Positive Emotions And Resilience

Tara Moore/ Getty Images

 Part of what inspired me to pursue the study of psychology and counseling is the experience of seeing people respond differently to the same situation: whether the circumstance is heavy traffic or a bone-shattering car accident, some people respond by meeting stressors with strength and perhaps growing from the experience while others may become undone by similar circumstances. So far, my favorite branch of psychology--positive psychology--has come up with a few answers.

(Read more on stress and resilience.) To my delight, research has shed light on the origin of personal resilience.

According to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, people who seed their life with frequent moments of positive emotions increase their resilience against challenges.

"This study shows that if happiness is something you want out of life, then focusing daily on the small moments and cultivating positive emotions is the way to go," said Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences and the principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, in a press release. "Those small moments let positive emotions blossom, and that helps us become more open. That openness then helps us build resources that can help us rebound better from adversity and stress, ward off depression and continue to grow."

In the month long study, 86 participants were asked to submit daily "emotion reports," rather than answering general questions on their happiness history.

"Getting those daily reports helped us gather more accurate recollections of feelings and allowed us to capture emotional ups and downs," said Fredrickson, a leading expert in the field of positive psychology.

Amassing a daily collection of positive emotions does not require banishing negative emotions, she said. I particularly like this finding because it helps clarify a 'sticking point' for many: it's okay to feel less-than-positive emotions! (In fact, denying that we feel 'negative' emotions can hamper our ability to cope with them in a healthy way, and can rob us of the 'gifts' they often bring--clarity, motivation for change, etc.)

As with changing one's diet or other lifestyle areas, it's simpler and more effective to add what you want more of (whether it's recognition of positive events in your life, or a diet richer in fruits and vegetables) thank to focus on 'giving up' things that are hard to relinquish (from moods to foods).

Fredrickson elaborated, "The levels of positive emotions that produced good benefits weren't extreme. Participants with average and stable levels of positive emotions still showed growth in resilience even when their days included negative emotions."

Fredrickson recommends focusing on the "micro-moments" that can help unlock one positive emotion here or there.

 "A lot of times we get so wrapped up in thinking about the future and the past that we are blind to the goodness we are steeped in already, whether it's the beauty outside the window or the kind things that people are doing for you," she said. "The better approach is to be open and flexible, to be appreciative of whatever good you do find in your daily circumstances, rather than focusing on bigger questions, such as 'Will I be happy if I move to California?' or 'Will I be happy if I get married?'"

My favorite methods for doing this? Here are a few of my main recommendations:

Maintain a Gratitude Journal 
You can add 50 entries per day, or 5 per week. (Okay, 50 per day is a bit much, but I'm sure it can be done!) The main point is to get into the habit of catching all the things that are going right in your life, and enjoying them as they come. (Read more about maintaining a gratitude journal.)

Tweet Your Good Fortune 
Recording the things that are going right in your life--seeing a beautiful sunset, owning the world's best dog--by using Twitter provides a double benefit: you start to notice positive events more (and have a record of all that you have to be thankful for!), and others can enjoy your good fortune right along with you! (Read more about Twitter.)

Cultivate Mindfulness
Being fully present in 'the now'--that means not planning for the future or thinking about the past--can help you to really savor what's going on right now, and can help make you stronger. (Learn more about mindfulness.)

Source: Fredrickson, B., Ph.D., Cohn, Michael, Ph.D. ; Brown, Stephanie, Ph.D., Mikels, Joseph, Ph.d. Conway, Ph.D. Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building ResilienceEmotion, June, 2009.

Continue Reading