How positive emotions can increase productivity and performance
Talking about positive emotions and where they come from would have to be one of my favourite conversations these days. My entire life, I had no notion, no knowledge and no understanding of what positive emotions are, where they come from or how they work. And on top of that, I had no idea that it was actually a skill set and can be learnt. I’ve always thought positive emotions just appear when something good happens to us…to warrant that “feel-good” feeling. Little did I know, that positive emotions aren’t just some innate skill that we all have, instead, they have to be cultivated, willed and forged into existence. They don’t just happen, one must make them happen. This is the complete opposite to negative emotions, which instead, through an evolutionary standpoint, have an entire region of the brain to itself, and neural shortcuts to ensure that threats are always seen and responded quickly and efficiently.
As human beings, we have a negative bias built into us. As a survival instinct, it became a necessary skill to always be aware to anything that is threatening our very being. Whether it is a physical threat that is threatening our way of life or an emotional threat that is threatening our ego and our sense of self, we have neural superhighways or shortcuts to ensure that this information is responded to above all else. For our ancestors, if there was a sabretooth tiger rustling in the bushes, it became an advantage for our brains to be highly attuned to take in negative stimulus to keep us alive. But the problem is, be it a physical threat like a sabretooth tiger or a more contemporary threat like someone yawning at you whilst you are delivering a workplace presentation, our nervous system can’t distinguish between the two. Therefore, they are both as threatening as the other, and they both activate an area of the brain that controls our stress response…our Limbic System…home of our fight, flight or freeze response.
Negative emotions are born out of this region of our brain. A few emotions we are all too familiar with are fear, aggression and anxiety. Whenever a situation causes us stress, our response will immediately head in this direction. Our bias to see the negative is such an efficient neural network that we have a full inbuilt system to help see it. In my life for example, I can be guest speaking to hundreds of people at a time. Let’s say 500 people…now 499 of those people are engaged and listening and giving you constant positive feedback as you talk. Suddenly in the sea full of people, you see one individual yawning and distracted. I remember in my early days…I would get absolutely fixated on this individual and begin questioning myself…”am I boring”, “hurry up cause you are losing everyone”, or “man you suck.” All this self-doubt would creep in…stemmed from one negative response out of a sea of 500. This just shows how powerful this negative bias is…we will disregard 499 positive expressions and base our entire existence stemmed on just one negative emotion.
Media outlets harness this very notion and constantly feed us the very information we are hardwired to take in.
Positive emotions on the other hand are born out of our prefrontal cortex. This is the area of our brain that makes us human and is responsible for all our executive functioning. Be it problem solving, analysing, synthesising, creating…this is the thinking region of our brain…and it is here where the problem lays. Our brains are innately lazy. They like routine, they like habits, they like efficiency and doing things as easy as possible. When you have spent hours labouring over trying to solve some complex problem, that is why we feel mentally exhausted or rather burnt out at the end of it. You have been asking this highly creative and imaginative, but innately lazy region of our brain to do a solid workout. Just like needing to rest after going for a run or recovery after a gym set, our brain needs to rest after a cognitive workout.
So, if positive emotions are created out of this region of the brain, does that mean my brain has to work hard to be positive? Well it certainly appears that way. Positive emotions need to be cultivated. Like any habit, we have to slowly grow these neural pathways into our positive emotions to strengthen them. This takes cognitive effort and a small amount of dedication. However, once you sprout that path and it becomes a habit, it will soon become an easier road and happen more automatically. We can always learn new ways of living…we just have to put our mind to it. Picture it as a muscle that needs to be strengthened…but these are cognitive muscles.
Positive events in our lives that can stem a positive emotional response can happen all around us. Usually in the small things that you might normally overlook. Be it…someone cooked you dinner unexpectedly, or whilst holding a handful of books…you dropped your pen and someone passing by you picked it up for you. The first step is to actually become aware of the positive deed in the first place. You’ll soon realise you actually don’t have to look real hard to find them.
Then there is the next step…which is one of the most important steps to ever remember. And that is “Why does it feel good?” In a world where most things we desire are just a click away from some online shop, it is very easy to forget to ask ourselves the simple question of why we want something, why it’s important, why would my life be better with it? A question that will increase its value by offering a meaning in line with your goals or values. Doing something or buying something…just because you can…may offer some short term gratification…but its wont be able to sustain you.
In the previous example…why did it feel good for the stranger to pick up my pen? Firstly, they didn’t have to, secondly, I had my hands full, thirdly they noticed the predicament I was in, fourthly it made my life in that single moment a lot easier. As we all walk around lost in our own little worlds, for a brief moment, someone exited their world and supported me in mine. Not such a small deal anymore isn’t it.
Once you’ve reflected on why…now just savour it for a moment. The science says 17 seconds of savouring a positive emotion is all that is required to make change.
So why is it important to build positive emotions? Positive emotions broaden and expand our horizons. When we are in a positive state of mind, we feel more resilient, we explore more, create more, see more, and have an increased desire to improve and develop new skills. We become far more optimistic and have increased willingness to engage with the world. You feel like you are in control and the world isn’t controlling you. Positive emotions fuel our ability to conquer each day and own it. They help buffer against the go-to stress response associated with negative emotions and allow us to live better. We have all had those days when we felt invincible and the world was your oyster. Positive emotions would have contributed to the cause…but stress always gets in the way and if you deplete your fuel for resilience, your world will turn inwards. Negative emotions turn your perspective inwards and you become a victim to your own negativity. Your fuse for incoming stressors shorten, and your perspective sees only the sheer weight of the world on your shoulders. You see nothing in front of you…but you.
When we learn to develop the skill of gratitude and teach ourselves to become more aware of positives in our life, we become better for it. Positives happen in our lives more than we sometimes think. For me, it was only when I became aware to actually look for them did I realise they happen all around me. Positive emotions have the ability to increase our performance, top up our fuel tank to deal with stressors, we are able to think more clearly, learn faster, adapt quicker, feel more optimistic and in turn our productivity increases. All this from opening our eyes and 17 seconds worth of work.
But positive emotions can be cultivated in a number of different ways…a simple method is a gratitude journal that you do everyday to give you a chance to reflect and strengthen the skill set. You simply write down what happened and why it felt good…that’s it. If writing it down is a chore…don’t do it. For me personally…it is a chore, so I just spend a few moments reflecting on any positive moment. And yes, the more you do it, the easier it will become.
If you want to support others as well, try bringing it out in a conversation. Asking them what the highlight of their day was or did anything good happen. Hide it the best you can…as this can be seen as odd question the first time you try it with family and friends…and it can catch people off guard and feel weird…so do your best and, before you know it, you’ll be helping others.
Opening our mind to the positives in our lives instead of relying on our basic instincts can have a profound impact on your quality of your life. This was a skill I took little to no interest in at first but has ultimately reshaped my very existence. To become aware of the good that happens around you is the simplest of skills to learn…but has an impact like no other.