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Positive Emotions:The Power of Happiness

21 September, 2015 - 17:43


  1. Understand the important role of positive emotions and happiness in responding to stress.
  2. Understand the factors that increase, and do not increase, happiness.

Although stress is an emotional response that can kill us, our e motions can also help us cope with and protect ourselves from it. The stress of the Monday through Friday grind can be offset by the fun that we can have on the weekend, and the concerns that we have about our upcoming chemistry exam can be offset by a positive attitude toward school, life, and other people. Put simply, the best antidote for stress is a happy one: Think positively, have fun, and enjoy the company of others.

You have probably heard about the “power of positive thinking”—the idea that thinking positively helps people meet their goals and keeps them healthy, happy, and able to effectively cope with the negative events that occur to them. It turns out that positive thinking really works. People who think positively about their future, who believe that they can control their outcomes, and who are willing to open up and share with others are healthier people (Seligman, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). 1

The power of positive thinking comes in different forms, but they are all helpful. Some researchers have focused on optimism, a general tendencyto expect positiveoutcomes, finding that optimists are happier and have less stress (Carver & Scheier, 2009). 2 Others have focused self-efficacy, thebelief in our abilityto carryout actions that producedesired outcomes. People with high self-efficacy respond to environmental and other threats in an active, constructive way—by getting information, talking to friends, and attempting to face and reduce the difficulties they are experiencing. These people too are better able to ward off their stresses in comparison to people with less self-efficacy (Thompson, 2009). 3

Self-efficacy helps in part because it leads us to perceive that we can control the potential stressors that may affect us. Workers who have control over their work environment (e.g., by being able to move furniture a nd control distractions) experience less stress, as do patients in nursing homes who are able to choose their everyday activities (Rodin, 1986). 4 Glass, Reim, and Singer (1971) 5found that participants who believed that they could stop a loud noise experienced less stress than those who did not think that they could, even though the people who had the option never actually used it. The ability to control our outcomes may help explain why animals and people who have higher status live longer (Sapolsky, 2005). 6

Suzanne Kobasa a nd her colleagues (Kobasa, Maddi, & Kahn, 1982)  7 have argued that the tendency to be less affected by life’s stressors can be characterized as an individual difference measure that has a relationship to both optimism and self-efficacy known as hardiness. Hardy individuals are those who are more positive overall about potentially stressful life events, who take more direct action to understand the causes of negative events, and who attempt to learn from them what may be of value for the future. Hardy individuals use effective coping strategies, and they take better care of themselves.

Taken together, these various coping skills, including optimism, self-efficacy, and hardiness, have been shown to have a wide variety of positive effects on our health. Optimists make faster recoveries from illnesses and surgeries (Carver et al., 2005). 8 People with high self-efficacy have been found to be better able to quit smoking and lose weight and are more likely to exercise regularly (Cohen & Pressman, 2006). 9 And hardy individuals seem to cope better with stress and other negative life events (Dolbier, Smith, & Steinhardt, 2007). 10 The positive effects of positive thinking are particularly important when stress is high. Baker (2007) 11 found that in periods of low stress, positive thinking made little difference in responses to stress, but that during stressful periods optimists were less likely to smoke on a day-to-day basis and to respond to stress in more productive ways, such as by exercising.

It is possible to learn to think more positively, and doing so can be beneficial. Antoni et al. (2001) 12 found that pessimistic cancer patients who were given training in optimism reported more optimistic outlooks after the training and were less fatigued after their treatments. And Maddi, Kahn, and Maddi (1998) 13 found that a “hardiness training” program that included focusing on ways to effectively cope with stress was effective in increasing satisfaction and decreasing self-reported stress.

The benefits of taking positive approaches to stress can last a lifetime. Christopher Peterson and his colleagues (Peterson, Seligman, Yurko, Martin, & Friedman, 1998) 14 found that the level of optimism reported by people who had first been interviewed when they were in college during he years between 1936 and 1940 predicted their health over the next 50 years. Students who had a more positive outlook on life in college were less likely to have died up to 50 years later of a ll causes, and they were particularly likely to have experienced fewer accidental and violent deaths, in comparison to students who were less optimistic. Similar findings were found for older adults. After controlling for loneliness, marital status, economic status, and other correlates of health, Levy and Myers found that older adults with positive attitudes and higher self-efficacy had better health and lived on average almost 8 years longer than their more negative peers (Levy & Myers, 2005; Levy, Slade, & Kasl, 2002). 15 And Diener, Nickerson, Lucas, and Sandvik (2002) 16 found that people who had cheerier dispositions earlier in life had higher income levels and less unemployment when they were assessed 19 years later.