PRACTISING WELL: THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF EMOTIONS*

by: HUGH NORRISS**

EMOTIONS ARE AN important aspect of our psychological wellbeing, and therefore our overall mental health.

When we say we are feeling good or we are happy, we are usually experiencing a range of positive (approach) emotions such as joy, hope, contentment, or love. Negative (avoidance) emotions such as fear, sadness, contempt and shame are experienced when we feel stressed and our wellbeing is low.

Emotions are crucial to be aware of in the workplace because they drive so many of our behaviours and can affect our cognitive abilities, creativity and physical health.

It’s easy to think that we have little control over our emotions, that our emotional responses are either fully determined by our personality or what life throws at us, or both. But as mentioned in my previous article, research suggests that while these factors do influence our emotional experiences, we still have considerable ability to shape our wellbeing and emotions through intentional activities.

Positive emotions

Most of us usually prefer positive emotions because they make us feel good. Extensive data from Dr Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher in this area, suggests that positive emotions also contribute to building psychological resilience, stronger social bonds, increased cognitive ability and better cardiovascular health. In an organisational setting, positive emotions can be associated with improved business performance and better collegial relationships. In their research-based book and website on the spread of information and health behaviours through social networks, Connected, James Fowler and Nicolas Christakis also show that emotions are contagious.

So it seems that increasing positive emotions in our lives, and in the groups of people we associate with, is going be good for us.

But there is a twist. It seems we do need to experience some negative emotions as well to augment our wellbeing.

Place of the negative

Dr Fredrickson’s research shows that for us to have good psychological wellbeing (or to thrive or flourish), an optimal ratio between positive and negative emotions begins at about 3:1 and perhaps goes as high as 8:1.

All emotions have their uses. The negative ones are often related to our immediate survival, to respond quickly to threats and prepare the body for fight, flight or freeze. The positive emotions are more about building resources and social bonds in times of relative safety.

In the modern world, threats to our safety are much reduced, but negative emotions can still be valuable, not just to leap away from a bus that we didn’t see soon enough while crossing the road, but also to avoid toxins, social threats and curb some of our overoptimistic tendencies that can lead to terrible mistakes.

Also many of the worthwhile things we do in life require us to get out of our emotional comfort zone, for instance the experience of fear associated with the uncertainty of setting up a new business venture, or anger associated with being motivated for a socially just cause.

Interestingly, many popular self help books entice us on a path where all negative emotions are banished as failings in thought. Most of these books have no scientific support and may set up unrealistic and unhelpful expectations.

A good analogy that Dr Fredrickson uses for a healthy balance of emotions is the yacht. The positive emotions are like the sail. They can propel us happily and successfully through life. The negative emotions, which should be less by a factor of three, but will be more potent in eliciting our behavioural responses, form the keel and provide stability through balance and realism. When a threatening gust of wind blows, the yacht doesn’t immediately capsize because the keel stabilises it with an appropriate response. In the same way we need our negative emotions to respond to sudden life challenges.

However a yacht with a very heavy and large keel and a small sail will struggle through the water. If we habitually incorporate many negative emotions into our routine responses to life, or perhaps suffer from chronic stress with persistent fear and anxiety, our psychological and physiological wellbeing is likely to be compromised.

Positivity ratio

Dr Fredrickson reports that from her United States-based survey data, only around 20% of people meet the 3:1 ratio threshold. This aligns with population studies of mental health and wellbeing in the United States and the United Kingdom which also suggest only about 20% of the population has optimal mental wellbeing.

You can complete the short scientifically validated test to find out your own emotional ratio on the website associated with Fredrickson’s book Positivity at positivityratio.com/single.php.

Most of us will probably benefit from increasing positive emotions in our lives. But introverts and more quiet thoughtful people please take note.

Positive emotions are not all about being extroverted and screaming with laughter. Many positive emotions are quiet ones such as serenity, awe, gratitude, inspiration and hope.

When thinking about increasing positive emotions it’s easy to mistake satisfying the pleasurable effects of the brain’s reward system for increasing our longer term wellbeing. Advertising and popular culture panders to this system and wellbeing myths, and tells us that increased comfort, more possessions, larger houses (to put all the possessions in), looking more attractive, winning lotto, thrill seeking - and quick psychological boosts like alcohol, sugar, fat and carbohydrate related foods, are the best things to increase our happiness. While these things won’t cause harm in moderation, wellbeing research does not support them as effective in increasing our positive emotions and wellbeing.

The five ways

To increase your positive emotions and psychological wellbeing from an evidence-based perspective, consider The Five Ways to Wellbeing, which are the result of extensive research by the United Kingdom Government-sponsored Foresight Commission and the independent think tank, the New Economics Foundation. The Five Ways summarised as verbs are:

-       Connect

-       Give

-       Take Notice

-       Keep Learning

-       Be Active

The Five Ways are promoted by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand as a key strategy for increasing good mental health and resilience.

Details are at mentalhealth.org.nz/page/1180-5-ways-to-wellbeing.

Alternatively, for the more ambitious, the UK based website actionforhappiness.org has ten keys to happier living, also based on good scientific evidence.

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* Published with kind permission of Law Talk, Law Society of New Zealand.

** Hugh Norriss is the Director of Policy and Development at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and also the Director of Working Well. Working Well is the Mental Health Foundation’s programme to support workplaces to be mentally healthy. Before joining the Mental Health Foundation in 2009, he has held a range of leadership positions in mental health services, including Group Manager of Mental Health Services and Mental Health Planning and Funding Manager at Capital Coast Health 2005-2009 and Chief Executive of Wellink Trust, 1997-2005. Having worked in mental health services for 12 years, Mr Norriss joined the Mental Health Foundation to pursue public policy and information work in advocating for better ways to protect and promote the mental health of all New Zealanders, including in the workplace.