Understanding Emotions

{Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011. Positive Psychology: Theory, Research, and Applications}

{Biswas-Diener, 2008. Invitation to Positive Psychology: Research and Tools for the Professional. A 6-week Course.}

What affective style do you think you have? How do you know this?

How important is the one negative emotion in the positivity ratio? Why?

Do you think you have high emotional intelligence? What if an objective test showed otherwise? What would your reaction be?

Can you generate emotion when needed and then reason with this emotion?

What would you say to someone who rejects the importance of positive emotions?

Fredrickson clarifies that emotions are individual and can be elicited at different times for different people. (Fredrickson, 2009)

Think of one of her top ten emotions. Don’t overanalyze – just think about it . . .

When was the last time I felt this feeling? Where was I? What was I doing? What else gives me that feeling? Can I think of still more triggers? What can I do to cultivate this feeling?

Among the most important take-home messages from the section introducing positive psychology are:

Positive psychology is a much-needed adjunct to traditional psychology because it asks about happiness, optimism, strengths, and other topics relevant to everyday people;

Positive psychology is a science and is distinguished by its emphasis on high-quality research;

Evidence shows a strengths focus and attention to the positive can produce important gains in education, business, and personal life.

Defining emotions

Emotions are part of being human. When we cannot feel emotions, doctors put in place drastic measures to understand why and intervene.

Emotions focus on a specific event or circumstance during the past, present, or future. At the same time, moods are free floating or objectless, more long-lasting, and occupy the background consciousness.

When psychologists began studying emotions, they focused on ‘hedonic capacity,’ our ability to feel good.

Today, researchers focus on ‘affectivity,’ the extent to which an individual experiences positive or negative moods.

Positive affect is the extent to which someone experiences joy, contentment, and so on. In contrast, negative affect is the extent to which someone experiences feelings such as sadness or fear.

Individual differences in the brain have been found to remain stable over time.

Scientists have also looked at the brains of resilient individuals when faced with potential threats. They have found that more resilient individuals tend to have less activity in brain areas that deal with worry.

Basic human emotions

Paul Ekman (2003) posits six basic human emotions found throughout the world, including anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

Izzard argues that we have ten basic emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, distress, fear, guilt, interest, joy, shame, and surprise.

Other researchers have offered alternative theories, but these are the most robust.

Negative emotions narrow our thought-action repertoires and are associated with specific action tendencies.

Fredrickson’s ‘broaden-and-build’ theory suggests that positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoires, undo negative emotions, and build resilience.

The broadening effect

Fredrickson’s positive emotions lab has found that when we experience one of the main positive emotions, our minds tend to open up, and we can think ‘outside the box.’

This is important as it helps us to get a bird’s-eye view of our situation and become more creative, with positive emotions being found to enhance verbal creativity tasks.

The building effect

Positive emotions can build personal resources, such as intellectual, physical, social, and psychological.

These resources can be used when needed, such as problem-solving, being open to learning, maintaining relationships, and creating new ones.

As these resources develop, they induce more positive emotions that continue building them in an upward spiral.

The undoing effect

The undoing effect of positive emotions is the theory that they can help our bodies return to normal physiological functioning faster than any other type of emotion.

Research is underway to discover if this extends to cognitive tasks like pattern recognition.


Losada and Fredrickson (2005) conducted a mathematical equation to determine the ideal ratio of positive to negative emotions for flourishing business teams.

They studied 60 high-performing (n 15), medium (n 26), and low-performing (n 19) business teams for the experience of positive interaction to negative interaction, whether they inquired or told, and whether their speech was about themselves or others.

Losada created a nonlinear dynamics model of observed interactions and found that high-performing business teams had 6:1 positive to negative interaction, with more inquiry than advocacy, and discussed more others than themselves.

This study led to the collaboration with Barbara Fredrickson, who used this technique to identify the minimal positive-to-negative emotion ratio for human flourishing as 3:1.

Which positive emotions are important?

Fredrickson’s top ten positive emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.

Love is unique in that it encompasses all other nine emotions and can be elicited through the presence of the others (positive emotions).

There are issues with this model, mainly based on the fact that it was created using self-reported data and not mixed with objective markers.

Researchers have suggested that there may be two types of positive affect, one linked to the dopaminergic system and the other to the opiate or oxytocin system.

Gilbert et al. (2008) found that positive affect was indeed mediated by three underlying factors: activated positive affect, relaxed positive affect, and safe or content positive affect, with the latter negatively correlating highest with depression, anxiety, stress, self-criticism, and insecure attachment.

