What Good Are Positive Emotions?

Pleasure makes us feel good. So do positive emotions. So what is the difference between the two, especially when it comes to experiencing them in our romantic relationships? To help answer that question let’s take a sneak peak for a moment at the relationships of two couples profiled in Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. First let’s look at “Sean” and “Rachel":      Sean, a talented rock musician, found fame at a relatively young age when he landed a lucrative recording contract. Thrust into the limelight, he began frequenting five-star restaurants, trendy nightclubs, and industry parties. He reveled in the fun and new friends he met including Rachel who soon became his wife. Together, they lived large. Most nights they painted the town red, and on the rare occasion they stayed in, they’d host wild parties in their home. Everyone talked about what a fun couple they were. One day Sean’s record label dropped him. The funding suddenly stopped. And so did the fun. Rachel and Sean drifted apart and their marriage ended. Everyone wondered what had happened to this fun couple? Sean and Rachel’s marriage was predominantly based on pleasure. While they enjoyed many good times together those moments were mainly focused on fun. When the fun ended there was nothing left to keep the marriage together. (See One Question That May Determine Whether Your Love Will Last.)  Now, let’s take a look “Sam and “Beth":      Sam is an incredibly cheerful and positive person. His wife Beth and his friends regularly remark what an upbeat person he is and a joy to be around. Regardless of any setbacks he encounters in his personal or professional life, he handles them with grace, wit, and a winning attitude. His positivity rubs off on everyone in his surroundings. People naturally can’t help wanting to be in his company, especially Beth. His positivity is in large part what initially attracted her to Sam. And it has inspired her to become better herself. Rather than focusing on fun, they focus on using their positivity to become better together and make a positive impact on the world. While they share many pleasurable moments together, fun is not the foundation of their marriage. Instead, shared values and positive emotions is at the core of their relationship and is what has sustained their marriage for over 25 years. What is the difference between Sean and Rachel’s relationship that was based on pleasure, and Sam and Beth’s relationships that’s still going strong 25 years later?

Aren’t pleasure and positive emotions the same thing? After all, they both make us feel good and we actively seek to experience them individually and with our partner.

Although pleasure and positive emotions are similar they are different in significant ways and can lead to very different relational outcomes.

Positive emotions help strengthen bonds; too much pleasure often leads to their demise.

According to research by leading emotion scientist Barbara Fredrickson, pleasure tends to narrow our attention and draws us inward to our own personal desires and needs.  It results in immediate rewards that are usually short-lived. For example, think of the pleasures of drinking a full-bodied fine red wine, eating a rich piece of velvety dark chocolate or relaxing in a soothing, warm bath. These pleasurable experiences draw our attention to the immediate physical sensations: The complex notes of the wine, the taste and texture of the chocolate, and the warmth of the water against our skin.

In contrast to pleasure, positive emotions draw us outward. They broaden our attention and open our hearts and minds to possibilities.

As we mentioned in our previous post, those who experience more positive emotions tend to be more optimistic, resilient and accepting. Positive emotions enable us to reach out and connect with others, and forge stronger bonds. When experiencing positive emotions such as curiosity, awe and gratitude, for example, we are more creative and are able to come up with solutions to problems rather than when we are solely focusing on pleasure. We can understand how this openness can help us in our relationships.

Further, positive emotions aren’t just good for us in the moment; they also have long-term effects. 

While emotional states are fleeting, Fredrickson’s groundbreaking research found positive emotions build psychological and social resources for the future. They can help us get to know the world and others in new ways.  For example, when we are feeling curious or joyful, we tend to be more playful and creative with a desire to explore the world and learn more about our loved ones. This openness to experience and the knowledge we gain is advantageous as we encounter new situations and challenges in our individual and relational lives. In order to build more satisfying and sustainable relationships, we might try practicing building more positive emotions in our daily lives rather than just seeking the immediate (and fleeting) gratification of pure pleasure. ************************************ This article was adapted from Suzie and James’s Psychology Today “Happy Together” blogHappy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, written by positive psychology experts and husband-and-wife team Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski, is the first book on using the principles of positive psychology to create thriving romantic relationships. James O. Pawelski, PhD, is Professor of Practice and Director of Education in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Suzann (“Suzie”) Pileggi Pawelski has a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a freelance writer and well-being consultant specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on health and relationships.

