Positive Affect and Stress

Exactly How Your Good Mood Can Combat Stress

Positive affect can be cultivated, and can make you more resilient to stress. Martin Barraud/ Getty Images

Positive affect refers to one’s propensity to experience positive emotions and interact with others and with life’s challenges in a positive way.  Negative affect involves experiencing the world in a more negative way and feeling negative emotions and more negativity in relationships and surroundings.  These two states are independent of one another, though related; someone can be high in positive and negative affect, high in just one, or low in both.

  Both states affect our lives in many ways, particularly when it comes to stress and how we handle it.

Positive Affect and Stress

Positive affect is associated with other characteristics of people who tend to be happier, like optimism, extraversion, and success.  However, positive affect isn’t just another by-product of a happy, less stressful life; it’s an influencing factor.  In other words, it’s not just that those who are optimistic and successful extraverts experience positive affect because they have so much to be happy about, and they just happen to be less stressed because of all that’s great in their lives; their positive affect can bring lower levels of stress on its own.  Those with less-perfect lives can experience greater resilience toward stress simply by cultivating positive affect, or taking steps to get themselves into better moods more often.  Here’s why.

The Broaden and Build Theory

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has extensively researched the effects of positive affect on stress, and has come up with a model of how positive affect interacts with resilience, known as the "broaden and build" theory of positive psychology.

 Fredrickson and others have found that when we give ourselves a lift in mood, this can expand (or broaden) our perspective so that we notice more possibilities in our lives, and this enables us to more easily take advantage of (to build upon) these resources.  These resources include the following:

  • Physical Resources: This includes energy, stamina, fitness, health, and overall wellness.  For example, if you’re in a good mood, you may have more motivation to go to the gym and build your physical resources.
  • Psychological Resources: This includes the ability to choose more optimistic perspectives, pull yourself out of rumination, or withstand hectic schedules without experiencing burnout, for example.  If you’re experiencing more positive affect, for example, you might be less prone to dwelling on the negative and may focus on possibilities in your life.
  • Social Resources: This means more supportive relationships, friends who will give great advice if you ask, lend you a shoulder to cry on, or bring you a casserole if you are going through a difficult time.  If you’re chronically upset, you may drive away those who could be supportive in your life, whereas if you’re exuding positive affect, you may become more of an appealing friend.

These increased resources can lead to greater resilience toward stress.

How to Increase Your Positive Affect

Positive affect can be developed and cultivated.  While affectivity is somewhat inborn, meaning that some people are simply born with a greater propensity for being in a good mood as part of their personality, there are many things you can do to get into the habit if experiencing positive affect more often in your life, and making your good moods even better.  Many of these things involve changing our thought patterns and changing the experiences we put ourselves into.  Here are some of the things you can do to increase your experience of positive affect.

  • Maintain a Gratitude Journal Research shows that writing about what you are grateful for in your life can bring about greater levels of positive affect, and this benefit lasts for quite a while.  Read more about maintaining a gratitude journal.
  • Indulge in Life’s Pleasures If you plan pleasurable experiences into your life, you can be constantly increasing your experience of positive affect and the benefits that come with it.  Just remember to add new pleasures on a regular basis so you don’t become bored.  Read more about adding “pleasures” to life.
  • Engage in Hobbies Many of us don’t have as much time for hobbies as we’d like, but it’s important to make time. This can not only increase your positive affect, it can take your mind off of what may be stressing you, and leave you with a sense of accomplishment.  Read more about stress-relieving hobbies here.
  • Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation  Meditation in general is great for stress management, but the loving-kindness meditation is a particularly sweet treat, especially in that it can increase your levels of positive affect and help you feel less stressed.  Learn how to get started with loving-kindness meditation for stress.
  • Exercise—And Make It Fun!  Physical activity is a powerful stress reliever as well, and there are so many forms of exercise you can engage in, you can find several activities that are fun as well.  Dancing, yoga, cycling, walking with a friend?  Think about what might be fun for you, and do it!  Read more about stress and exercise.
  • Remember and Savor Positive Experiences Research confirms what you probably instinctively know already: that actively savoring positive experiences can prolong the happiness you experience from them!  And this can increase positive affect as well, leading to greater enjoyment of life and more resilience toward stress.  Why not get more out of the great parts of your life by actively savoring them?  Here’s how.

Sources:
Fredrickson, Barbara L.The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, Vol 56(3), Mar, 2001 pp. 218-226.

Garland, Eric L.; Fredrickson, Barbara; Kring, Ann M.; Johnson, David P.; Meyer, Piper S.; Penn, David L. Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology.Positive Clinical Psychology Clinical Psychology Review. 2010 30(7):849-864.

Qian, Xinyi Lisa; Yarnal, Careen M.; Almeida, David M.  Does Leisure Time Moderate or Mediate the Effect of Daily Stress onPositive Affect?  Journal of Leisure Research 2014, Vol. 46 Issue 1, p106.

Schiffrin, Holly H.; Falkenstern, Melissa. The impact of affect on resource development: Support for the broaden-and-build model. North American Journal of Psychology. 2012, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p569-584. 

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