As a crisis hotline counselor, I often talk to callers in the grip of some intense negative emotions. I try to help them develop a more positive outlook on life and be able to face whatever challenges come their way. But how to do that?
A recent study, published in the journal Emotion, suggests the key lies in helping people not simply avoid negative emotions but cultivate positive emotions. These positive emotions, it seems, help build inner strength and resiliency—which, in turn, pave the way for lasting happiness.
In the study, lead by Michael Cohn, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers tracked 86 students every day for a month, asking them how strongly over the previous 24 hours they'd felt a variety of positive emotions, such as amusement, awe, compassion, and gratitude, and negative ones like anger, disgust, fear, and shame. At the very beginning and end of the experiment, the researchers also measured participants' resilience, asking them how much they agreed with statements like "I quickly get over and recover from being startled" and "I enjoy dealing with new and unusual situations," as well as their general satisfaction with life.
Cohn and colleagues found that participants who felt more positive emotions toward the start of the month showed a boost in their levels of resiliency and life satisfaction—and, in turn, the greater their resilience, the more likely they were to experience positive emotions as the month progressed. But just generally feeling satisfied with life toward the start of the month did not increase their resiliency or positive emotions.
The researchers also found that negative emotions and positive emotions were not mutually exclusive: Participants who felt negative emotions still reaped the benefits of positive emotions, and feeling negative emotions didn't change their resilience or life satisfaction.
These results suggest that, over time, momentary positive emotions, rather than a generally positive outlook on life, help us develop the skills to adapt to new environments and unexpected experiences. These skills of resilience—including the ability to regulate our emotions, problem solve, and change perspectives—then make us more likely to experience positive emotions in the future.
This means that people are happy not simply because they feel better than those who have negative emotions but because they have developed the resources to deal with life's challenges. Positive emotions and resiliency build off each other: Positive emotions build resiliency, and resiliency builds positive emotions.
"In other words, it is not sufficient to appreciate or approve of one's life in a general way," write the authors. "Lived experiences such as joy and interest are what start the process of exploring, learning, connecting, and ultimately building resources."