Broaden and Build: How Positive Emotions Can Help You Thrive

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Not long ago, Japanese researchers decided to see how looking at images of cute animals might affect people’s ability to concentrate and complete tasks. Personal species preferences aside, certain physical traits are pretty much universally deemed cute: a disproportionately large head for the body, large eyes, and a high and protruding forehead.

These human-baby-like features, found particularly in baby animals, have been shown to bring a smile to the viewer’s face and fire up the desire to get closer to and care for the animal.

In the Japanese study, people who had viewed images of puppies and kittens did much better at playing a game of Operation, which requires concentration and physical carefulness, than did people who had viewed pictures of adult cats and dogs. (Sorry, old boy, your head and eyes are too small to be cute.)

Also, they did better in a visual search for a particular number in a field of numbers. Mind you, it wasn’t just the pleasantness of kittens and puppies that explained the results, because people viewing equally pleasant pictures of delicious food didn’t experience the same effects.

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Now, given that this study of baby animal pictures and games of Operation comes from Japan, where quirky experiments, products, and game shows abound, it might be tempting to dismiss it as interesting fluff, but that would be a mistake.

Studies like this one are actually at the forefront of research into positive psychology, a discipline that works to understand how positive emotions, situations, and characteristics influence a person, and contribute to well-being and the ability to thrive—the flip side of the mental health community's traditional emphasis on dysfunction.

The evolutionary benefit of positive emotions

The Japanese study highlights several key concepts that we’ve come to understand in just the past 10 years or so. One of them is that not all positive emotions are created equal, because they differ in terms of what’s called “approach motivation,” or the extent to which the emotion is coupled with an urge to act. 

Studies show that positive emotions like desire and “nurturant love” (which stimulates the urge to provide caregiving, like with the cute animals) have high approach motivation, while ones like serenity, amusement, optimism, and success are low in approach motivation.

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So, some emotions are more action-oriented than others, and when you experience them certain brain functions change accordingly. In a high approach-motivated emotional state, your brain restricts your attentional focus and memory to the things that are right in front of you.

(I mean this both figuratively and literally: studies suggest that people in these states have a diminished capacity to notice and remember things in their peripheral vision.)  

This narrower focus is accompanied by your brain serving up a narrower selection of possible actions for consideration. Similar to the fight, flee, or freeze response to threat, your brain simplifies matters for you.

Tying your shoe when you’re faced with a threat isn’t likely to improve your chances of survival as much as the other options; neither is it likely to help you satisfy any urges that arise when you see something helpful or pleasant.

Therefore, in situations where something strikes you positively and you need to take action to achieve a benefit, your brain’s responses make perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It helps you get down to business as efficiently as possible.

Then there are the more generalized, low approach-motivated pleasant feelings, like after you’ve achieved a goal and are able to relax, for instance. Things are going well now, and you can coast for a bit. Your attention and perception become more expansive, enabling you to take stock of your situation and consider a broader array of next steps.

Emotions like happiness, amusement, satisfaction, peacefulness, or the post-achievement glow of success are more conducive to building personal resources, like social support, skills, and the like, that can help you function better in the long term. They leave you more receptive to the next opportunity that may happen along.

Mood and meaning

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that people who feel their lives have meaning tend to be happy. The reverse also holds true: experiencing happiness (and other low approach-motivated emotions) tends to increase the feeling that one’s life is meaningful.

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You might guess that this is simply because broader attentional focus and cognition would help someone step back and see more clearly her place in the grand scheme of things. However, studies suggest a more nuanced explanation.

It’s thought that people tend to endorse more meaningfulness when in a positive mood, and less in a negative mood, because their current mood serves as a source of information when making that determination.

Some researchers have come to believe that expanded awareness and cognitive function better enables people to consider sources of meaning from other dimensions of their lives (for instance, from their social or vocational pursuits).* 

Ironically, then, some positive emotions can de-emphasize themselves, which is good, because emotions in general are situation-dependent, fickle, and therefore unreliable indicators of your overall well-being.

What you can do

It couldn’t hurt to try to take advantage of these mechanisms. For starters, since high approach-motivated positive emotions maximize your ability to concentrate and take careful action, the Japanese researchers wonder whether the use of baby animal pictures could be helpful in office environments, to stimulate more focus and careful effort on the work at hand. Also, whether they might aid in improving driver safety.

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An interesting idea, this. Until your local municipality catches up to the science and erects billboards of kittens along the roadway, you could try taping a baby animal picture to your dashboard, to gaze upon at red lights. Or perhaps to the workbench where you build your model ships. Like I said, it couldn’t hurt.

Conversely, you can use your less approach-motivated, more passive positive emotional states and the broader, more flexible cognitive functions they engender to reinforce each other and help you achieve higher and higher levels of life satisfaction.

At those times, your broad scope of perception and thought/action options provides the perfect environment for creative thought, problem-solving, and generally being more flexible in your approach to things.

Try capitalizing on the afterglow of your successes, or those times when you’re feeling particularly serene, or happy from seeing a good comedy. Those are the times when your brain is optimized for contemplating your life, appreciating what you have, and considering what you’d like to have.

They are good times to pick up the phone and connect with a loved one or give some thought to a life change you’ve been kicking around. Also, to reflect upon the factors of your life that provide meaning.

Look in the places that are on the periphery when you’re more narrowly focused on your day-to-day crises, and allow yourself to relish what you find. The more you do that, the more readily you’ll be able remember them when things aren’t so rosy.**
 Mindfulness meditation practice also involves broadening your receptivity, so it can provide some of these meaning-making benefits, too.

** In the interest of helping you to focus on the article (and for your viewing pleasure), I've provided a variety of baby animal pictures. You should now be primed for some detail-oriented work.