Human Evolution: How to Unleash the Power of Positive Emotions?

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” — Mahathma Gandhi. 

As human beings, we all have potential to be good, smart, resilient, healthy and creative. But how can we unlock our true potential and become a better version of ourselves? What can help us to thrive and flourish in turbulent and uncertain times? Research from positive psychology suggests that positive emotions might be those secret forces that shape our most desirable human qualities and life outcomes. Studies conducted over the last two decades have shown that people who frequently experience positive emotions:

  • work better — employees’ positive well-being accounts for a high level of job performance, productivity and job satisfaction (1);
  • enjoy stronger mental & physical health — positive affect predicts more vitality and energy, while reducing the risk of depression and substance abuse;
  • live longer — subjective well-being significantly predicts longevity in the general population (2);
  • have more high-quality relationships — happy people are more likely to enjoy fulfilled marriages and strong social support;
  • are more creative and skilled at complex problem solving — positive emotions broaden people’s attention and make their thinking more flexible and receptive to new information (3);
  • are highly resilient and adaptive — positive emotions help individuals to effectively cope with the real-life challenges and quickly recover from daily stresses (4);
  • are more pro-social and sensitive to the needs of others —happy people are more interested in helping others, volunteering for community and contributing to the common good.

Positive emotions have long-lasting transformative effects on human cognition. They lead to “more complex self-organization of human brain” with a broadened holistic mindset. This integrative long-term thinking help individuals to build significant personal resources such as physical (good health), intellectual (creativity), social (friends) & psychological (stress resilience), which “translate into greater odds of survival and greater odds of living long enough to reproduce” (5).

While positive emotions are the key to human flourishing, they are also more diffuse and less intense than negative emotions (6). Researchers found “a ratio of positive to negative affect at or above 2.9” that characterize individuals in flourishing mental health. This means that we need to experience positive affect three times more frequently than negative feelings in order to set ourselves on an “upward spiral” of continued growth and thriving (7).

To meet our daily needs for positivity, we should look for a high-quality abundant source of positive emotions. Where can we find it?

Avoid the trap of fleeting positive emotions

Our modern culture makes us believe that money and consumption are the quickest road to happiness. Intrusive advertisement, medias, political leaders and peer influence all remind us that material wealth is the only valuable goal we have to strive for if we want to be happy. But is this true?

To assess the validity of this statement, we have to dig deeper into the complexity of human brain. As discussed elsewhere, brain scholars make a critical distinction between two brain systems that generate two different kinds of human emotions:

  • the impulsive system —amygdala — that produces immediate short-lived emotional responses that dissipate very quickly;
  • the reflective system — where VMPFC is a critical substrate — that triggers long-lasting affective states from recall or imagination (8).

Research shows that monetary rewards trigger affective signals through the impulsive system —amygdala. Like other kinds of stimuli (e.g., food, sex, video games, social media, shopping, alcohol, etc. ), money “may acquire powerful affective and emotional properties” through over-stimulation and induce people into addictive pleasure-seeking behavior. It rises our level of dopamine — a neurotransmitter responsible for seeking, wanting, craving, desire. In a healthy dose, dopamine provides us with energy and motivates for action but if unchecked it leads to compulsive and obsessive behaviors (e.g., gambling, overeating, tech addiction, consumerism,etc.).

A dopamine arousal doesn’t create happiness itself — we don’t experience satisfaction or actual pleasure but only the anticipation of reward. This promise of reward drives us to “chase pleasure, but often at the cost of our well-being.” You’ll never get enough of your “object of desire” as your brain will habituate very quickly and ask for more and more. “High levels of dopamine amplify the lure of immediate gratification, while making you less concerned about long-term consequences. When dopamine puts our brains on a reward-seeking mission, we become the most risk-taking, impulsive, and out-of-control version of ourselves” (9).

In our today society, we are constantly bombarded by explicit and implicit messages appealing to our most primitive drives and impulses. The whole “science” of neuromarketing is designed to make us addicts to consumption and manipulate us as Pavlovian dogs (e.g., via sensory stimuli, discounts & promotions). The problem is that dopamine doesn’t only create our empty desires and cravings but also contributes to chronic stress, social aversion and anxiety (10).

How to avoid this trap of emotional exhaustion and frustration? How to protect ourselves from the bad influence of our cultural environment?

