Emotions are how we genuinely feel about things. We all experience both pleasant and unpleasant feelings in our lives. Emotional balance is about getting the balance of pleasant and unpleasant feelings right, at least most of the time, so that we can have positive mental wellbeing.
There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.
Robert Louis Stevenson
According to research, the ten most common positive emotions are:
Laughing or smiling at something unusual that is not serious, dangerous or threatening.
A feeling of being transfixed and overwhelmed by greatness or goodness on a grand scale, whether it is by nature or humanity, compelling us to see ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves.
The heartfelt appreciation of something in our lives, like someone who has helped us or having a comfortable place to rest.
Believing that things will change and get better.
A feeling of being riveted by human nature at its best and wanting to express yourself at your best because of it.
Feeling fascinated or challenged by something new.
A feeling of playfulness and delight in things or people.
The feeling that encompasses all or most of these positive emotions within the context of a safe, often close relationship.
Taking credit for an achievement that is valued by others.
A feeling of inner calm and contentment when things are going well for you.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2009). Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers.
Look at each of these ten positive emotions and think about what things in life bring out these feelings in you. Everybody experiences pleasant feelings for different reasons. So we can’t tell you what things make you joyful or serene or interested, etc. Only you will know.
It is easy to think that positive emotions just happen to us as a result of creating or getting what we want in our lives. But they are not just the icing on the cake of a great life. Positive emotions can help us create our best life! This is because they help to open our minds, build up our personal resources and undo the negative effects of stress.
Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues have carried out a large number of studies on positive emotions. Their findings suggest that:
Positive emotions broaden your mind
When people were stimulated to experience positive emotions, as opposed to negative or neutral emotions, their minds opened up: their peripheral vision expanded so they could actually see more than they usually do. They also had more ideas and came up with better solutions to problems, they had a greater sense of 'oneness' with other people (they thought 'we' instead of 'me') and were more likely to reach out to help others.
Positive emotions help you build your best future
Over time, people who were encouraged to notice and develop their positive emotions showed an increase in psychological strengths such as optimism, acceptance of self and sense of purpose. Also, they showed an increase in good mental habits such as mindfulness and problem-solving. Their relationships also got stronger and aspects of their physical health improved.
Positive emotions help you bounce back from life’s challenges
When put into stressful situations, people who were encouraged to experience positive emotions returned to normal heart rate and blood pressure more quickly than those who were encouraged to experience neutral or negative emotions. This suggests that focusing on positive emotions during difficult times can help us recover more quickly.
Fredrickson, B. (2009) Positivity. Crown Publishers. New York.
Positive emotions are much more than a response to a physical sensation. Although they can arise from physical pleasure (e.g. good food, warm baths, watching a sunset, etc.) they also have a longer term effect on our wellbeing. The wonderful thing that research is telling us is that these positive emotions don’t just feel good now - they can help us have brighter, better futures.
Positivity is a means toward better ends, not simply an end in itself.
This is important! Positive emotions are no use to us if they are not honest and real. In fact, research suggests that insincere positive emotions can cause as much stress to our bodies as anger. Forcing yourself to smile or ‘put on a happy face’ may help you feel genuinely cheerful, which is fine. But if it’s just done to pretend to others that you’re happy when you’re not, it won’t have a positive effect on your wellbeing.
Some common negative emotions are:
Displeasure, hostility or antagonism towards someone or something.
Disrespect for a person or thing.
A feeling of repulsion.
Feeling ashamed when your inadequacy or guilt is made public.
Anxiety or apprehension about a possible or probable situation or event.
Feeling annoyed at being hindered or criticised.
Remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offence.
A feeling of disadvantage, loss and helplessness.
The feeling resulting from an awareness of inadequacy or guilt.
Feeling strained when demand is greater than your capacity.
At times, negative emotions are appropriate and useful. It is only right that we should feel sad if someone we love dies. Feelings of anger can help give us the energy we need to stand up for fairness or justice. And fear helps to keep us away from things that could harm us.
However, some negative emotions are not helpful or healthy and we should try to reduce them. For example, we can spend too long beating ourselves up for a minor mistake we made or dwelling on a negative comment someone made about us.
Too many negative emotions can drag us into a downward spiral of despair, which can lead to a lack of energy and an inability to get the most out of our lives. If this goes too far, it can lead to depression and other mental health problems. We can learn to manage negative emotions so that they don’t overwhelm us.
Concern should drive us into action and not into a depression.
