PERMA – P is for Positive Emotions

posted on: March 30, 2020
author: Brian Lomax

Admittedly, it can be difficult to be positive during a global pandemic.  People are sick and many are dying.  The economy is shattered.  You’re probably concerned about your family, your health, money, food, safety, etc.  These primary concerns need your attention.  However, positive emotions can be helpful in getting you through this crisis.  They are the first pillar in the PERMA model and should be part of your resilience building strategy.  You could even say that they need to be.  Let’s take a look at how engaging more with positive emotions is an important strategy during a crisis.

The Utility of Negative Emotions

You’re taking a walk in the woods and you spot a bear.  You’re gripped by fear, and your mind goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode.  What do you do?  Run away?  Fight?  Stand in place?  Back up slowly?

In this moment, your motivation is to avoid death, and your brain has given you a very narrow set of options to select.  Choose the right one, and you’ll live.  This scenario shows the utility of negative emotions.  They help us survive.

Facing down a bear is probably not the right time to utilize positive emotions.  Of course, this scenario is an extreme example.  It’s a life or death situation, and in our modern world, our lives are not usually at stake in such an obvious way.

However, the problem with the way our brains work is that we bring negative emotions to situations that don’t require them.  We perceive threats when they don’t actually exist – at least not in a life or death way.  This often occurs in performance contexts like public speaking or competing in sport.  We don’t want to look bad or lose.  Our focus is on avoiding those negative outcomes, and we are fearful.

The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions

When we engage with positive emotions, they have a different effect on us.  Instead of thinking of outcomes to avoid, we think of what we want.  This is called approach behavior.  We are actively approaching what we want to occur rather than avoiding what we don’t want to happen.  In the public speaking scenario, engaging with a positive emotion, such as confidence,  prior to your talk may help you focus on potential positive outcomes.  With that focus, you’re more likely to get what you want.

Positivity also broadens our thinking.  We can think of more options to achieve our goals and be more creative about it when in this mode.  If you’re focused on giving a great speech, you can probably come up with several excellent and creative ideas for making that happen.  However, if you’re more focused on not embarrassing yourself, you probably have a limited set of options available to you (e.g., cancel your presentation).

Additionally, positivity helps us build a psychological reserve of resilience.  I like to think of this like a resiliency bank account.  By intentionally using more positive (and productive) emotions, you are making deposits into your resiliency bank account.  You’re making yourself stronger psychologically.  And at some point in your life, you’re going to need to make some withdrawals from this bank account.  Be a good saver; intentionally experience more positive emotions.

The Positivity Ratio

If you have done any research on happiness and positivity, it’s likely that you have come across some information on the positivity ratio.  The research behind the ratio states that people need to have a positive to negative ratio of three positive emotions for every one negative emotion (3:1) in order to flourish in life.  However, there are some issues with this research as it doesn’t distinguish between the depth of emotions that a person may experience based on a particular event (e.g., death of a family member, winning the World Cup).  Obviously, some events may trigger emotions that have a deeper impact than others.

With that being said, I believe we can still apply this ratio in a more general, broad-based manner.  If we can generally be more positive than negative in the order of 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1, we are more likely to flourish in our lives.

The How of Positive Emotions

So how do we become generally more positive than negative?  Good question.  And to begin to answer it, let’s remind ourselves of some positive and productive emotions:

Our goal is to engage with these emotions more.  Below are some ways that we can do that.

Gratitude Letter

Gratitude is a very powerful positive emotion.  The more grateful people are, the less likely that they will be depressed, anxious, or lonely.  Grateful people are physically healthier and happier.  Those sound like good things to me, so what can we do to be more grateful?

First of all, gratitude is more than just saying thank you.  And right now, you probably have time to do more than that.  How about writing a gratitude letter to someone who has been important in your life?  That could be a teacher, coach, mentor, business partner, client, family member, friend, significant other, etc.  Go next level by setting up a video call with that person and reading the letter to him or her.  That will be emotional!

Savoring

When we become more grateful, we learn to appreciate the things that we have in life.  Could we do that better?  Sure.  That’s where savoring comes in.  Savoring is the practice of fully experiencing an event and immersing yourself in it. Playing a board game with your family?  Savor that moment by truly becoming aware of what is happening, and intentionally recording everything about it in your memory.  Take a picture and save it to a special photo album or scrapbook (COVID-19 scrapbook!) that you can look at in the future.  When you savor, you’ll find yourself more engaged in your activities.

Benefit Finding and Resilience

Being asked to stay at home during a pandemic may be somewhat difficult.  But could there be a silver lining to it all?  Could there be some benefits to being in quarantine?  I think those are good questions to consider.

It’s possible that this crisis has taught you a few things, or helped you become aware of various circumstances in life.  Perhaps you have a better sense of priorities.  Maybe this crisis has prompted you to connect with people that you haven’t spoken to in some time.  So what’s the silver lining in this crisis for you?  Focusing on these benefits is going to help you come out of this a stronger person.

Hope and Humor

Man laughingHope is another important positive emotion.  Think about it for a second.  What does it mean to be hopeless?  It doesn’t sound good, does it?  No.  We need to have hope.  We need to be optimistic.

Want to be more hopeful?  Use humor.  Watch something funny.  Do activities that engage your sense of humor and help you have fun.  Humor is a proven intervention to combat hopelessness and raise levels of hope.  An increase in hope may lead you to be more optimistic about specific aspects of your life in the future.  That’s going to be helpful when life eventually returns to normal.

P is for Positive Emotions

Pillar number one of the PERMA model is positive emotions.  Look to engage more with your positive emotions on a daily basis so you can start building up that resilience bank account.  I would love it if we all became resilience billionaires.

A fantastic resource for evidence based interventions related to positive emotions and happiness is Sonya Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness

Note: This post is the second in our series on developing coping skills through PERMA.  Check out the first post here.

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

Learn more about the author: https://performancextra.com/brian-lomax/

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