Where do positive emotions come from?

Positive emotions are essential for success and wellbeing, and there are two main theories as to how they come about: via our material brains and our perceived rate of progress toward important goals.

Mind-body dualism

Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato discussed the human self in terms of three entities: the mind, body, and soul.

René Descartes’ famous quote, ‘I think therefore I am,’ began a longstanding debate between the existence of the immaterial mind and the material body.

However, research has shown a complex interaction between both. The primary somatosensory cortex is responsible for the transference of sensory information from the body to the brain.

Looking to our brains

Psychology is a new science; positive psychology is just a baby compared to other well-established schools of thought.

Since the 1990s, psychology has made leaps and bounds in creating machinery to access the brain and its functioning.

For example, psychologists can determine which parts of the brain are being used or which cells are firing via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or electroencephalography (EEG).

These machines allow cognitive and neuro-psychologists access to the brain in an attempt to match other physiological or emotional markers.

Electroencephalography and fMRI helped scientists to establish that the two key components in the brain concerning the experience of positive emotions appear to be the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala.

The PFC is home to emotions and emotional regulation, while increased activity in the amygdala can predict higher levels of negative affect.

The PFC enables the generation of goals and pathways to achieve them. It monitors daily experiences concerning long-term goals, sometimes initiating delayed gratification.

Researchers have discovered the link between the anterior left-side PFC and positive affect. This section of the brain is activated when we experience positive affect and vice versa when we feel anxiety or depression.

Our brain is divided into two systems – the approach system (positive affect) and the avoidance system (negative affect). These systems and emotions are directly linked to goal attainment. When we engage in behavior that brings us towards a desired goal, we will feel increased positive affect.

However, when faced with a threat, we will attempt to remove ourselves from the situation and likely feel negative affect.

Multiple theories exist, including the impact of social influences, activation patterns, neurogenesis, and gene expression.

Evidence suggests that changes in this area do not have to happen from birth. Enriching environments later on in life can also significantly impact the circuitry of the emotion and regulation areas of the brain.

Emotions, goals, and discrepancy theory

Affective neuroscientists believe whether we engage the behavioral activation system (BAS) or behavioral inhibition system (BIS) will determine affect.

Charles Carver and Michael Scheier have spent the past few decades researching goals and self-regulation and their effects on emotional wellbeing.

Their control-theory perspective is based on behavior and self-regulation.

When we set a goal, we engage in what is known as a discrepancy loop, trying to minimize the distance between where we are and where we want to be.

If there is a discrepancy between where people are and where they want to be, they adjust their behavior to get closer to the reference value.

However, outside influences or impediments sometimes stand in the way of attaining our goals.

The rate of progress, rather than progress per se, determines whether we experience positive or negative emotions.

Negative emotion comes from inadequate progress towards a goal, while positive affect comes from progress towards future success.

Positive emotions and other people

When we feel positive emotions, we feel connected to others and allow ourselves to open up and include others in our sense of self.

This inclusion side effect tremendously impacts personal relationships, as we are more likely to understand other people’s complexities and perspectives.

Cross-cultural research shows that feeling positive emotions is not a selfish endeavor. It can help with combating and almost eliminating own-race bias. Additionally, positive emotions can affect cross-cultural perspective-taking, with people who feel higher levels of positive emotions being able to take a larger perspective and exhibit greater sympathy and compassion for someone from a different cultural context.

Attenuation to positive emotions

People who experience positive emotions and have resilient tendencies can draw on resources to help them out much faster than those who do not experience these emotions.

Positive attenuation is also essential in protecting against depressive symptoms.

Resilient individuals have a unique ability to maintain and regulate positive emotions.

By pursuing positive emotion-eliciting activities, we accrue resources that enhance our odds of survival and reproduction.

Positive emotions signal and produce health and wellbeing.

The minimal ratio for thriving is three positive emotions to one negative emotion.

Individuals who score higher on positive affect report better marriages and job satisfaction, more engagement with physical activity, and better sleep patterns.

However, more research is needed to determine causal links to the variables.

Personality and positive emotions

Personality is a hot topic within psychology and is concerned with individual differences in how we think, feel, and act.

Most areas of psychology use the NEO Big Five personality traits to correlate their concepts.

The literature shows a strong correlation between dispositional global positive affect and extroversion.

The two most robust relationships between happiness and personality are extraversion and neuroticism.