So how do we find emotional balance in our lives? How do we maintain a healthy balance of positive and negative emotions?
Research suggests that negative emotions have a stronger effect on how we feel overall than positive emotions. In ‘Hardwiring Happiness’, Rick Hanson, Neuro-psychologist, explains how positive emotions are like Teflon (they slide off easily) and negative emotions are like Velcro (they tend to stick fast!). This is because of our evolution - we have survived by being able to be alert to dangers - our brains are hardwired in this way and we can’t change this. What we can do, however, is to carry out simple daily habits which help us to focus more on our positive emotions, encouraging them to stick a bit more. This in turn will help to make us healthier and more successful, which will then lead to more positive emotions, and so on.
Positive and negative emotions don’t just happen to us - they are affected by the way we think. In turn, how we think affects what we do. So, our behaviour is affected by our thoughts and emotions. In addition, the way we behave, and the outcomes of our behaviour, affects how we think and feel. There is therefore an ongoing relationship between our thoughts, feelings and behaviour - see diagram below:
So, we can help to take control of our emotions by changing the way we think. We can decide how we are going to respond when bad things happen to us. And we can think positively about our lives to help encourage positive emotion.
We can help push negative thoughts out of our mind, by doing something to try and take our mind off them for a while, like going for a walk or a swim or phoning a friend. The physical exercise or contact with a friend can also give us a little boost of positive emotion which opens our minds to possible solutions to our problems. Also, solutions to our problems often come to us when we’re not thinking too hard about it.
We can also argue with our negative thoughts by clearly examining the facts of the situation. Thinking things like "I’ll never get this work finished - I’m just hopeless at this" makes you feel pretty low, but may not actually be true.
We can’t just magic up positive emotions - for example, we can’t just decide to be joyful. But we can decide to think about the good things in our life to help us experience joy by asking ourselves questions like, "What’s going well in my life today?"
By celebrating what’s right, we find the energy to fix what is wrong.
Did you know?
This video is of Dewitt Jones, photographer with The National Geographic, describing his experiences:
So how we think is vitally important. Our minds are easily filled with worries and ‘to do’ lists. Our thoughts may be crowded with news and all the things going on around us. It takes effort to clear our minds and re-fill them with thoughts about our love for others or our dreams or the wonder of nature. But that effort is worth it if we want to create a flourishing life.
As they grow up, children develop their understanding of emotions and the way they respond to them. They need to learn how to manage negative emotions appropriately. So for instance, it is better that they recognise they are angry or scared and learn to deal with the emotion appropriately rather than hit out in anger or run away in fear.
They also need to recognise positive emotions and learn how to build on the positive emotions in their lives. Having fun should not be taken lightly - it’s really good for them!
As an adult who cares for or works with children or young people, you can help them learn to notice, understand and manage their feelings. You can also help them get the right balance of positive to negative emotions. This will help them get the best out of their lives.
The first emotions that can be recognised in babies include joy, anger, sadness and fear. Later, as children begin to develop a sense of self, they will develop more complex emotions like shyness, surprise, embarrassment, pride and shame. Young children’s emotions are mainly made up of physical reactions (e.g. heart racing, butterflies in stomach) and they will act out how they feel, for example they may throw a tantrum.
As they grow, their thoughts begin to have a greater influence on their emotions, for example they know they feel nervous because they are thinking about a school test. They develop the ability to recognise and name their feelings and are increasingly able to manage their emotions by rethinking their goals, for example, they may realise there is no point in feeling angry about something they can’t change. As they grow, they also become more aware of other people’s feelings, for example they may imagine that someone else will feel sad if their pet has died, even if they don’t see them crying.
A laugh, to be joyous, must flow from a joyous heart, for without kindness, there can be no true joy.
Here are some useful resources and activities to help children and young people think about their feelings and emotions.
CBeebies videos and activities: www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/shows/feeling-better
Kitbag for Schools and Families, resource to support emotional wellbeing: www.iffpraxis.com/kitbag-kit
Happy Jelly Babies
What makes you feel happy? What makes the other people in your family or group feel happy? What will happen when you find out how to make each other smile?
What you need:
How to set up the activity:
What you do:
Some things to talk about together:
Do you have some little things that remind of you of special events? Perhaps a shell reminds you of a holiday by the sea, or an old ticket reminds you of a day out? Why not fill a bag with small objects to help you play a story game together?
What you need:
What you do:
Some things to talk about: