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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.September 12, 20223 min read

Why Do We Have Emotions? The Science Behind Positive Emotions

If you were asked what function positive emotions play in human survival and development, would you be able to answer the question?

Modern research has linked positive emotions with better health outcomes, better relationships, higher levels of resilience, and even more compassionate behavior. Those long term consequences, however, might not explain why we developed them in the first place.  

Emotion theorists often link particular emotions to “specific action tendencies.” They theorize that these action tendencies play a role in the survival of a species, making them evolutionarily adaptive. This adaptive role is easily identified for negative emotions such as fear, anger, and disgust. One tends to focus on a narrowed set of actions in response to an environmental trigger. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan explains:

“In a life-threatening situation, a narrowed thought action repertoire promotes quick and decisive action that carries direct and immediate benefit.”

The most familiar example is fear which is linked with the “urge to escape.” This urge is accompanied by physiologic changes that mobilize the physical resources necessary to act on that urge (think “fight or flight” changes such as increased heart rate, breathing, etc.)

But what about emotions that occur in non-life threatening circumstances–such as joy, interest, contentment, admiration, and love? What possible role could these emotions play in human survival? Dr. Fredrickson begins her explanation this way:

[Positive emotions] broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, widening the array of the thoughts and actions that come to mind. 

Why is this “broadening” of focus an essential adaptive feature for human development and survival?

Science Behind Emotions: The Broaden-and-Build Theory 

In the 1998 article introducing her theory and the research leading to it, Fredrickson contrasts the longer term effects of positive emotion with the more immediate benefit of being driven by a negative emotion. The actions induced by positive emotions include playing, exploring, and pursuit of further “successes” or achievements. The benefit of these actions is to build personal resources on the physical, social, and intellectual level. A good example is the urge to play associated with the positive emotion of joy. 

In animal research, juvenile play–such as using a sapling to hurl oneself in unexpected directions–shows up as predator avoidance behavior in adults. But in humans, as well, play is associated with building social intelligence, relationships, and building developmental neurological pathways. As social animals, successfully building relationships is crucial for humans. Another example is the positive emotion “interest.” This emotion increases our urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, thus building up our intellectual resources.

The function, then, of positive emotions is to build up these enduring personal resources that can be drawn upon in the future, more especially perhaps in future adverse circumstances.

What can the science behind emotions tell us about the effects of positive emotions?

Using eye-tracking software, Fredrickson and other researchers found that inducing positive emotions in experimental conditions literally expands participants’ ability to see the bigger picture and even increases peripheral vision. 

[Positive emotions] open us. They literally change the boundaries of our minds and our hearts and change our outlook on our environments. At a very fundamental level, we are able to see larger systems, see larger forms of interconnection when we are experiencing positive emotions.

The implications of these findings are significant. Certainly, creative solutions are needed to address many health issues and societal problems. It can be argued that these are easier to find with expanded perceptions.

Positive emotions are therefore far from being the equivalent of wearing “rose-colored glasses.”  

So get out there and build your personal resources: be grateful, play, be curious, share laughter with friends, be inspired by great leaders, become more compassionate. 

The world is waiting for you.

You can listen to Dr. Fredrickson give a brief explanation of her theory here.