Shiota et al. (2006) reviewed the correlations between seven positive emotions that engage survival fitness: joy, contentment, pride, love, compassion, amusement, and awe.

When correlated with the Big Five, all seven correlate positively with extraversion.

Conscientiousness correlated with agency-focused emotions such as joy, contentment, and pride.

Agreeableness correlated with love and compassion.

Awe was strongly linked to openness, as was amusement, joy, love, and compassion.

Neuroticism was negatively correlated with love, contentment, pride, and joy.

Positive psychology has yet to show a clear-cut causal relation between personality and positive life outcomes.

Future research must include all ages to determine stronger and more causal links.

Holder and Klassen (2009) argue that understanding personality and wellbeing will enable researchers to tailor interventions to personality type, resulting in maximum potential.

The face and positive emotions

The presence of a Duchene smile has been regarded as an objective measure of genuine happiness and positive emotions.

Studies have found positive correlations between Duchene smiling and shorter duration of grief after bereavement, less negativity, greater competence, more positive ratings from others, and greater wellbeing in later life.

Johnson et al. (2010) found experimental evidence that when people smile genuinely, their thought patterns are immediately broadened.

The Power of Emotions

Emotions are useful, powerful, and beneficial and can be harnessed for success in all walks of life. They are contagious, linked to memory, and can be called forth by triggers such as old photographs. Positive emotion is one of the greatest resources you and your clients, colleagues, or students overlook.

Emotions have not always had the best reputation. For the ancient Greeks, they represented the lower, animalistic side of human nature. Self-control and the ability to override emotion became known as a virtue.

Morality itself was viewed as a cognitive, intellectual process in which people weighed rules, norms, and values in their heads before making decisions or acting out.

This same cynical view of emotions can be seen in the case of positive feelings, which are often regarded as naïve, shallow, or selfish.

Gustave Flaubert said, “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness; though, if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.”

Marcel Proust, the famous pessimist, was also skeptical of good feelings. He wrote, “Happiness serves hardly any other purpose than to make unhappiness possible.”

Another place emotions get a bad rap is in psychological mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Depression and other psychological problems are often discussed in the media, reminding us that emotions can get out of control. Many people mistakenly think of depression and anxiety as feelings that have snowballed to unwieldy proportions.

It is important to consider the merits of skepticism about emotion, such as why we have them and how best to use them.

It turns out that emotions can be useful, and understanding how to use them can make them work for you as a resource.

What are Emotions For?

Emotions are essential for remembering, learning, and communicating with others.

They are implicated in morality, with felt feelings offering an affective guide to what we think is right or wrong.

Emotions are a tracking system for our lives, with interactions, circumstances, behaviors, and decisions accompanying many emotional consequences.

These tracking systems are not perfect, but they are usually correct.

Emotions have motivational consequences, such as when we feel bad or guilty. These emotions act like an internal judicial system that helps regulate behavior.

Fear, for example, compels us to avoid threatening situations, and listening to our feelings can change behavior.

Negative emotions are a term psychologists use to describe unpleasant feelings such as anger, sadness, guilt, fear, and related emotions.

They can be a powerful motivator to protect ourselves. Their absence would lead to a dysfunctional world where people lie, hurt, and steal without remorse.

Without negative emotions, people would cease to function effectively as they narrow our possible thoughts and actions. For example, when confronted with a threat or problem, emotions help us act quickly and limit our possible response options.

Sometimes emotions can be problematic. Still, it is better to have a working emotional system that leads to occasional mistakes than to have none.

It should also be noted that emotions do not always function properly and that some people have biological and genetic factors that hinder effective functioning.

For most people, emotions work just fine. Because of this, our families, businesses, and societies can function as well as they do.

Psychologists have largely overlooked positive emotions due to the clinical emphasis on negative emotions and their importance in treating trauma and other psychological maladies. Studies on negative emotions outnumber those on positive emotions by as much as 25 to 1.

Alice Isen’s research on positive emotions provided new insights into the possible functions of good feelings. In a classic study, she placed coins in telephone booths and recorded how the burst of positive feelings from the “good fortune” affected people, observing an increase in helping behavior following such an episode of good luck. In a more recent study, she gave small bags of chocolate to medical doctors. She found they showed significantly better diagnostic ability and were more careful in their approach. Isen’s work set the stage for the idea that positive emotion is functional. Still, it is difficult to see exactly what that function might be.