Ana Flores

A passionate leader, and advocate for portraying Latina women in a positive light, Ana Flores is both founder and CEO of #WeAllGrow Latina Network, the first and largest community of Latina digital influencers.

Why Is Making Friends As An Adult Difficult?

According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of friendship. The first is strategic—both people get something out of it. The second type of friendship is pleasurable—these friends have fun together and provide good company. While useful and enjoyable, these friendships function only when both people are getting what they want from the other. The third type of friendship, the truest kind according to Aristotle, transcends self-interest and this tit for tat. It is based on goodness. Both people admire the goodness in the other and are committed to bringing out the best in one another. In college, it is likely that you made all three kinds—the friend who took great History notes, the friend you liked to party with in your dorm, and the friend who was and remains a source of strength. Not only were they there for you during tough times, they also encouraged you to embrace opportunities and to challenge yourself and you did the same for her. It’s definitely harder to make friends after college but it is also an opportunity to cultivate the third and deeper form of friendship, the kind that is based on good will and shared values (not just because you live in the same dorm). Your workplace is a good place to start. Do you have a “work friend” who you would like to spend more time with? Make an outside of the office plan with them. Initiate conversations that are not work related and avoid office gossip. Be open and curious without providing TMI. Listen generously. Avoid office gossip. Make an effort. Be patient. Building connections takes time but it is worth the effort. Studies show that people who have a good friend at work are more productive, happier, and less stressed.

How To Take Criticism Like A Pro

We humans are really good at dwelling on stuff that make us feel bad. This negativity bias was helpful to our ancestors when survival depended on avoiding distress, danger and discomfort. It helps explain why criticism stings so much and why a negative comment eclipses anything positive. Just because we are hardwired to be sensitive doesn’t mean that we have to take everything so personally. One of the best strategies to defang the sting of criticism is to dissect it. Recognize that the negative comment is about something specific and not an indictment of you as a human being. If your manager thought your presentation wasn’t good enough, it does not mean that you are not enough. You are not your presentation. When you separate the comment from yourself you gain perspective and will be more open to actually hearing what the other person has to say.

Are Other People’s Selfies Making You Sad?

“Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.” It’s something mothers say all the time and yet it may be something we are hardwired to do. In the 1950s, Leon Festinger formulated what he called “social comparison theory”—it is a theory predicated on the idea that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we measure up to others. In other words, in the absence of objective means of evaluation, we are constantly evaluating ourselves—our intelligence, our attractiveness, wealth, success etc.—in reference to those around us. According to the theory, people prefer to compare themselves with others who are similar to them. After all, what would be the point of a novice pianist comparing themselves to Beethoven? There are upsides to social comparison. Students may feel more competent and confident when they compare themselves to other students who didn’t do as well on a biology test. It can also be a source of motivation—for example a runner may want to emulate the performance of a fellow runner who beats them by a tenth of a second. Likewise, comparisons can make us more grateful for what we have and put disappointments and hardships in perspective. The thought, “Perhaps I don’t have it so bad, after all” often comes to mind when we think of others who are less fortunate. This tends to ring true when we stop and think about the natural disasters affecting so many people across the United States and beyond right now.  That said, there are many downsides to social comparison. Research suggests that unhappy people make more frequent social comparisons than happy people and it makes them feel worse whereas happy people are less affected by it. The tendency to seek social comparison is correlated with low self-esteem and depression. Comparing ourselves to others may be in our DNA but the context and comparisons have changed dramatically with social media. Rather than making comparisons to people who are in the same boat as we are, we now have a global landscape to draw from. Research explains:

As people are increasingly relying on social networking sites for a variety of everyday tasks, they risk overexposure to upward social comparison information that may have a cumulative detrimental impact on wellbeing. Moreover, as prior research has show that people with low self-esteem often use social networking sites to express themselves in what they perceive to be a safe environment, this may result in a vicious cycle of using social networking sites to receive social support but therein exposing themselves to upward social comparison information—impairing self-esteem and restarting the cycle.

