Feeling both positive and negative emotions is a natural part of being human. We might use the word "negative" to describe more difficult emotions, but it doesn't mean those emotions are bad or we shouldn't have them. Still, most people would probably rather feel a positive emotion than a negative one. It's likely you'd prefer to feel happy instead of sad, or confident instead of insecure.
What matters is how our emotions are balanced — how much of each type of emotion, positive or negative, we experience.
How Negative Emotions Help Us
Negative emotions warn us of threats or challenges that we may need to deal with. For example, fear can alert us to possible danger. It's a signal that we might need to protect ourselves. Angry feelings warn us that someone is stepping on our toes, crossing a boundary, or violating our trust. Anger can be a signal that we might need to act on our own behalf.
Negative emotions focus our awareness. They help us to zero in on a problem so we can deal with it. But too many negative emotions can make us feel overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, or stressed out. When negative emotions are out of balance, problems might seem too big to handle.
The more we dwell on negative emotions, the more negative we begin to feel. Focusing on negativity just keeps it going.
How Positive Emotions Help Us
Positive emotions balance out negative ones, but they have other powerful benefits, too.
Instead of narrowing our focus like negative emotions do, positive emotions affect our brains in ways that increase our awareness, attention, and memory. They help us take in more information, hold several ideas in mind at once, and understand how different ideas relate to each other.
When positive emotions open us up to new possibilities, we are more able to learn and build on our skills. That leads to doing better on tasks and tests.
People who have plenty of positive emotions in their everyday lives tend to be happier, healthier, learn better, and get along well with others.
Science is helping us find out how valuable positive emotions can be. Experts have learned a lot from recent brain studies. Here are two findings that can help us use positive emotions to our advantage:
1. Let Positive Emotions Outnumber Negative Ones
When we feel more positive emotions than negative ones, difficult situations are easier to handle. Positive emotions build our resilience (the emotional resources needed for coping). They broaden our awareness, letting us see more options for problem solving.
Studies show that people feel and do their best when they have at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions. That's because of something called the negativity bias.
The negativity bias is a natural human tendency to pay more attention to negative emotions than to positive ones. It makes sense when you think about it: Negative emotions call our attention to problems — problems we might need to deal with quickly. Tuning in to negative emotions can be a survival mechanism.
The negativity bias has a downside, though: It can make us think a day went badly, not well, even if we experienced equal amounts of positive and emotions that day. It takes at least three times as many positive emotions to tip the scales and make a day seem like a great one.
2. Practice Positivity Every Day
Building habits that encourage us to feel more positive emotions can help us be happier, do better, and reduce our negative emotions. Building positive emotions is especially important if we're already dealing with a lot of negative feelings such as fear, sadness, anger, frustration, or stress.
Notice and name your positive emotions. Start by simply focusing on your feelings. You can tune in to your emotions in real time, as they happen. Or take stock at the end of the day, noting how you felt in different situations. For example, you might feel proud when you answer a question right, joyful when your puppy chases you around the yard, or loved when your mom shows up at your game.
When you first start doing this, you'll probably need to remind yourself to focus on your emotions. But — like any habit — it gets easier the more you do it.
Pick an emotion and act to increase it. Let's say you choose confidence: What helps you feel confident? How can you get more of that feeling? You might give yourself a "Yes, I can!" pep talk before a test. Or maybe you stand up straighter and practice walking through the halls in a confident way, feeling strong and powerful.
Positive emotions feel good, and they're good for you. Pay attention to these powerful tools and find ways to make time for them in your everyday life. Create room in your day for joy, fun, friendship, relaxation, gratitude, and kindness. Make these things a habit and you positively will be a happier you!