Positive Psychology is a (welcome) departure from much of traditional psychology, which has focused to a greater extent on “problems,” on pathology. Traditional psychology could hardly be described as focusing on the positive. With the sudden appearance of the Positive movement, that picture is changing dramatically.

Part of the focus of Positive Psychology is on the positive emotions - joy, satisfaction, gratitude, enthusiasm, and the like. Psychologists have long argued that there is obvious adaptive value in the negative emotions. Fear and anger, for example, can motivate actions that have obvious value in promoting survival. We walk in the woods, see a bear, feel fear, and run, hide, or take other action in an attempt to escape harm. We were challenged as a student with a pop quiz, felt fear and anxiety, and we focused all our efforts on the task at hand.

In short, when we psychologists talk about emotion, we almost always automatically mean negative emotion. Even among non-psychologists, calling someone “emotional”, or having an “emotional” reaction, is usually code for fear, anger, upset, anxiety - one of the negatives.

The rest of the story

But of course there are the positive emotions, as the Positive Psychologists remind us. Given that they have been off radar, you might ask “What is the adaptive value of positive emotion?” What does “feeling really happy” really do for us?

This is not a trivial question. If we accept that Mr. Darwin was on to something with his theory of evolution by natural selection, these powerful positive emotions must have some adaptive value. They must have promoted survival in our ancestors. But how?

Within the realm of the new Positive Psychology movements, researchers have discovered some very interesting things about the positive emotions and their value.

First, some people are just wired to be more optimistic, upbeat, and generally positive, than others. And these people not only enjoy life more - they literally enjoy more life. People who score higher on various tests of positive emotion actually do, on average, significantly outlive those who score lower. The data are clear. Subjective happiness and longevity go together.

Second, cognitive neuroscientists, who are interested in understanding our thought processes, have performed highly controlled laboratory studies on the effects of activating positive and negative emotion on those thought processes. Recent studies show pretty conclusively that experiencing negative emotion results in a narrowing and focusing of the thought process. In some ways this clearly can be adaptive - filter out irrelevant distractions and home in on the immediate problem and the actions to solve it. In extreme form, however, this automatic sharpening and narrowing of focus can equate to tunnel vision, which is of course a problem in many accident scenarios.

The same studies have found that experiencing positive emotion is associated with a clearly opposite effect. When participants in these studies are put into situations that trigger a more positive emotional state, and then are given tasks to work on, they show a broadening and an expansion of their focus. The positive emotions help us think outside the box, and see new and more alternatives.

Positive experiences build teams

Another finding is of great interest to safety professionals. The positive effects of positive emotion build upon each other. Consider this in the context of safety teams. If teamwork sputters at the start, and the experience is initially negative, it is hard to get the team-development effort back on track. The attitude is “we just can’t get there from here,” which becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. But if the team gets off to a positive start, early success tends to help create an “upward spiral.” We are winning, so we put in extra effort, which helps us win, and so on. Nothing succeeds like success.

In the safety arena it is easy to lapse into a negative, problem-driven approach to our work. It is easy to get sucked into that downward spiral. Interestingly, research shows that the best way to create and sustain the positive emotions is not with some external stimulus unrelated to the tasks at hand. Get your people to think specifically and concretely about their current situation, and identify and think about the peak experiences, the best elements, the most positive things about their current reality. This is the “Appreciative Inquiry” approach.

Lest we think this is all psycho-fluff, one final research result bears mention. Generating and sustaining positive emotion can reverse the deleterious effects of negative emotion. There is a so-called “undoing effect,” in which activating positive emotions helps one more quickly recover from fear, anxiety, depression, and so on.

In their own way, the positive emotions turn out to be every bit as valuable to our survival and success as the negative ones!