Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.
The arts are filled with tales of happiness; composers, poets, artists, dancers, song-writers and story-tellers have been capturing the nuances of this positive emotion since the very dawn of our species. But what have the sciences had to say on the topic?
The scientific study of the positive aspects of the human experience has revealed that more than just making us feel good, positive emotions actually have tangible benefits to our physical health as well with those who report higher ratings of positive feelings also more likely to:
- have a stronger immune system;
- have a stronger heart and less risk of cardiovascular disease;
- have a reduced likelihood of experiencing a stroke;
- experience quicker recovery times when overcoming illness or surgery;
- be better able to mitigate pain when experiencing chronic pain, such as arthritis;
- live longer lives.
There are vast positive emotional states outside of just happiness, and being able to put a name to these feelings can help us recognize their occurrence and expand the opportunities they offer not only on our physical health but our ability for creative thought, to develop relationships and to acquire lasting knowledge and skills.
Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson suggests that we experience a range of positive emotions that “broaden an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire: joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savour and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within safe, close relationships”.
While the list of positive emotions that people experience is nearly endless, the following list captures the top 10 most common positive emotions. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but while you read through what opportunities each offer, think about your own experiences of each, when was the last time you felt them, how often do you experience them, how can you increase the frequency of these emotions, and how can you help share them with the people in your life?
Think of a moment where you experienced a sense of elation, or exhilaration, when you were surprised or delighted with an unanticipated good thing. This is joy. Joy comes from delightful and cherished experiences, where we feel light and vibrant. Joy happens in an instant -- a perfect moment captured when all is just exactly as it should be. Joy is a signal that the situation is safe and encourages us to lean on the experience and play.
Think of a moment when you realized someone had gone out of their way for you, where you felt overwhelmed and moved with appreciation. Gratitude can arise for anything or anyone you feel great appreciation for; gifts given, kindnesses extended, or time invested. The feeling of gratitude motivates us to consider ways that we might pay it forward by showing care and thoughtfulness to others.
Think of a moment when your mind wasn’t flooded with worries and you were able to just sit back and relax; an experience of peacefulness and tranquillity. We feel serene when things are going just right, and you can just “be” in the present moment. Serenity is like a less intense but sustained version of Joy. It encourages us to savour the present moment and re-evaluate our priorities, deepening our understanding of ourselves.
Think of a moment where you felt curious or fascinated, when something demanded and captured your attention. Interest is a heightened state that leaves you invigorated and wanting more. It’s a state of intrigue and wonder when we encounter something new and feel safe to explore it. It leaves us more open to new experiences, and invites us to explore and learn so that we gain knowledge.
Think of a moment when you truly believed that no matter how dire your current problems or situation, everything would turn out for the best. Hope is the positive emotion we feel when we believe that things can change, turn out better, that possibilities exist. Hope sustains us through hard times, and motivates us to turn things around.
Think of a moment when you did something really well that took a little time and effort, when you reached a goal you never thought was attainable. The sense of pleasure, dignity and importance you feel for an achievement, skill, or personal attribute is pride. We feel pride when we accomplish something that is socially valued and has a sense of purpose and meaning. It provides us the confidence to expand our potential to do greater things.
Think of amusement as those delightful surprises that make you laugh. Whenever we experience fun, humorous, and playful situations with others we are being amused. Amusement is the emotion tied to laughter, those unexpected moments that interrupt your focus and make you chuckle. When we do it with others, amusement strengthens our connections with those people even more.
Think of a moment that touched your heart and took your breath away -- or took in your breath, as the word literally translates. Inspiration comes when you witness amazing feats of intellect, strength, agility, or just another person acting from the best of themselves leave you feeling engaged, uplifted, and motivated. Inspiration helps us connect the greatness in others to the potential for greatness in ourselves; we become inspired to strive for our best.
Think of a moment when you came across goodness on a grand scale, when you felt overwhelmed by greatness. Awe is triggered when we witness something grand, spectacular, or breathtaking, and realize how small and ordinary we really are compared to the vastness of the world around us. Awe transforms our views on the world and our place in it, bringing us a sense of connectedness to something bigger than ourselves.
Think of when you have shared all of the above (joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and even awe) with someone important in your life. Love is all that and more. In general, love is related to a feeling of deep and enduring affection and connection toward another person. The most frequently felt and perhaps the strongest of all positive emotions, love leads to a willingness to put another’s needs ahead of your own.
So how’d you go? Remember a large part of experiencing these emotions is choosing to do so.