Why is it good to feel good?

I’ve just finished writing a chapter on why organizations should care about the wellbeing of their people and how positive psychology* tools can boost wellbeing. Even though there are many skeptics who are cautious about the recent happiness/wellbeing movement, luckily there’s rapidly growing solid research by positive psychologists back it up.

Numerous studies point out to the link between wellbeing/happiness and work-related outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction, performance, team-work, motivation, goal orientation, creativity). As argued in a recent Gallup report :

“Whether you manage a few people, lead a large group, or run an entire organization, you are already in the business of managing employee wellbeing” (Gallup, 2010)

Of course the responsibility of managing wellbeing is not only limited to organizations, as individuals it is also part of our responsibility in order to exercise effective self-leadership.

There are different pathways to wellbeing/happiness: experiencing positive emotions; being engaged in one’s life; seeing meaning/purpose… I would like to focus on the first one – feeling good!

Feeling good – in and of itself – is a rewarding experience but recent positive psychology findings suggest it has more to offer. It turns out the message of Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t worry, be happy” was not that trivial, but actually deserves more attention!

Dr. Barbara Frederickson of University of North Carolina is one of the leading names in the study of positive emotions. She started out by asking the question: “What is the value of positive emotions?”

The same question about negative emotions has already been largely answered: They are evolutionary adaptations to threats our ancestors faced. Anger mobilizes us to take action, regulates social relations by signaling the other party that we are not okay with mistreatment, injustice etc.. Fear keeps us away from danger, triggers a fight or flight response.

Now, coming back to the value of positive emotions such as joy, serenity, gratitude, it is not as straightforward to understand why human beings evolved to experience them. In other words – why it’s good to feel good. Recent research by Dr. Frederickson, however shows that positive emotions do more than only signaling the absence of threats. According to her Broaden-and-Build Theory, positive emotions broaden an individual’s momentary mindset their negative emotions, on the other hand narrow our thought-action repertoires), and by doing so help to build the following personal resources:

  • intellectual: thinking becomes more creative, integrative, flexible and open to information
  • physical: better coordination, improved strength and cardiovascular health
  • social: solidify existing bonds, make new bonds
  • psychological: develop resilience, optimism, sense of identity and goal orientation.

Other research suggests that people experiencing positive emotions

  • use more cooperative strategies when negotiating,
  • have more favorable perceptions of themselves and others,
  • are more self-efficacious,
  • set higher goals for themselves,
  • and persist at a difficult task longer

All of this makes a compelling case for making sure we experience more positive emotions more often. Here’re a few ways how to do that:

  • Use humor and laughter
  • Find positive meaning within current circumstances. What benefit can you find in adversity? Newfound strengths? What meaning can you attribute to ordinary events?
  • Practice gratitude. Doing gratitude exercises are shown to be an immense resource for feeling good and lasting happiness. You can reflect everyday or at the end of every week on things you’re grateful for. You can express gratitude to your family, friends and colleagues more often. You can write a gratitude letter to someone you haven’t thanked before.

So, don’t just wait until you come across something that makes you feel good. Rather, be proactive and plan for it by actively finding things that will make you feel good.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.

*Positive Psychology is the study of conditions and processes that lead to flourishing and optimum performance.

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