In 1998, researcher Barbara Fredrickson published a paper called “What good are positive emotions?” The paper discussed, in detail, the importance of positive emotions on cognition, action, and interpersonal relationships. While at the time it was arguably a risky scientific article, it turned out to be pivotal. Prior to this, most research focused almost exclusively on understanding and regulating negative emotions, and the study of positive emotions had taken a backseat. But in this paper, Dr. Fredrickson shined a light on just how important positive emotions are to our health, our relationships, and the quality of our lives—not just in the short term, but also in the long run.
A decade later, the impact of positive emotions is coming under the scrutiny of scientists as they continue to gain new understanding of how positive emotions can improve mental and even physical health.
What were some of the critical findings of Dr. Fredrickson’s research on positive emotions? Why are the short- and long-term health benefits of positive emotions beneficial? And are there connections between the benefits of positive emotions and the benefits garnered from a regular yoga practice? The answer to the latter question is simple: Yes. Through an investigative lens, there is a clear connection between positive emotions and yoga. The answer to the former question, however, is both more complicated and exceedingly more fascinating.
Positive emotions have a positive physiological effect.
Researchers argue that one of the evolutionary effects of positive emotions is their “undoing effects” on negative emotions. It’s probably no surprise, then, that negative emotions increase the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. For example, you may have noticed that when you feel fear your heart rate increases, your breath constricts, and basic bodily functions, such as digestion, are stifled. This is a common outcome of negative emotions.
Positive emotions, on the other hand, have a neutralizing effect on negative emotions. In Dr. Fredrickson’s abovementioned study, participants were brought into the lab to determine whether or not positive emotions could help attenuate the impact of negative emotions. Subjects were told they were going to be asked to give a public talk (something meant to induce anxiety and fear). However, instead of making them speak, subjects were shown video clips. Some of the participants were shown fear-inducing videos; some watched neutral videos, while others viewed more pleasant videos. Researchers wanted to see if they “induced” a more positive mind-state in the subjects by showing them videos, the subjects would recover more quickly physiologically from the anxiety-provoking request. As it turned out, those who viewed the pleasant video clip recovered considerably quicker than the other two groups. In this study, positive emotions were shown to produce physiological resilience to a stress-inducing event. This evidence lays the groundwork for the argument that positive emotions help buffer against the long-term effects of stress. Arguably, positive emotions reduce allostatic load, the amount of stress we carry that may lead to disease.
Positive emotions increase “thought-action repertoires.”
Another of Dr. Fredrickson’s intriguing arguments? Positive emotions increase the number of perceived actions a person can take in response to a feeling. Her theory is that when we are experiencing positive emotions it is easier to imagine a variety of different responses to any given situation. Likewise, when we are experiencing negative emotions we have a limited number of perceived responses. Think about the well-known response to fear: fight, flight, or freeze. Not too many options, right? Dr. Fredrickson wanted to know if positive emotions encourage more possibilities in how to respond to a feeling. Participants were invited into the lab and were asked to view a video meant to elicit either a positive or a negative emotion. Afterward they were asked, “Given this feeling, please write down all the things you would like to do right now.” Participants who were shown the more positive video wrote down significantly more actions than those who viewed the negative video.
Thus, positive emotions have the ability to broaden our attention and our actions—they have implicit benefits. Dr. Fredrickson writes that “people experiencing positive affect show patterns of thought that are notably unusual, flexible and inclusive, creative, integrative, open to information, and efficient.”
Yoga induces positive mind-states.
How does this relate to yoga? In Kripalu’s eight-week outreach program for frontline providers, we guide participants to experience this kind of shift. Before a yoga class we invite participants to write about a current issue or struggle they are dealing with. Then we have them practice yoga. At the end of the yoga class, they write about the troubling situation again and how they might take a step to resolve it. The consistent result: Participants almost always walk away from the experience with a clearer, more creative way to handle the situation—a way of managing the situation that had not occurred to them before the practice. Essentially, practicing yoga increases, as Dr. Fredrickson describes it, the “thought-action repertoire.” There is something about yoga that helps to develop a new way of being and acting in the world.
Why? We know from research that yoga increases positive affect (or positive emotions) in participants. Yoga induces a positive mind state: We feel better after yoga, happier, more content, more at ease. As Dr. Fredrickson has shown, when we are under the influence of a positive emotion it is easier to make choices that are more reflective, and, hopefully, more life-affirming.
How to use this information in daily life.
Next time you notice you are experiencing a negative emotion, pause. Observe. See if when you feel a negative emotion like fear or anger your attention narrows. Likewise, when you are feeling happy or joyful, notice if your attention feels broader, if you can, think of the various ways you might respond to situations in your life. See if Dr. Fredrickson’s theory is true for you. If you are experiencing a negative emotion take a few minutes to do your favorite yoga poses or yogic breathing. Perhaps you’ll have more ideas afterward on how to manage whatever it may be that is bothering you. Use positive emotions as medicine.