Positive Emotions + Affect
Welcome back to Positive Psychology bootcamp, my friend. We’ve just got so many good nuggets to pull from this framework, so we’re back on your dashboard with another piece of this theory. Today, let’s dig into the science (and application) of emotion and affect, shall we?
First, let’s make an important distinction between these two terms—affect and emotion. This is yet another example of words we use interchangeably culturally, but they have important differences in application. Within Positive Psychology, an emotion is more of a reaction to something, whereas affect consists of emotion and mood, so it can be a little less dependent on external factors. Say you wake up one morning just feeling great for no apparent reason—that’s more affect at play than emotion. On the flipside, if you find yourself sad and tearful after something upsetting has happened, that’s an emotion.
When we think about positive emotion (and affect, in a moment), our brains automatically call up negative emotion as well. Positive/negative, black/white, cold/hot—our mind has these associations built in. And this brings up an important question: can we have positive emotion without negative emotion?
According to Positive Psychologists, not only can we not have positive emotions without also having negative emotions, we wouldn’t want to anyway. Without negative emotions the positive emotions wouldn’t feel as great. When we don’t have lows to compare the highs too, it all feels pretty mellow. (This is just a little nugget of wisdom to make sense of those pesky negative emotions. Moving on.)
And while investigating the scientific impacts of positive and negative emotions, researchers found that positive emotions are helpful in two important ways:
Positive emotions are markers of flourishing
Positive emotions propel us towards future flourishing
Basically, positive emotions both signal and produce flourishing. Think of it this way; our brains are highly focused on feeling good. They’re incredibly smart structures that pick up on little nuance, and when we experience something BIG like a positive emotion, our brains take note. (Remember our discussion about dopamine?) Our brain says, “cool, I like that, let’s do that again.”
So if we experience a positive emotion, if we are crushing it, then our brains seek more of that. We’re more likely to find motivation, forward thinking, and resilience within the context of whatever produced that positive emotion in the first place.