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The Power of Positive Emotions

by Emma Filey

We Are Not Doomed to Failure

Many studies have been carried out on the beneficial effects of positivity, though whether or not a positive outlook has the power to actually improve our quality of life, has often been debated. One of the greatest obstacles facing positive psychology is the so-called 'hedonic treadmill,' described by as "the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals. According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness." The "hedonic treadmill" theory was first postulated by Brickman and Campbell in 1971, in their essay, Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society. In the 1990s, psychologist, Michael Eysenck, coined the term 'hedonic treadmill theory', which likened human existence to being on a treadmill  i.e. despite the fact that we continuously struggle to make advances, we never really go anywhere and any sense of achievement is bound to be transitory.

A Fascinating Study Reveals the Relationship Between Positive Emotions and Greater Well-being

In 2011, Barbara L. Fredrickson and a team or researchers found that positive emotions increase our sense of life satisfaction and lower symptoms of depression by increasing a specific set or resources that promotes happiness. These resources include mindfulness, having a purpose in life, seeking social support and having less symptoms of illness. The randomized study was conducted at the Compuware Corporation, a large software and IT services company located in Detroit, Michigan. To engage staff in the study, management sent a short e-mail to all personnel,  inviting them to take part, on a voluntary basis, in a scientific investigation of “the benefits of meditation to reduce stress.” Some 202 employees expressed interest; of these, 102 were assigned to a waitlist control group, while 100 took part in a meditation workshop involving 60-minute group sessions over a seven-week period. The type of meditation used was loving-kindness meditation (LKM), which centers on opening the heart and spirit to loving feelings directed at oneself and others. During week one, participants focused on directing love and compassion towards themselves.  During week two, they directed these emotions at loved ones as well. On subsequent weeks, these emotions were also directed at acquaintances, strangers and finally, at all living things. Sessions lasted between 15 and 22 minutes.


The results were as the researchers had predicted: LKM led to a significant increase in a number of resources, including mindfulness, savoring the future, purpose in life, social support received, positive relationships with others and reduce symptoms of illness. Interestingly, previous studies had already found a significant link between positivity and positive life outcomes, including friendship development, satisfaction in marriage, and better physical health. Those who experience more positive emotions have also been shown to enjoy longer lifespans. The researchers noted that not only did LKM decrease illness symptoms and increase useful resources; the benefits went further, since “increments in resources contributed to overall life satisfaction, a judgement of fulfillment and and well-being and a decrease in depressive symptoms.” The explanations for the findings are complex, though they suggest that it isn’t positivity per se that makes us happier, if not the useful resources and social networks it helps us build. To put it in a simpler manner, positive emotions help us function more efficiently and connect to others and to our own spirituality, in a much more profound manner.

The millenary practice of meditation  has long been linked to a stronger immune response and greater left-sided anterior brain activity. Science has shown that countless diseases (including cancer, STDs and diseases such as lupus) are linked to immunity; the stronger our defenses, the greater our chances of staving off many devastating and costly health issues. In other studies, mindfulness meditation in particular has been found to boost brain function and immunity. One study observed the electrical activity of the brains of 25 subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation, compared to that of a group of participants who were placed in a control group. Those who engaged in mindfulness meditation sessions were found to have more antibodies to an influenza vaccine, as well as greater activation of the brain. In another study, mindfulness meditation was shown to boost the level of CD-4 cell count in patients with HIV. In other words, practices like meditation, which work on physical, mental and spiritual well-being, have an important role to play in the prevention and control of disease. Moreover, they can help us obtain the skills we need to escape a never-ending treadmill of disappointment.

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