For a long time, the purpose of positive emotions has been a mystery, because they didn’t appear to be necessary for our survival. Negative emotions, on the other hand, were essential – helping us when we face threats by triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response.
These days most of us have lives that are much less dangerous than they were for our ancestors. But unfortunately, our brains haven’t caught up, which means we need to put conscious effort into positive thinking.
The good news is that small efforts over time can make a lasting difference. Recent research even suggests that this might lead to lasting changes in our brains, which help to maintain the increase in our wellbeing.
Positive emotions can also broaden our perceptions. This helps us to see more, respond more flexibly and in new ways, and be more creative. It also makes us more open to different ideas or experiences and we feel closer to and more trusting of others.
This leads to building the resources that lead to happier lives, such as friends, knowledge, better problem solving and even better health.
So just how much positive emotion do we need to get the long-term benefits?
Overall, we simply need to have more positive than negative. This is called our positivity ratio.
Research shows that to reap the benefits in the longer term, we need to aim for around three times as many positive as negative emotions. These don’t need to all be huge surges of joy; small instances of positive feelings also count.
There’s also evidence that positive emotions are contagious and when we feel good it can also have a knock-on effect on those around us. So, by doing things that help us feel good, we can do others good too.
Evidence shows that enjoying the moment can increase how happy we feel overall. But there are lots of different positive emotions and not all of them come from “having fun”.
For example, some are feelings we get when we’re truly interested in something or have put our best effort into achieving something. Others come from quiet moments, like a few minutes of peace and calm in an otherwise hectic day.
We should all be aiming for a healthy balance between enjoying the moment and doing things that bring meaning and fulfilment in the longer term.