The magic of complex positive emotions

While basic positive emotions are subject to hedonic treadmill effect (i.e., quick habituation), complex positive emotions are of radically different nature. These experience-dependent emotions are generated in the higher-order parts of the brain (human neocortex) and accessible to us upon recall. Complex positive emotions are known to reduce the amygdala activity, increase immune function, stress resilience, optimism and enhance our distinctively human faculties (e.g., long-term planning, morality & creativity).

Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience and positive psychology suggest that there are several available sources of complex positive emotions:

  • exposure to the beauty of Natureexperimental studies show that immersion in beautiful nature leads to prolonged and enhanced positive affect. The beauty and complexity of nature evoke the positive feelings of awe (wonder & amazement) that open people’s hearts and minds— they become more generous, kind and caring (11); they demonstrate greater positive affect (12) and self-esteem (13); they show improved memory function and perform 50% better at a creativity and problem solving task (14); recover faster after a medical intervention and experience less pain, anxiety and fatigue (15). Furthermore, studies suggest that living in densely green surroundings with greater vegetation increase people’s sense of safety, protect them from aggressive and violent behavior and reduce rates of incivilities and crimes (16); while viewing near-home nature improves children’s concentration and overall self-discipline (17).
  • spiritual practices (such as meditation & prayer) have been shown to enhance people’s positive affect & well-being. A meta-review of 24 empirical studies revealed a consistent positive link between loving-kindness meditation and a wide range of self-generated positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride and awe. Commonly, the beneficial effects of this kind of meditation — which is used to boost “feelings of warmth & caring for self and others”—takes time to emerge (18). However, even short-term compassion training may increase neural activity in brain areas responsible for positive affect and social connectedness (19). Other studies demonstrate the benefits of meditative prayer for developing positive feelings of gratitude (20); counteracting self-control depletion and enhancing overall psychological well-being (21).
  • witnessing moral beauty — acts of charity, kindness, loyalty and self-sacrifice or “simply hearing about a good deed” — elicits a powerful positive emotion of elevation accompanied by a pleasant feeling of warmth and expansion in the chest (22). Associated with the “love hormone” of oxytocin responsible for trust and social bonding, the positive feeling of elevation expands human consciousness and leads to more helping & altruistic behaviors (23; 24). For example, experiencing moral elevation in response to good deeds increases nursing and affiliative behavior in mothers (25) and motivates students to “become better person and to do good” (26). In business settings, leadership’s moral excellence uplifts employees’ spirits and promotes their cooperation and affective commitment to the organization (27).
  • music, art, poetry & imaginative fiction embody the beauty, complexity and wisdom of humanity — a sort of “cultural DNA” that provides humans with an emotion-laden guidance for a socially optimal functioning. For example, music has the power to evoke strong emotions and regulate mood so that it can be used to improve health and well-being (28). Moreover, music have several social functions (e.g., social cognition & contact, communication, group cohesion, cooperation, etc.) that procure the experience of joy, fun, reward and happiness (29). Similarly, poetry stimulates emotion-related brain regions involved in memory and introspection (30) while highly moving aesthetic experiences engage the Default-Mode Network (DMN) in the brain associated with inward contemplation and self-assessment (31). This region of the brain is particularly active during resting and meditation practices thus cultivating well-being and emotional balance (32). Finally, literary fiction “with aesthetic qualities and character development” can help us to enhance our brain connectivity and our understanding of complex emotions while making us more compassionate, pro-social and good at collaboration with others (33).

Beautiful nature, moral excellence, meditative practices, genuine music or artworks have a profound effect on human consciousness by generating complex positive emotions. These good high-frequency vibrations move and transform us — they elevate us from the dark basement of human psyche where we feel insecure, anxious and fearful toward our enlightened & broadened state of mind that fills us with warmth, care and compassion for each other. By reconnecting with our higher-order self and transcending our narrow self-interest, complex positive feelings breath vital energy into human souls and make us fully humans.

Complex positive emotions transform not only individuals but also social groups, organizations and communities by propagating positive energy through people. Emotions are contagious and positive ones are not the exception. By witnessing others’ good deeds, we feel burst of positive energy that motivates us to follow the good example thus creating a virtuous ripple effect. It is especially true when this moral example is given by powerful and influential people like business and political leaders. Research shows that leaders’ moral example has far-reaching cascading effects on large organizations by spreading positive influence across multiple hierarchical levels (34).

Because complex positive emotions are the key to the full realization of human potential, they are powerful levers for change both at individual and collective levels. By tapping into the vast pool of our inner strengths & resources, complex positive emotions can help us to find the most ingenious and creative solutions to our pressing human problems.

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