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The Power of Positive Emotions — and the Upside to Negative Ones

young woman looking pensively out a window sitting

Think of your emotions like you would the weather: Somedays, it’s all sunshine and positivity, while others, it’s dark and gloomy. There’s a lot of in-between too.

Those positive emotions can feel great, and they’re great for your health too. For example, positive emotions, especially hopefulness, have been linked to lower levels of coronary heart disease. Emotions can even play a role in blood sugar control in people with diabetes.1

However, emotional lows are part of the package too. “We’re born to have a range of emotions,” says Alex Marsal, Ph.D., a psychologist, who is the chief clinical and science officer for Aptihealth, a telebehavioral health company headquartered in Boston. “And negative emotions have a real purpose. Fear protects us from danger, and grief reminds us of the good qualities of someone we’ve lost,” says Marsal. “There’s no such thing as getting rid of all negative feelings — the trick is to use negative emotions to improve your life, versus dominate your life.”

Marsal adds: “You have some control over emotions that happen to you. There are skills that can help, and the more you practice them, the more they become second nature.”

Here are five simple strategies to help you balance and regulate your emotional spectrum for a happier, healthier life.

1. Use your imagination.

Close your eyes and think of an experience that made you feel really happy. “Imagine one of the best times in your life,” Marsal advises. “It could be anything — your first touchdown, your first

kiss, your first banana split. When you recall that memory, the science starts to take over — you begin smiling and your levels of the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin are elevated.”

And when that happens, Marsal says, the possibilities for happiness begin to open up. “It doesn’t matter how upset you might feel. The act of recalling is so powerful and so direct that your emotions can change from negative to positive. It’s a very powerful exercise.”

2. Practice gratitude.

Be specific. Ask yourself: Did anything good happen to me in the past 24 hours? “Maybe you received a compliment, or your cable bill was $10 less than you expected,” says Marsal. “Just name something good that happened and acknowledge that you’re grateful it did.”

One study showed that expressing gratitude is good for our emotions — and our physical health.2 Another study published in 2020 showed that gratitude is closely connected to happiness and the ability to bounce back from difficulties.3 So the more you express your gratitude, the greater your sense of well-being, both now and later.

3. Get out and enjoy life.

Simply getting out of your house and doing something engaging can be a real mood booster. (Maybe more so now that we know what a pandemic lockdown looks like.) In a 2018 U.K. study, more than 2,000 older adults who attended plays, movies, or art exhibits once or more a month lowered their risk of depression by a whopping 48 percent.4

And those experiences are even better when you do them with others. A 2019 study found that even the slightest social connection (as opposed to social isolation) can be of great value to you.5

But not just any connection will do the trick, says Marsal. Choose friends with a positive attitude. “Seek out pleasant relationships,” says Marsal. “Be with friends who make you feel good and part of a group that focuses on enjoyable activities.”

4. Trend toward the positive.

When we’re younger, life treats us kindly for the most part. So for kids, positive thoughts tend to outweigh our negative ones, says Marsal. But as we get older, that often flips little by little. The messages of positivity transform into negative ones.

For example, if you ask a five year old what they want to be when they grow up, they might say “an astronaut,” says Marsal. But if you ask the same question to an adult, you’ll get an answer shaped by the adult’s negativity. “Because, apparently, we’ve told adults you can’t be an astronaut unless you are smart,” he says.

But you can work to change that. “You can deliberately trend upward toward happiness,” says Marsal. You can re-focus on the positive in your daily life. “The more you do it, the better you’ll feel over time.” Pretty soon, you’ll start to reverse those negative patterns.

5. Don’t count out the negative—but keep an eye on it.

Nobody brims with joy all the time. After all, negative emotions are a part of life too. “Don’t try to tamp them down,” suggests Marsal. “Each negative emotion can teach you something.” So take a step back and look for the lesson. Anger, for example, can teach you to be more assertive and stand up for yourself when you’re mistreated.

The problem is, when we experience bad feelings, we begin to see the world through a negative lens. “That’s called the negativity bias,” Marsal explains. “If you’re feeling negative, you’ll naturally look for — and find — other negative things.”

The solution: Try to understand why you’re feeling the way you are. “It might be time to do a reappraisal,” advises Marsal. “Slow things down and ask, ‘Is there something I could do differently?’ Instead of saying, ‘That was bad; my life is over,’ monitor the way you’re thinking and feeling and see if it’s out of proportion to the situation.”

Although everyone experiences negative emotions at times, if you struggle with persistent and recurring negative emotions, sadness, or anxiety, it’s important to discuss these feelings with your healthcare provider. Should medication ever be a part of your treatment plan, ask your provider about Genomind’s precision medication services. Learn more.

Sources:

  1. Positive emotions’ effect on diabetes/heart disease: “Human Emotions on the Onset of Cardiovascular and Small Vessel Related Diseases” (2018)
  2. ​​Study on how gratitude is good for our emotions and physical health: “Grateful experiences and expressions: the role of gratitude expressions in the link between gratitude experiences and well-being” (2017)
  3. Study on how gratitude is connected to happiness and the ability to bounce back from difficulties: “Gratitude Moderates the Relationship Between Happiness and Resilience” (2020)
  4. Study about older adults attending monthly activities and lowering their risk of depression by 48%: “Cultural engagement and incident depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing” (2018)
  5. Study on how shared experiences are better when done with others: “Wanting without enjoying: The social value of sharing experiences” (2019)

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