Traditionally, psychologists who study emotion have primarily focused on understanding negative emotions and their effects on mental and physical health. For example, researchers studied emotions such as sadness, anger, stress and anxiety particularly because they signalled the presence of possible mental illness. While this research has proved fruitful in helping individuals diagnosed with psychological disorders, recent studies have focused on positive emotions.
Positive emotions, like happiness, contentment, and joy, are just as interesting and important to study, given our limited understanding of their effects on our daily functioning. Common sense tells us that emotional experiences intrude and impair effective cognitive functioning, or that they have no long-term benefit. However, recent work has discovered quite the opposite, and highlighted the importance of better understanding how and by which mechanisms these emotions enhance our daily living. The following is a brief review of past and current research assessing the effects of positive emotions on mental performance, as well as ways in which to effectively induce positive emotions in your daily life.
Alice Isen(1) conducted some of the earliest work studying the effects of positive emotion on thinking. In her groundbreaking studies, she discovered that positive emotions induced in participants in her laboratory, improved aspects of thinking such as memory, judgement, decision-making, flexibility and creativity(1). For example, she observed that participants who viewed a few minutes of a comedic film clip performed better on a creativity task compared to participants who were shown either a negative film clip or a control group(2). The creativity task used, the ‘Duncker candle problem,’ which required participants to attach a candle to the wall in such a way such that it would burn without dripping wax on the floor. They were given a candle, matches and a box of tacks. The Duncker candle problem is considered a creativity task because one can arrive at the only correct answer by ‘thinking outside the box,’ so to speak. One must break out of the the primary concept of ‘a box of tacks’ and think of another unusual way to use the box (i.e. pin the box to the wall and place the candle inside the box). Ultimately, most of the results indicated that those who were made to feel positive emotions were more likely to complete these cognitive tasks in a significantly shorter amount of time.
So how did Isen explain her results? Isen proposed that mild positive affect, which can be induced by small, everyday events, increases the tendency to think flexibly, combine material in new ways, and see relationships in distantly related stimuli. More specifically, feeling positive emotions activates other positive thoughts and memories, which allow for a greater range of interpretations and ways to solve the current cognitive task. Subsequently, neurobiological theories have been developed to explain the beneficial effects of positive emotion on cognition. Ashby and Isen(3) proposed that positive emotion is characterized by an increased release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in specific brain regions associated with cognitive processing. Dopamine is considered to play a major role in reward-motivated behaviors, and may also contribute to the subjective positive feeling we experience when we receive a reward. Therefore, dopamine release as a result of positive emotions in key brain areas like the anterior cingulate cortex and, nigrostriatal and mesolimbic pathways (also associated with cognition), may enhance performance on a variety of tasks such as short and long-term memory, and creative problem solving. A recent brain imaging study provides evidence for this theory. Subramaniam and colleagues(4) observed that patients who reported greater positive mood completed more tasks related to insight and creativity . Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they discovered that individuals who reported increased positive emotion showed greater activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and that this change was associated with processing that led to better creativity performance. The ACC is a highly influential brain region thought to link behavioral outcomes with motivation, as it is involved with emotion processing, learning, and memory(5) While this study did not claim that increased activation in the ACC was due to dopamine per se, it does propose that there are shared brain regions relative to both emotional experience and cognitive processing. Overall, there appears to be neuroanatomical and/or neurochemical evidence to suggest that positive emotions enhance certain kinds of mental performance.
Recent Studies: Positive Psychology
Isen’s research laid the groundwork to understand how positive emotions influence physical and mental processes from a scientific perspective, which today we know as positive psychology. As defined by its founder Martin Seligman, positive psychology is, ‘the scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals to thrive.”(6) As a field, it uses empirical research to study topics such as well-being, wisdom, creativity, flow, personal strengths, psychological health, and characteristics of positive groups and institutions. Furthermore, these topics can be studied across multiple levels. For example, we can study positive psychology at a subjective level, focusing on the mechanisms underlying happiness, contentedness, joyfulness, satisfaction, optimism, and flow, and how these emotional states affect performance. Researchers can also study positive psychology on an individual level, where they aim to identify the qualities necessary to live a ‘good life’ and to be considered a ‘good person,’ such as courage, perseverance, originality, wisdom, forgiveness, and capacity for love. Finally, understanding positive psychology at the interpersonal level relates to the factors that contribute to the development of social relationships and communities, such as altruism, tolerance, civility, and work ethics.
Regarding cognitive performance, Barbara Fredrickson(7) has conducted pioneering work within the field of positive psychology. Fredrickson investigated the benefits of positive emotions from an evolutionary perspective. While negative emotions are evolutionarily advantageous for our survival as a species (i.e. we fear something dangerous so we run from it), how do positive emotions increase our chances of survival? What is the point of positive emotions, apart from feeling subjectively pleasant? According to her ‘broaden-and-build theory,(7) positive emotions contribute to personal growth and development in the following ways:
1. Positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoires
Specific to cognition, positive emotions are thought to broaden your attention, promote thinking in more flexible ways, and increase open-mindedness and acceptance of new opportunities. In one study, Fredrickson presented participants with a film meant to induce one of the following feelings: Joy, contentment, fear, and anger. Afterwards, they asked the participants to imagine a situation in which similar feelings would arise, and all the different behaviors they would engage in, given that situation. Results(8) exhibited more actions for people who had watched the joy and contentment film clips, compared to those who had watched anger and fear film clips, suggesting that positive emotions inspire people to react in more ways compared to negative emotions.
