This blog post is about how to harness the power of positive emotions to bounce-back from stress more easily and have a more creative problem-solving approach.
Positive emotions are more than just nice to have: they are also associated with psychological resilience, creativity and problem-solving, with a lower likelihood of depression in response to stress. Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ despite life’s difficulties or ‘move forward’ alongside them.
We are talking here about positive emotions in general daily life, as well as during the distressing or stressful experiences themselves. This is not masochism! This is about evidence that resilient people are more likely to feel positive emotions, alongside the negative ones, in the midst of the stressful situation. Maybe they see the silver lining, appreciate how people came together in a crisis, acknowledge positive outcomes that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, recognise an opportunity for personal growth or learning, or see the funny side.
An opportunity for learning: we read signs more carefully now
If you can manage it, positive emotion can reduce the negative impact of stress on the body and the mind. More than that, a positive frame of mind allows more creative, flexible, ‘outside of the box’ thinking, whereas negative emotions are more likely to result in focussed and narrow thoughts. These are both useful in a crisis. Activating the body’s stress system can help to concentrate energy, resources and attention on the problem (whether it results in fight or flight). Negative emotions are a normal and potentially useful response to a stressful situation. However, allowing room for positivity in your response too, makes you more adaptable, and could be useful in the long-term. This is why the coaching method I’m trained in taps into the value of a positive mindset in supporting creative, flexible and expansive thinking, for long term gains and learning.
How we respond emotionally to an event is more about the way we as individuals interpret it than the event itself. Emotions aren’t simply triggered, although it can feel that way. Often how we interpret it is tied up with our previous experiences, culture and concepts, beliefs, and stereotype, as well as habits and thought patterns developed over time.
How wonderful, I get to practise my advanced driving skills and the car gets a wash
These tendencies are not fixed. Identifying our interpretational bias and learning to more effectively regulate our emotions are a key focus of therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and transformational coaching can help with this too by increasing self-awareness and understanding, resulting in mindset shifts and learning.
Resilient people use strategies to interpret situations in a way that helpfully shapes their emotional response. ‘Distancing’ is one of the commonly studied strategies and has been found to have long-term benefits. In the coaching method I use there are several techniques incorporated into the process to help you distance yourself from the situation. This reduces the negative emotions enough that you can think more clearly, constructively and creatively. Another of the often-studied strategies is ‘reinterpretation’ – for example telling yourself it is not as bad as it seems, that it will be ok soon, or seeing the useful outcomes.
"Mummy I'm practising hedonia in order to develop long term resilience and creative problem solving abilities"
The problem is that in the middle of a stressful situation, you are focussed on dealing with the problem, or being overwhelmed by it; you might not have the spare brain power to consciously apply a positive spin. However, it seems that practising cultivating positive emotion in daily life can lead to it becoming a habit, allowing you to automatically include a positive approach as part of a response to stress, with less effort.
One way to give yourself more positive emotional experiences in your daily life, is to seek out both short-term pleasure (hedonia), and long-term wellbeing (eudaimonia), associated with purpose, mastery, accomplishment, positive relationships and self-regard. Whilst eudaimonia is more commonly associated with long-term benefits such as increasing resilience to stress, regular hedonic experiences also seem to ‘develop your positivity muscles’ and can increase long-term (eudaimonic) wellbeing too.
Make time for fun
To re-cap, when something stressful, sad, frustrating, worrying or frightening happens, negative emotions are normal, expected and can even be useful. Bad things are bad and pretending otherwise won’t change that. But rarely are things all-bad or all-good. Responding with positivity alongside the negativity gives opportunities for personal growth and long-term benefits, and you can (nonjudgmentally) train yourself to boost that tendency. In many Asian cultures (particularly Buddhist cultures) it is considered normal to expect and accept both negative and positive emotions, including the expectation that both can be experienced at the same time. It is also common, even for people who have experienced severe trauma, to experience ‘post traumatic growth’, where they can see some positive outcome and feel that they have experienced some positive personal change, whilst acknowledging their trauma.
How to train your positivity muscles
Deliberately seek out and even schedule in pleasurable activities. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated. Buy flowers, look for patterns in the clouds, go down a slide if you pass a playground on the way home, eat something tasty, share a laugh with the bus driver, play a favourite song. The ‘deliberate’ part serves two functions: 1) it means you will increase the opportunities for positive experiences 2) it brings the pleasurable experiences to conscious awareness
Practice 'savouring'. Pause to consciously acknowledge and even say out loud or write down the pleasurable experience – the feeling of the breeze or the sun, the taste, the sense of connection with someone or with nature: Make sure your brain takes note of exactly what you are appreciating
Keep a gratitude diary. Humans have a natural tendency to disproportionately remember the negative so it’s important to draw your brains attention to what you appreciate, shifting the balance in the memory banks more fairly. The 'scanning' process itself is important so make sure you think of a different thing each day.
Pay attention to your long-term wellbeing. This includes things like positive relationships with others, continued personal growth, sense of mastery, positive self regard. It requires more investment than hedonistic pleasure but it still doesn’t need to be anything major. Trying to cram a new hobby into a busy schedule might result in more stress than pleasure. It could be small: learn just one Spanish word a day; send one text a day to a friend or loved one; write down one thing you are proud of.
Purpose and accomplishment
Practice including positive emotion as part of your response to bad things. Perhaps appoint a friend or family member to remind you: Can you think of one thing that is positive, possible, funny, or a silver lining in this situation? This does not mean they should stop you from expressing yourself about the problem or deny the existence of the problem, just that at some point they remind you to also consciously include a positive interpretation (make sure they understand this before they accept the job!)
De Vaus, J., Hornsey, M., Kuppens, P., and Bastian, B. (2017) ‘Exploring the East-West Divide in Prevalence of Affective Disorder: A Case for Cultural Differences in Coping With Negative Emotion’. Personality and Social Psychology Review 22 (3), 285-304
Garland, E., Gaylord, S., and Fredrickson, B. (2011) 'Positive reappraisal mediates the stress-reductive effects of mindfulness: An upward spiral process'. Mindfulness 2 (1), 59–67
Troy, A. S., Wilhelm, F. H., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Seeing the silver lining: cognitive reappraisal ability moderates the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 783–795
Tugade, M. and Fredrickson, B. (2007) 'Regulation of positive emotions: emotion regulation strategies that promote resilience'. Journal of Happiness Studies 8, 311-333
Tugade, M. and Fredrickson, B. (2004) ‘Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences’. Journal of personality and social psychology 86 (2), 320–333