3 Things You Hopefully Didn't Know About Positive Emotions

by Warren Davies
(Self Improvement Online, Inc.)

3 Things You Hopefully Didn't Know About Positive Emotions

- By Warren Davies

In case you hadn't heard, there's a new-ish field within psychology, called positive psychology, which is very relevant to self growth. The premise of the field is that throughout the history of psychology, far too much emphasis has been placed on mental illness and disorder, and getting people from a "minus 5 to a zero." The aim of positive psychology is to look more deeply into the factors that cause people and groups to thrive - getting people from "zero to plus 5".

One of the main areas of interest then, is positive emotions. This is a term I don't particularly like, because all emotions are 'positive' in the sense that they serve an adaptive function - but you know what I'm talking about; the emotions that are, for most people, more pleasant to experience.

Here are a few findings from this line of research into positive emotions, which you hopefully didn't know before.

Positive emotions undo the effects of negative emotions

'Negative' emotions (again a term I don't like), prepare the body for a certain type of action. To do this, they have specific psychological and physiological effects on the body (such as increased cardiovascular activity). Positive emotions, when elicited after negative ones, serve to rid the individual of this 'action readiness', giving them access to a broader repertoire of potential behaviors.

Positive emotions increase creativity

Positive emotions have been shown in a number of studies to improve creative thinking. It is important to point out the type of creative thinking in question. The studies test divergent thinking; a typical task might be "come up with as many possible uses for a brick as possible". So positive emotions are useful in the 'brainstorming' sense of creativity. Negative emotions have the opposite effect, and negative to neutral states are more effective when critical thinking and attention to detail are required. Bear this in mind when selecting your study playlist - choose music that elicits the most useful mood for the task.

Positive emotions counter the own-race bias

There is a phenomenon called the 'own-race bias' in facial recognition. We find it easier to recognize the faces of people belonging to our own race than we do people belonging to others. This is the technical term for the "they all look the same to me" experience. But studies have shown that people in positive moods are less susceptible to the own-race bias, relative to neutral or negative moods.

You might have noticed a common theme running through these three points: positive emotions broaden your perceptions/thoughts/behaviors, while negative ones narrow them. The idea is that deep in our evolutionary past, our ancestors faced very specific threats, and our bodies have evolved to attend to these threats in specific ways, to the exclusion of other things in the environment.

For example, if there's a dangerous predator nearby, you don't want to be caught admiring the pretty daisies. So your whole body shifts perceptions and resources to prepare you to run or fight. But when things are going well, when there's no particular threat, it's better to broaden your perceptions and the potential thoughts and actions you can take, so that you can expand, build resources and make new allies.

Hence, positive emotions counter the physiological effects of negative ones, allow more divergent thinking, and help you to processes faces more globally, rather than focusing on particular features, as negative emotions would tend to lead you to do.


Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. American Psychologist. 56 (3), 218-226.

Johnson, K. J., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2005). "We all look the same to me": Positive emotions eliminate the own-race bias in face recognition. Psychological Science, 16, 875-881
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About the Author:
Warren is a student at UEL, studying psychology. When he's not studying for his courses, he's at his day job as a research assistant or writing for his positive psychology blog.

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Comments for 3 Things You Hopefully Didn't Know About Positive Emotions

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Jan 14, 2010
Great read
by: Anonymous

Very nice article...Warren

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