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How Positive Emotions Build Resilience

I love Sydney at this time of year.

I love the long, warm days with cooler nights. I love how, after the heat of the day, Sydney’s sea breeze keeps the evenings comfortable. I love to sit outside after work or on weekends with good friends, and good wine, watching the sun set and I feel blessed to live on one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.

The act of enjoying these simple pleasures, mindfully savouring the moment-to-moment experiences builds my positivity so that it becomes easier to notice even more joyful moments throughout the day. This is how positivity works. The more you notice, the more you can notice.

In her 2004 paper on Positive Emotions, Barbara Fredrickson describes her “Broaden & Build” theory of positive emotions. It describes how positive emotions broaden an individual’s capacity to see good one’s in daily life. For example, feeling the emotion of joy sparks the urge to play; feeling interest sparks the urge to explore. She describes how positive emotions broaden the mindset from a problem-focused to a solution-oriented approach. Furthermore, she says, the consequence of this broadened mindset is the discovery of novel and creative actions, which in turn build an individual’s personal resources, including physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources.

What this means is that the experience of positive emotions enhances one’s resilience. That is, these resources function as reserves that can be drawn on later to improve the odds of successful coping during times of difficulty. Positive emotions fuel psychological and physical wellbeing that can counteract the damage done by negative emotions. Just as negative emotions can lead to a downward spiral, positive emotions can lead to an upward spiral.

Which positive emotions? I don’t think it really matters. Fredrickson talks about the emotions of love, joy, interest, awe, gratitude, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and serenity. But you could add to that trust, connection, kindness, pleasure, spirituality and any other emotion that moves you into a positive mindset.

Importantly, developing awareness of positive emotions as they arise also builds awareness of when we’re in a negative mindset. This awareness is the key to behaviour change. No need to make a judgement about how negative one is, rather shift your focus towards noticing what is good in your like, what works, what makes you happy. There is always something good to focus on, no matter how small it seems, and it may be the key to unlocking your positive and resilient self.

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