2. Positive emotions undo negative emotions
Positive emotions have been noted to counteract the effects of negative emotions, at least on a physiological level. For example, positive emotions may reduce stress (such as reduce heart rate) that is typically associated with negative emotions.
3. Positive emotions increase psychological resilience
Positive emotions may help people cope with negative life experiences, and allow them to bounce back comparatively quickly. In one experiment, Fredrickson gave people a stressful task (i.e. write and present a speech) and assessed their level of emotionality, resilience and cardiovascular activity. She observed that participants who reported higher resilience also demonstrated higher levels of positive emotions, which in turn, remained high throughout the stressful task. Interestingly, those with higher resilience showed a faster return to the baseline heart rate This indicates that resilience and positive emotions have a protective influence on the effects of stress on physiological response.
4. Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being
Positive emotions build on themselves, and enhance future psychological well-being. For example, people who experience positive emotions during negative life events, like loss of a loved one, are more likely to deal with their grief in a significantly shorter amount of time, as well as develop long-term plans and goals(8). Therefore, the effects of positive emotions accumulate over time and predict how well one can cope with future adversity.
Positive Emotions in Everyday Life
Referring to Isen’s work, participants were made to feel positive emotions by giving them an unanticipated gift (i.e. money or candy), have them watch a comedic film, read funny cartoons or experience success on an ambiguous task. Emotion researchers have additionally used strategies such as presenting pictures, music, videos and stories, or asking participants to remember some memory that elicits positive emotions. If administered correctly, just about all of these procedures are effective at eliciting positive emotions(9). The simple nature of these methods suggests that the beneficial effects of positive emotions can be prompted easily, by small things in people’s everyday lives.
One common real-world manner in which we self-regulate our emotions includes seeking positive imagery on the internet. For example, one recent study found that approximately 7000 individuals who watched cat videos reported more positive and fewer negative emotions, and increased energy afterwards, suggesting viewing as a form of pet-therapy and stress relief(10) Interestingly, one recent study demonstrated that positive videos and pictures commonly found on the internet can positively influence and improve productivity(11). In this study, a group of participants presented with a series of cat videos commonly found on the internet demonstrated an increase in productivity (using a typing task), compared to individuals not exposed to positive stimuli before the task. While the task primarily assessed motor behavior (i.e. number of words typed in a 2-minute limit), one can hypothetically infer that positive mood increased the number of words typed partially due to an increase in attention and mental focus for the task at hand. Another study presented participants with cute animal pictures; these participants reported higher positive emotions and also showed improved performance on attentional and visual tasks, suggesting that positive emotions may improve focus(12)
Obviously there are numerous ways in which we attempt to induce positive emotions, such as viewing pictures, films or music. These vary from person to person based on factors such as age, sex, personality, personal experiences and interests etc. You are the best judge of what makes you feel positive.
Taken together, these results suggest that positive mood may have beneficial effects like:
- Improving aspects of thinking such as memory, judgement, decision-making, flexibility and creativity.
- Improving mental performance
- Increasing the level of productivity
- Counteracting the effects of negative emotions on a physiological level
- Increasing psychological resilience and preparedness to face future adversity
- Triggering overall emotional well-being
Just some reasons to take a few minutes from your busy work day to experience something positive!
- Isen, A. M. (1987). Positive affect, cognitive processes, and social behavior. Advances in experimental social psychology, 20, 203-253.
- Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A., & Nowicki, G. P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6), 1122.
- Ashby, F. G., & Isen, A. M. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological review, 106(3), 529.
- Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T. B., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2009). A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(3), 415-432.
- Stevens, F. L., Hurley, R. A., & Taber, K. H. (2011). Anterior cingulate cortex: unique role in cognition and emotion. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 23(2), 121-125.
- Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
- Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218.
- Stein, N., Folkman, S., Trabasso, T., & Richards, T. A. (1997). Appraisal and goal processes as predictors of psychological well-being in bereaved caregivers. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72(4), 872.
- Zhang, X., Yu, H. W., & Barrett, L. F. (2014). How does this make you feel? A comparison of four affect induction procedures. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 689.
- Myrick, J. G. (2015). Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online: Who watches internet cats, why, and to what effect? Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 168-176.
- Lance, B. (2015). How do cat videos affect productivity? A mechanical turk experiment. Retrieved from http://www.brianrlance.com/blog/2015/8/11/how-do-cat-videos-affect-productivity.
- Nittono, H., Fukushima, M., Yano, A. & Moriya, H. (2012). The power of kawaii: Viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus. PloS one, 7(9), e46362.