Researcher Barb Fredrickson advanced an elegant explanation of the power of positive emotion. If negative feelings serve to narrow our thoughts and actions, she reasoned, perhaps positive emotions broaden them. Her subsequent research showed this to be true. In her “Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotion, Fredrickson argues that feeling good broadens our interests and helps build our capabilities. If negative emotions, from an evolutionary standpoint, are designed to help us deal with threats and problems in the present, positive emotions help us to prepare to deal with them in the future. Good feelings indicate that nothing is going wrong and that we can pursue interests, pleasures, and hobbies.

Interestingly, positive emotions make us more curious and interested and more likely to try new activities and develop new skills. Positive emotions also make people more creative and better problem-solvers. Positive emotions further make people more sociable. When feeling good, we seek out others, cultivate relationships, and help people. Finally, positivity appears to “undo” the effects of negative emotions, such as helping people return more quickly to normal pulse rates and blood pressure after feeling stressed. Social alliances, creativity, skills, curiosity, and health are tremendous adaptive advantages.

John Cacioppo has conducted studies on the electrical impulses in facial muscles, showing that many people react to even neutral stimuli as if they are positive. This is known as the “positivity offset.” It provides further evidence for positive emotions being advantageous.

The Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions is one of positive psychology’s most important research findings. It is a compelling counterpoint to those skeptics who dismiss happiness as naïve, selfish, or shallow.

It suggests that happiness helps us function better at work and in relationships, in those areas we care about most. The promise of positive emotion is so great that it can be used as a resource on the road to success in almost every walk of life.

These research findings are not just something university professors chat about in the department halls; they are important to you!

Direct Benefits of Positive Emotions

Positive emotions, such as curiosity and friendliness, can be helpful in modern life, but do they have a place in professional life?

Like emotions, happiness has a bad reputation and can be associated with dopiness, complacency, and naiveté.

However, happiness can include joy, excitement, flow and engagement, enthusiasm, and peace. In addition, many happy people are achievement-oriented and well aware of the world’s problems.

There is now a mountain of research data showing that happiness and positive emotions don’t just feel good but are actually good for you.

Positive emotions are highly beneficial, with studies showing that they lead to lower rates of smoking, drug use, suicide, emergency room and hospital visits, fewer automobile fatalities, lower blood pressure, fewer heart attacks, more physical exercise, better immune system functioning, better longevity and mortality rates, higher pain thresholds, better cardiovascular functioning, and better global health.

Additionally, happy people are more likely to get married, stay married, have more friends, feel more social support, help colleagues, show up to work on time, take fewer sick days, receive better supervisor and customer evaluations, and make more money.

Positive psychology is a science that provides empirical support for longstanding claims.

It is possible to tie positivity directly to outcomes that executives and managers care about, such as productivity, turnover, and organizational citizenship.

The science of positive psychology tells us that understanding and harnessing positive emotions is worthwhile. They are so widely beneficial that they may be the greatest resource you and your clients overlook.

Despite the strong support for this conclusion, it is important to tailor the language you use when discussing this topic to make it appropriate to your profession.

For example, the word “happiness” might not fly in an organizational setting, but “better team productivity,” “lower turnover,” and “better conflict resolution ability” will get the attention of nearly all managers and executives.

If happy faces, smiling, and laughter sound like dubious boardroom topics, consider “sustained cold calling capacity for the sales team,” “enhanced team creativity,” or “increased customer loyalty.”

Whether you work in coaching, psychotherapy, education, or human resources, harnessing the power of good feelings is relevant to all professions.

These findings have been cited and reviewed extensively in a 2005 article by Sonya Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener published in Psychological Bulletin.

A sample of the many benefits of positive emotion


Positive people are less likely than negative people to develop a cold. When they did, the symptoms were far less severe.

Positive nuns survived longer than their negative counterparts.

Depression is linked to smoking, drinking, drug abuse, suicide, stroke, slower illness recovery rates, and more emergency room visits.

Positivity is linked to less pain, physical symptoms, and fewer hospital visits.

People in a good mood have faster cardiovascular recovery times.


Good relationships are associated with better health and mental health.

The happiest 10% are more sociable and have stronger friendships and romantic relationships.

Positive people volunteer more and are more willing to help others.

In addition, positive people are more extroverted, have better club attendance, and are less selfish.


Positivity is associated with higher salaries; better supervisor evaluations; better customer evaluations; less absenteeism; less employee turnover; better organizational behavior; better relationships with colleagues.

