The impact of positive emotions

12.11.2015 |

Episode #5 of the course “The science of happiness” by Manuel Kraus


Positive emotions have a very interesting impact on the human brain. This impact is explained by the so-called ‘broaden and build theory’. To understand this theory, it’s helpful to first understand how ‘negative’ emotions work. Emotions like fear and anger close down your mind and heart and narrow down the number of possible reactions for the brain to only very few choices.

Think about our ancestors in pre-historic times. When a wild animal was about to attack them they felt either fear or anger. In response to this life-threatening situation, their brain triggered what we call the ‘fight or flight or freeze’ response. This instinctive reaction was responsible for their survival at times of danger. In these situations, the brain had only three options to choose from:

1. They could fight the animal
2. They could try to run away as fast as possible or
3. They could pretend to be dead.

The very same mechanisms still work in our brains today. In the face of danger, we respond to threats either by mobilizing our energy for combat or for flight, or by freezing in helplessness, collapsing in the face of an overwhelming situation. Speaking scientifically, those (negative) emotions limit our thought-action repertoire.

Positive emotions, however, have a different function. Instead of narrowing down the possibilities available to us, they open our minds up to new ways of thinking and acting. In the moment, they help us be more creative and think outside the box. When we feel positive emotions we become more open to new experiences. We feel more comfortable making connections with other people, consider alternative solutions to old problems and are able to zoom out of a situation. Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good but also make our brains function at higher levels. All in all, these emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire: the results are short-term increases in creativity, problem-solving ability, and attention.

What all this does for us in the longer-run is transform us for the better. Over time, positive emotions allow us to form new friendships, develop new skills and gain new knowledge. These ‘resources’ last much longer than the emotion itself and are the reason why positive emotions can gradually transform our lives. This transformation does not happen overnight. It needs continuous reinforcement and dedication. The brain can only be changed gradually.


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