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How's Your Positive Emotional Literacy? (& Why It Matters)

In my last article I presented a method for improving your emotional self-awarness or emotional literacy, which is important because it's the foundation of emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate. I'm often surprised that my clients struggle to name more than two or three positive emotions when I ask them. So in this article I'm going to present you with a fairly definitive list of ten primary positive emotions - not my own but one devised by leading Positive Psychology researcher Barbara Frederickson. It's helpful to get very familiar with these as they are key resources for living the good life.

I'm going to give the list of ten at the end - that's because it's interesting to test yourself with naming as many positive emotions as you can in the space of a couple of minutes - why not try it now.

What Defines Positivitity?

What's the difference between positive and negative emotions? Probably the first answer that comes to mind is that positive emotions feel good, while negative ones feel bad. But anger, a negative emotions, can feel good at times.

Fredrickson, in her book "Postivity" (which I highly recommend) addresses a related question: why did positive emotions emotions evolve? Emotions in general evolved to motivate us (and animals of course) to act in certain adaptive ways - so for example fear helps keep us safe by moving us to keep clear of danger.

Fredrickson proposes her "broaden and build" theory, which says that positive emotions broaden our attention, so that we can take more in and learn more, and also they motivate us to behave in ways that build our personal resources. So for example feeling friendly moves us to build friendships and social bonds, which are undoubtedly helpful in times of trouble.

Why Do Positive Emotions Matter?

Fredrickson's theory helps us answer this question: besides feeling good, positive emotions are very resourceful states that support us to find solutions to our problems.

Solution Focused Therapy

When we face emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, it's easy for us to focus on how to get rid of negative emotions, or why we are experiencing them in the first place. But it's very hard to get rid of a negative emotion on its own level. An alternative to this problem-focused approach is to ask, how do I want to feel instead? Or perhaps even better, what resources do I need in this situation?

The Value of Emotional Literacy

If you're familiar with a wide range of emotional states and emotional resources, it's easier to see what resource is most appropriate to the context you face.

Suppose you're about to sit an exam, and you're anxious. As we've said, it's not helpful to try to suppress or otherwise "get rid of" anxiety. Better to think of what you need instead. The first thing you might think of is calm, you need to calm down. Actually that's not necessarily the best resource - and I would argue calm is not really an emotion in itself but a state of low physiological arousal (which is common to several emotions).

Probably a more appropriate resource is confidence. You won't find confidence on Frederickson's list - I would say because it's not a pure emotion but an emotional state combined with a (cognitive) belief about your own capability.

How To Access Emotional Resources

Of course you can't force them - you can't press a mental button to summon them. But they often respond to imagination. What would it feel like if you were confident? And especially, how does it feel in the body? It helps if you can bring to mind times when you were confident, or successful. How did it feel?

Ten Primary Positive Emotions

Finally here is Fredrickson's list as promised:

  • love
  • joy
  • gratitude
  • serenity
  • interest
  • awe
  • hope
  • amusement
  • pride
  • inspiration

And here's a video of Fredrickson presenting on her research, and broaden-and-build theory:

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