Negativity costs the economy billions of dollars annually in lost productivity from disengaged workers.


Positive emotions increase interest and curiosity, are associated with feeling more meaning in life and lead to more creativity.

The Fundamental Question: How do We Increase Positivity?

Positivity is a difficult concept to promote, but it can be done. Organizations have attempted to infuse positivity around the edges, such as motivational posters and “casual dress Fridays.” However, these approaches do not always work.

To increase positivity, consider how you already make your life more positive, such as through humor. Humor can dispel tense situations, bring people closer together, address difficult subjects, and be pleasurable. However, being funny is not natural for everyone. For example, it might be difficult to put out an office memo to laugh more.

Most importantly, promoting positivity is complex, and success will depend on the environment in which you work.

To create a positive culture, start with leadership, model positivity for clients, be positive in employee interactions, and use empirically tested interventions.

Positive psychology research on strengths, hope, and optimism can also be useful. A belief in the power of positivity, the effectiveness of positive interventions, a strengths-based focus, and increasing optimism will help to inspire, motivate, and engage the people you work with.

It is worth understanding what emotions are for, what they can do for us, and how they can work to our advantage.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a widely used phrase within pop psychology.

Salovey and Mayer (1990: 189) define EI as the ability to monitor one’s and others’ feelings and emotions, discriminate among them, and use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.

Researchers believe that emotions have use and are not present for an idle purpose.

After the theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993), people began to see that intelligence was not just about IQ but several kinds of intelligence, including linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist intelligence.

There are two distinct groups of models of emotional intelligence: the ability EI models and mixed EI models.

The ability model framework is the most robust in terms of objective classifications.

The Ability Model

John Mayer, Peter Salovey, and David Caruso developed the Mayer–Salovey–Caruso EQ Model, a 141-item, task-based emotional intelligence test (MSCEIT).

The model states that EI has four stages of competencies or mental skills.

This section will review the branches outlined from Mayer and Salovey’s work and suggest questions to help enhance our emotional intelligence quotient.

Perceiving emotions

Perceiving is the ability to recognize emotions in oneself or others, which can help individuals cope with social situations.

It involves asking questions such as how I feel and how others feel.


The second branch is the ability to use emotions to facilitate mood.

This can be done by bringing yourself down into a calm, unaroused state to narrow focus or by bringing yourself up with music or self-talk to enhance positive feelings and broader thinking patterns.

Questions to help develop this include how your mood influences thinking and how it affects decision-making.


The third branch is recognizing that emotions are complex and can change over time.

People who are high in this area understand that emotions are not just mad or hurt, happy or sad, but can be a mixture of all these feelings simultaneously.

When trying to develop this area, it is important to ask yourself why you are feeling these emotions and what has caused them for you.


The final branch of emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to manage or self-regulate one’s emotions.

This includes recognizing when and where it is inappropriate to express certain emotions and managing them accordingly.

Additionally, EI can predict outcomes such as wellbeing, self-esteem, more prosocial behaviors, less smoking and alcohol use, enhanced positive mood, less violent behavior, greater academic eagerness, and higher leadership performance.

Mayer and Salovey’s ability model seems to have more support than Goleman’s model, and ability measures of emotional intelligence seem to be more reliable than self-report measures.

Mixed Models of EI

Goleman’s theory of intelligence (EI) is the ability to adaptively perceive, understand, regulate, and harness emotions in the self and others.

EI mixed models view EI as a combination of perceived emotional skills and personality.

According to Goleman’s theory of intelligence, there are five main areas within the concept: managing emotions, using emotion for self-motivation, recognizing emotions in others, managing emotions in others, and emotional self-awareness.

Researchers use the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory, or ESCI (2007), to measure this type of EI.

However, a major issue with EI self-reports is that they can be potentially inaccurate, unavailable to conscious interpretation, and vulnerable to the influence of social desirability, deception, and impression management.

Furthermore, Goleman’s work has been branded as simply pop psychology, which has overshadowed his contribution to the area of EI.

The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI)

The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence views emotional intelligence as the skill of understanding oneself and others, as well as the ability to interact and connect with others.

Criticisms of this test include reports of high levels of deception.

Research on personality traits argues that EI self-report measures are too strongly related to personality traits, such as neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness.

However, the development of EI, from an ability model perspective, is highly beneficial for an individual’s wellbeing.

However, it may not be unique or too highly associated with personality to be seen as a separate construct.