“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”
― William James

When we read about the benefits of mindfulness, we often come across advice on how we can deal effectively with our negative emotions.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), for instance, offers suggestions on how we can be mindful towards stressors, and the accompanying negative emotions. One key implication of MBSR approaches is how they help to place distance between ourselves and stress-inducing events. This helps us to respond, rather than react, to our stressors. However, less is mentioned with regard to how we can actually cultivate positive and pleasant emotional states through mindfulness. This is, perhaps, due to the inherent negativity bias that we possess.

Negative emotions urge us to respond quickly, as with responses to immediate threats and dangers. Fear, for example, serves as a crucial psychological alarm system that first alerts us to an impending threat, priming us to act in the interest of safety and self-preservation. Conversely, positive emotions don’t appear to serve a clear function or purpose. This might seem like a peculiar statement to make; after all, we tend to desire positive emotions and want to experience them regularly. In most cases, we want to feel joyful, contented and loved. On the other hand, it’s a rare thing to wish to feel distressed, dissatisfied or unloved.

Broaden and build

While we can see a clear function born from unpleasant emotions (as in the above example of fear) there appears to be little purpose of feeling when it comes to positive emotions. The psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, however, proposes that positive emotions do have an important purpose. Emotions such as joy, contentment, love, gratitude and amusement do two things. First, they broaden our perceptions of our circumstances, and second, they build important psychological resources for effective and healthy functioning [1]. Contrasted with unpleasant emotions, positive emotions are what help us explore, grow, and generate psychological resources that sustain our well-being. Fredrickson refers to this as her ‘broaden-and-build’ theory of positive emotions.

Being mindful of the function of our emotions helps us realise that it not only feels good to have positive emotions, but also that these pleasant states are beneficial for our physical and psychological health. Studies show that frequent experiences of positive emotion are associated with longevity [2], [3] and physical health [4], [5], [6]. This raises an important question: How do we cultivate more positivity in our lives? This is where being mindful helps.

Changing gear

Let’s consider the simple example of gratitude. Gratitude is a positive emotion that is felt when we are thankful for the people and things we have in our lives that make us feel happy, joyful, and blessed. Often, whatever we receive is given to us thanks to the generosity of someone else, or from favourable circumstances. However, it is all too easy for us to fixate on whatever we feel is going wrong, or is unpleasant in our lives.

We gripe about the long queue as we wait for our morning coffee, that our partners do not spend enough time with us, or that we are deserving of that work bonus despite difficult economic situations. But tuning into our experience and being mindful of our situation allows us to be grateful for things we already have — and to realise that we have so much to be thankful for. By shifting our perspective, we can then appreciate that someone else is making the coffee for us, that our partners are (probably) working hard to clear off their work so that we can enjoy a night out during the weekend together, and that we still have a job despite economic constraints.

This doesn’t mean that we should be naive and remain blindly optimistic about any unpleasant situations we face. Rather, being grateful for what we already have helps us cultivate a bit more positivity, so that we see that our circumstances are not quite as hopeless or distressing as our negative emotions make them out to be.

In one study, depressed individuals who participated in regular mindfulness practice experienced momentary positive emotions [7]. Any unpleasant emotions that happened to arise were, to put it simply, dissolved by the positive emotions cultivated through mindfulness. If you are like most people, you’ll probably have a tendency to fixate on and accentuate the negatives over the positives. As this study suggests, we can undo our tendency to incline too much towards negative thinking, and replace it with more positive, healthy mental states.

Turn up the positive

While it would be absurd to suggest that we could feel positive all the time, most of us need to redress the balance. Unpleasant states such as fear can surely serve to our benefit, but when we let our negative states rule the roost, that’s when we can find ourselves dealing with unnecessary mental suffering. In order to cultivate more positive states, try out the following suggestions whenever you’re feeling exhausted or stressed at work, or feel as though you’ve had a particularly tough run over the recent days or weeks:

  • Listen to some of your favourite music or, better yet, watch a few clips of your favourite comedians or feel-good films. By doing so, you will immediately shift your negative feeling states to positive emotions such as happiness and joy.
  • Have a conversation with a friend or someone you know who is known for their humour, or positive demeanour. Being in their presence will surely have an uplifting effect on how you’re feeling in the moment (this is known as emotional contagion).
  • Carry out a random act of kindness. When we actively help others, we look outside ourselves to offer someone help or support, which in turn offers us a valuable moment of purpose and meaning through giving to others. Often, we simply need a mental break from our own problems and so, by offering our generosity, we are helping others in their time of need, giving us a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.
  • Take time out to do some deep breathing exercises. When we are stressed, our bodies are in a state of fight-or-flight, which raises our blood sugar levels and impairs our immune system. Deep breathing exercises help by relaxing the mind and body, taking us out of our stress mode and providing us with much-needed health benefits in the process.

We are all familiar with what it feels like to be in a state of stress, As with unpleasant emotions, stress isn’t necessarily a negative thing in itself and can be valuable within certain contexts. However, being under too much stress can cause considerable mental, physiological and physical problems over the short and long term. However, the good news is that we can work with our minds in a way that requires minimal effort to ensure that we minimise any unnecessary stress.

By regularly taking just five-to-ten minutes to cultivate positive states, we can make all the difference to our emotional well-being and overall health. Try it out, and see how it goes. If you have any questions about mindfulness or emotions, or would like to share your experiences, please feel free to get in touch to tell us your stories.

References

[1] Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of general psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

[2] Danner, D. D., Snowdon, D. A., & Friesen, W. V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(5), 804-813.

[3] Xu, J., & Roberts, R. E. (2010). The power of positive emotions: It’s a matter of life or death—Subjective well-being and longevity over 28 years in a general population. Health Psychology, 29(1), 9-19.

[4] Tugade, M. M., Fredrickson, B. L., & Feldman Barrett, L. (2004). Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: Examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1161-1190.

[5] Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 730-7149.

[6] Pressman, S. D., & Cohen, S. (2005). Does positive affect influence health? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 925-971.

[7] Geschwind, N., Peeters, F., Drukker, M., van Os, J., & Wichers, M. (2011). Mindfulness training increases momentary positive emotions and reward experience in adults vulnerable to depression: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(5), 618-628.

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