The jump-for-joy positive emotions can seem kind of trivial, out of place, maybe irrelevant, and what I want to argue is that that’s nothing could be further from the case.
There are a whole range of positive emotions including that feeling in our bones grateful for our current circumstances; completely in tune with our environment; at one at peace feeling serene and tranquil and savoring that; sharing laughter with a close loved one or friend; and the lightness of that moment being inspired by great leaders. These are all important positive emotions that are really quite relevant especially when we’re facing difficult times.
Feeling the love and closeness of people we care for. Now all of these different positive emotions and more share in common two core truths. There are two core truths about these positive emotions. One is that they open us. They literally change the boundaries of our minds and our hearts and change our outlook on our environments.
Now let me get poetic here for a moment. Now imagine that you’re this water lily. It’s early dawn and your petals are closed in around your face. If you can see out it all from that vantage point it’s just a little spot of sunlight but as the sun rises in the sky things begin to change and you’re delicate blinders around your face begin to open and your world quite literally expands. You can see more. Your world is larger.
Okay, now, this is sunlight is what changes the openness of flowers like this. The openness of our minds and hearts obey the warmth of positivity. It changes how open our visual perspective is at a really basic level is and our ability to see our common humanity with others. And we know this because we’ve done randomized control studies where we induce positive emotions by the flip of a coin.
Some people are either given a dose of positive experiences, cute puppies, goofy penguins, beautiful sunsets, or neutral pictures, chairs, light switches, things like that. Other studies use a very simple paradigm that was developed by Alice Isen We give people a gift of candy all wrapped up in cellophane so you know it’s not a sugar high that’s creating the- but it’s a gift a token. They’re either given the gift before the experiment starts or after it’s over.
And other studies, they have people listen to pleasant music. Now in these kinds of studies we know that it changes the way people view, kind of step back and take in the big picture. Here’s a study from my own lab where we ask people we gave people a series of tests where we showed a comparison figure and then asked which of these two target figures on top.
Which of these two comparison figures most resembles this? Now there’s no right or wrong answer. They each resemble at least a little bit but this one resembles it in its global configuration this one more in its more local detail elements and what we know is that if you inject positive emotions, people are more likely to step back and see the big picture and see the similarities along those lines. Other work on this opening or broadening effect has used eye tracking where they lock in a camera on the iris and see what people are looking at and if you give people that little gift of candy before they do a study like this they’re more likely to look around all the different aspects of a complicated array.
If you don’t give people a gift of candy, they pretty much look at the center baby and they don’t look at the babies on the side. So we know that positive emotions widen the scope of what people are scanning for in the environment.
Rumi wrote about this in the 13th century and captured this aspect of what positive
emotions can do. He wrote: “there is a way of breathing that’s a shame and a suffocation that really narrows us down there’s another way of expiring, a love breath he called it that lets us open infinitely”
Okay, so we have dozens of studies that show us that this just isn’t poetic language. Now, our studies don’t underscore the infinitely part; that part may take a few more years that will get us to that level but we do know that positive emotions open our awareness they increase the expanse of our peripheral vision we see more. And there are a lot of places where this matters, because we see more possibilities.
People come up with more ideas of what they might do next when they’re experiencing a positive emotion relative to when they’re experiencing neutral states or negative emotions. People are more creative. Some of the earliest work in this area shows how tests of creativity that used to be used for graduate admissions that if you give people a bag of candy before they complete those tests they score higher on them. They’re no longer used for graduate admissions. But people are more creative.
And this widening of awareness has been directly linked to this greater creativity. People are more likely to be resilient. I have a whole line of research on resilience where we’ve shown that people are able to bounce back quicker from adversity when they’re experiencing positive emotions. Some other research has shown that kids do better on a math test or a learning context if they’re just asked to sit and think of a positive memory before they take the test. So there’s better academic performance. Really neat work on physicians making better medical decisions better at integrating the complex information of an unsolved case when they’re given a bag of candy, a really small positive emotion induction.
So maybe you should go to your doctor’s office with that bag of candy. And one of the studies that one of my former students Kareem Johnson and I did together
looked at how positive emotions allow us to look past racial and cultural differences and see the unique individual and recognize individuals across racial lines to see past difference and to see towards oneness.
There are other experiments that show if you induce positive emotions people are more trusting, people come to better win-win situations in negotiations all kinds of effects. And I want to just emphasize this isn’t the same story that we’ve known for decades that positive emotions help us see the world through rose-colored glasses or see the glasses half full rather than half empty.
I’m not saying these views are wrong but it’s not the whole story. In addition we’re also seeing the big picture. And a very fundamental level we’re able to see larger systems, see larger forms of interconnection when we’re experiencing positive emotions. And that can make a huge difference when we’re trying to address some of these really entangled societal problems that we face.