What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Ever heard someone say this for you to go, “What nonsense are you spewing?” Well, now is it total crap? Technically, not so much.
Many psychological studies on emotions seem to emphasize this, albeit in a more scientific way (which most of us can’t understand). Psychologists often avoided studying emotions as they are hard to quantify or measure. Even when they eventually started studying them, their focus was on the negative emotions and in figuring out ways to treat them or reduce harm from these emotions (obviously, since they are almost constant in life).
Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist in the field of Positive Psychology, is the one who shed some light on how positive emotions shape human lives. Many others followed him and turned to these positive emotions in hopes of making lives better for us (I wonder if that is even possible at this point).
Why not positive emotions, to begin with?
Why did psychologists see negative emotions to be of much importance? Well, negative emotions prepare us for a particular set or range of actions. Let’s say you are scared of clowns. One day, you spot a clown at a circus or a birthday party. What would your immediate response be? You will look for safety—be it through fight or flight.
Why do we need these actions? To survive— giving birth to offspring and generating generations upon generations is the only thing humans truly strive for (which is again debatable to an extent, or is it?). If you stand in front of an elephant that is running wild without acting in a fight or flight mode, you would, of course, be trampled to death. In short, negative emotions keep you alive.
Then what are positive emotions for? Do we even need them?
I would say, not really; we don’t need them. We can have them if we want to (as ironic as it sounds)—“Be positive, be positive” might be a great mantra to tell yourself to feel positive. This Learned Optimism reduces stress levels and improves cardiovascular health, says Martin Seligman in his research on Authentic Happiness. However, is it good to be positive all the time? No. Sometimes it is dangerous to be positive.
Let’s say you are facing a hungry lion. You are such a positive person that you think the lion would just walk away because you are not trying to harm it. Any animal would only harm us when it sees us as a danger, right? Well, guess what? The lion just pounced on you and tore you into pieces till it satiated its hunger. Damn, now you are not alive to feel positive anymore. Meaning, being positive tend to get you killed.
Does this mean we should only cultivate negative emotions?
Do we eliminate our association with positive emotions? Apparently not. Barbara Frederickson, another well-known positive psychologist, puts forth the theory of Broaden and Build of Positive Emotions for this exact reason. This theory stresses that we need both types of emotions in dealing with life.
As much as negative emotions are necessary for survival and immediate response, positive emotions give you a broader perspective or a big picture. Negative emotions let you choose between a limited number of options, while positive emotions let you find creative ways of tackling a situation. Therefore, positive emotions act as a way of building resources to cope with our negative feels.
How positivity aids the learning process?
Yes, I ranted about all of that to talk about learning. The play of emotions (negative and positive) is big in learning outcomes. Don’t believe me? Let me convince you.
Have you ever wondered why learners often avoid studying a subject they don’t like? Or why don’t they seem to grasp the matter even when they give extra time to that particular subject? Well, it has to do with the fact that our brain is wired to invest its energy in things it likes.
Not liking a subject is linked to negative emotions, and as we have already discussed, we tend to either fight it or run away from it. We can reduce this kind of avoidance in learners by cultivating positive thoughts towards the subject learners dislike. Interpreting the subject differently and linking it with things the learners like is an effective way to push them towards that subject, little by little.
To conclude, be negative to stay alive. However, if you want to extend your lifespan and the quality of your life, you better adopt some methods of positive intervention.
(I feel this blog has become a rant at this point, but here it is anyway. Stop controlling others’ emotions. Let them decide what to feel and express when. Agree?)