HealthyWorkplaces has identified those psychological states which, if stimulated by the work environment, either directly or indirectly, promote physical health and psychological well-being, resulting in energized and engaged workers who love what they do and who contribute to organizational effectiveness accordingly. We described the HealthyWorkplaces Model in a previous blog authored by Arthur Giacalone.

At the heart of the HealthyWorkplaces’ Psychological States Framework, shown below, are three psychological states, two of them well-known to be major contributors to psychological well-being: “ sense of purpose and meaning,” and “sense of feeling connected to and supported by others.”  The third and most central component of the Framework is “positive emotions” through which we ultimately experience well-being and build resilience.

HW Psychological States Framework2

A Brief History of Emotions in Psychology

Throughout its history and evolution as a science, psychology has researched and investigated negative emotions – the ones that cause us pain and suffering.  For over a hundred years the spotlight was on understanding and alleviating the pain caused by anxiety, depression, sadness, and stress.  Little attention was paid to the more positive emotions (such as joy and love) and psychological states often associated with personal happiness and a fulfilled life. Around the year 2000 it was pointed out by some eminent psychologists (Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in particular) that psychology had become unbalanced with an over-emphasis on studying the negative emotions, and that the absence or reduction of these painful emotions did not necessarily result in human flourishing and happiness.

 

Positive Psychology – What Makes Us Flourish?

In the last 15 years Positive Psychology, the study of factors that help humans prosper and lead healthy, happy lives, has brought about a revolution in a renewed research focus and has begun to redress the long established imbalance in psychology.  There is still much to learn and discover but one of the immediate rising stars within this literature, along with a new focus on human strengths as opposed to weaknesses, is positive emotions.  We have long known that negative emotions such as fear, anger, and disgust had survival value in our evolutionary past and can still be useful today.  Emotions play critical roles in our lives. We now understand that positive emotions may have played a part in our evolutionary survival as well because they lead to social cohesiveness, openness to new experience, and collaborativeness.

The widely acknowledged world leader in research on positive emotions is Dr. Barbara Fredrickson who is Professor of Psychology and runs the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has begun to unpack the complex role of positive emotions in our lives.  Emotions are not just feelings but are embodied states that come with action tendencies and their own urges, cognitive appraisals, and physiological reactions.  Whereas negative emotions signal that we are at risk and prime us to a restricted range of actions to resolve danger or risk, positive emotions seem to do the opposite.  They indicate that we are not a risk, indeed that we are safe.  They broaden our attention in the present, open us to new experiences, help us explore, build, collaborate, and share with others.

Defining Positive Emotions

The defining quality of negative emotions like anger or fear is that we wish to escape them as quickly as possible because our experience of negative emotions is unpleasant.  By contrast, the defining quality of positive emotions is that we prefer that they last as the associated pleasure does not diminish over time or with repetition, unlike simple pleasures that wear off over time. Another difference is that positive emotions are subtle and diffuse, whereas negative emotions are highly focused.

Below is a list of the main positive emotions currently being researched with a focus on how they contribute to happiness and well-being, and the proven interventions and activities that help bring them about.  The positive emotions are shown here in order of their reported frequency in people’s lives, with the exception of love, which is in a category of its own.

 

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

 

The Role of Positive Emotions in Well-Being

Fredrickson and her colleagues’ research  show that positive emotions broaden our capabilities in the present and build social, physical, psychological, and emotional resources for the future.  In other words, they help us be effective in the present and stronger in the future.  Fredrickson’s research shows that positive emotions buffer us against the harmful effects of stress and help us recover more quickly.  Above all, they contribute directly to well-being and to resilience. Negative emotions still have an important role to play, but can be harmful to us if not counterbalanced by enough positive emotion in our lives.  There appears to be an increase of human flourishing as positive emotions increase in relation to negative emotions, just as there is a decrease in ability to flourish if there are too many negative emotions compared to positive emotions.

We have placed positive emotions at the heart of the HealthyWorkplaces Framework because we believe they link directly to social connectedness and support, and to a sense of meaning and purpose. Anything employers can do to increase positive emotions in relation to negative emotions (greater than a ratio of 3 to 1) will directly contribute to the health and psychological well-being of workers. HealthyWorkplaces’ goal is to publish guidelines, based on our own studies as well as others, on how to attain and maintain critical ratios of positive emotions in the workplace.

 

Michael Pearn, Ph.D.
Consulting Expert
HealthyWorkplaces

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Michael Pearn is an organizational psychologist based in San Francisco with clients around the world.  He seeks to improve the performance of organizations and the lives of people who work in them. He works primarily on team and leadership development, with a special focus on courage, compassion and resilience.  He holds a PhD in Psychology from London University and is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.  He is the author of eight books that transform findings from research and experience into practical implementation in organizations. His most recent book is Building Resilience For Success: A Resource for Managers and Organizations. Michael has worked in China, Brazil, the Caribbean, South Africa, and many parts of Europe and North America.