I’ve heard it said, and you probably have too, that you can have too much of a good thing. And, maybe when it comes to things that are good ‘in the moment’ – like a slab of triple chocolate cake, an ice cold beer on a hot summer’s day or a triple shot espresso, for example – too much may not be so great. But, I personally don’t feel like it applies to everything. And most definitely it does not apply to positive emotions.
When it comes to positive emotions, I don’t think you can ever have your fill. And wanting more and more positive emotion in your life is not just about wanting to feel good – it actually has a huge impact on what path you follow into your adventure of becoming your best self (or, indeed, if you even pursue that adventure at all). There’s even a fully tyre-kicked theory about the effect of positive emotions on how your life plays out: the ‘broaden and build’ theory, which suggests that the more positive emotion you have, the better equipped you will be for life.
But, hang on a second! Life can’t always be all sunshine and rainbows, it just doesn’t work like that. What about when things go wrong? What about when you feel sad, or scared? What about when those emotions you feel are not so positive? What then? Does that undo all the good things that this so-called broadening and building can do? If I experience negative emotions, does that mean I won’t be as well equipped to live the life I was made for?
Well, life is all about the ups and downs, the twists and turns. You can ride the roller-coaster, or you can get on the merry-go-round, like this clip highlights…
Just like Grandma says in that clip, you have choice: you can take on board those negative emotions and wallow in them and, if yu do that, then yes, they pretty much will pull the rug from under your chances of living the life you were made for. You can ride the merry-go-round. But, if you resist the urge to languish in a pity-party for one, and allow your negative emotions to play the role they are meant to play, then no, far from leaving you ill-equipped for life, they will help drive you forward (and maybe even keep you alive). They will help you to ride the roller-coaster.
You see, one of the things the researchers behind broaden and build noticed – and it helped them shape the whole theory – was that when you experience negative emotions your ‘momentary thought repertoire’ (or, in other words, the range of thoughts you have in the precise moment that an event unfolds) narrows significantly. And that means that the choices you consider in that moment to help you navigate the situation you are in are few in number. Which could be a good thing.
I mean, let’s face it – if you are staring a lion in the face, or watching a tornado bear down on your house, or faced with a shark-fin approaching while you swim around in the sea, you most likely don’t want to be weighing up a wide expanse of potential actions you could take. Pretty much, one choice is all you need – the ‘get the hell out of here’ choice. Anything more than that and you could be faced with a whole heap of the ‘dither and delay’ that Boris Johnson so enjoyed referring to; only this time that dither and delay could have truly life-threatening consequences.
So, negative emotions play their part in helping you navigate potentially dangerous situations and come out the other side in one piece. The fear you feel as the lion licks its lips focuses your mind. Phrases like ‘I wonder’ and ‘What if’ don’t enter your head – you have only one thought – “Run!”.
But what the researchers behind the broaden and build theory found is that, while negative emotions narrow your momentary thought repertoire, positive emotions do the exact opposite – they broaden it. As you experience positive emotions, so the range of choices you draw on to decide what to do next gets wider. And it becomes an upward spiral: you experience positive emotions and find yourself with a range of options; so you choose an option which leads to more positive emotions, which leads to even more options; and so on, and so on. A kind of ‘virtuous circle of life’, if you like.
As those positive emotions cause your mind to open up, so you start to think outside the box. The boundaries of what feels do-able get wider, and you become able to take more of a birds-eye perspective on the situations you find yourself in. Alternative solutions form in your mind, new pathways become evident, creativity begins to flow. And, as your alternative solutions take shape, as you follow those new pathways, as your creativity pours forth, so you have new experiences, many of which will lead to positive emotions; which, you guessed it, create that virtuous circle I mentioned a moment ago.
And the benefits of this virtuous circle are proven: greater problem-solving abilities and openness to learning; better cardiovascular health and improved coordination; improved social skills, with increased ability to form and maintain new relationships; greater resilience, optimism, sense of identity and focus on goals. And, each of those benefits helps to power that virtuous circle on an ever-increasing upward spiral.
That’s all very cool, but how can you maximise the benefits of positive emotions, while still leaving the door open for the negative emotions to help you navigate those ‘fight-or-flight’ situations? Well, here are four things you can try…
Use your body language: even if you aren’t feeling on top of the world, taking control of your body language can set a new tone. A purposeful posture, a smile on your face, a gaze set upwards can all help change ‘down in the dumps’ to ‘flying high’. You may not feel it, but you sure as heck can fake it ’til you make it.
Practice Gratitude: no matter how bad things may seem, you will have things to be thankful for. Keep a gratitude journal and make a conscious effort to record the things in your life that you have to be thankful for. Focusing on these will shift the balance and help the positives to build.
Re-frame the negative: is it really as bad as all that? In reality, probably not. And, even if it is, there will be lessons that you can take away from whatever it was that happened – lessons that can be used for positive purposes. Find those lessons, frame that negative event in different words and then take that new narrative, together with its lessons, and use it to build a positive message to take forward.
Create the positive: this may seem obvious, but it’s all too often overlooked – get intentional about being positive. Go in search of positive experiences, surround yourself with people who have a positive effect on you, do positive things for other people (such as random acts of kindness). The world doesn’t always serve up nice things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out there and make good things happen.