Mass media is one of the commanding influences today for social comparison and studies show it takes a toll on our wellbeing:

Research has found that women who report frequently comparing themselves to other women, especially women in the media, are more likely to show signs of negative mood and body image disturbance (Schooler et al., 2004). Tiggemann and Mcgill (2004) found that women participants’ brief exposure to media images of females led to increased levels of body dissatisfaction and weight anxiety. 

In fact, 70 percent of women feel depressed after looking at a woman’s fashion magazine for just three minutes!  Looking at images of friends’ “perfect lives” on social media has been shown to have a similar effect. Amazing parties, fabulous photos of people having a ball without us, and picture perfect images of a stress-free life can trigger resentment, envy and low self-esteem. We forget that these pictures are highly curated to portray life at its best—the in-between, non-Photoshopped moments when the kids are melting down while the souffle deflates rarely make the social media cut. The important thing to keep in mind is that these images are not reality. Studies show that when images are viewed with this in mind and with an understanding that the images represent a fantasy, they have less of a negative effect and can even improve mood. As one saying goes:

“You will never look like the girl in the magazine. The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.”

Bottom line: Enjoy these images for the fantasy, the beauty, the inspiration and the creativity. Remember that they have nothing to do with reality.

What Happened to that Cool Kid In High School?

The cool kids in school don’t necessarily turn out to be the winners in life. If you have ever attended a high school reunion—or seen the wonderfully silly Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion—you already know this and new research explores why. An article based on a study in The New York Times, entitled "Cool at 13, Adrift at 23" captures the “pseudomature” behavior of fast-track kids:
“At 13 they were viewed by classmates with envy, admiration and awe. The girls wore make-up, had boyfriends, and went to parties held by older students. The boys boasted about sneaking beers on a Saturday night and swiping condoms from the local convenience store. They were cool. They were good-looking…”
You know the type. They were the ones smoking behind the gym at recess, holding court in the cafeteria and sneaking out at night. They reigned socially. Over time, however, their popularity and success didn’t endure. In a study, entitled What Ever Happened to the “Cool” Kids? Long-Term Sequelae of Early Adolescent Pseudomature Behavior, researchers followed a sample of 184 adolescents from ages 13 to 23 and found that the cool kids didn’t turn out so well. In fact, early pseudomature behavior predicted long-term difficulties in close relationships and significant problems with alcohol and substance abuse. Particularly at risk were those who highly valued being popular and for whom status among peers was most important. Parents take note. All too often parents push for their children to be popular. Hoping to be thought of as cool by their child, trying to save their child from their own “uncool” adolescence, mistakenly believing that being cool is a predictor of future success, whatever the reason, parents sometimes go out of their way to make their children part of the “in crowd.” As the research shows, this isn’t a good idea.  A New Yorker blog post offers a hilarious take on what happens to those who peak early in Eloise: An Update. This is how it begins:

I am Eloise

I am forty-six

I am a city girl

I live at the Crowne Plaza

There is a lobby with purple lights and silver-and-gold confetti things hanging from the ceiling

You can find videos of the elevators on YouTube

The absolute first thing I do in the morning is make coffee in the bathroom and check to see what’s on pay-per-view

Relax if your son or daughter prefers reading a book or watching a movie at home on a Friday night. As Bill Gates famously said:

“Be nice to the nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”



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Ana Flores

A passionate leader, and advocate for portraying Latina women in a positive light, Ana Flores is both founder and CEO of #WeAllGrow Latina Network, the first and largest community of Latina digital influencers.


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