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Industrial phycology and human behavior

Influence of positive emotions on human cognitive

Traditionally, psychologists who study emotion have primarily focused on understanding negative
emotions and their effects on mental and physical health. For example, researchers studied emotions such
as sadness, anger, stress and anxiety particularly because they signalled the presence of possible mental
illness. While this research has proved fruitful in helping individuals diagnosed with psychological
disorders, recent studies have focused on positive emotions.

Positive emotions, like happiness, contentment, and joy, are just as interesting and important to study,
given our limited understanding of their effects on our daily functioning. Common sense tells us that
emotional experiences intrude and impair effective cognitive functioning, or that they have no long-term
benefit. However, recent work has discovered quite the opposite, and highlighted the importance of better
understanding how and by which mechanisms these emotions enhance our daily living. The following is a
brief review of past and current research assessing the effects of positive emotions on mental
performance, as well as ways in which to effectively induce positive emotions in your daily life.

Alice Isen conducted some of the earliest work studying the effects of positive emotion on thinking. In
her groundbreaking studies, she discovered that positive emotions induced in participants in her
laboratory, improved aspects of thinking such as memory, judgement, decision-making, flexibility and

For example, she observed that participants who viewed a few minutes of a comedic film clip performed
better on a creativity task compared to participants who were shown either a negative film clip or a
control group. The creativity task used, the Duncker candle problem, which required participants to
attach a candle to the wall in such a way such that it would burn without dripping wax on the floor. They
were given a candle, matches and a box of tacks. The Duncker candle problem is considered a creativity
task because one can arrive at the only correct answer by thinking outside the box, so to speak. One
must break out of the the primary concept of a box of tacks and think of another unusual way to use the
box. Ultimately, most of the results indicated that those who were made to feel positive emotions were
more likely to complete these cognitive tasks in a significantly shorter amount of time.

So how did Isen explain her results? Isen proposed that mild positive affect, which can be induced by
small, everyday events, increases the tendency to think flexibly, combine material in new ways, and see
relationships in distantly related stimuli. More specifically, feeling positive emotions activates other
positive thoughts and memories, which allow for a greater range of interpretations and ways to solve the
current cognitive task. Subsequently, neurobiological theories have been developed to explain the
beneficial effects of positive emotion on cognition. Ashby and Isen proposed that positive emotion is
characterized by an increased release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in specific brain regions
associated with cognitive processing. Dopamine is considered to play a major role in reward-motivated
behaviors, and may also contribute to the subjective positive feeling we experience when we receive a
reward. Therefore, dopamine release as a result of positive emotions in key brain areas like the anterior
cingulate cortex and, nigrostriatal and mesolimbic pathways (also associated with cognition), may
Industrial phycology and human behavior

enhance performance on a variety of tasks such as short and long-term memory, and creative problem
solving. A recent brain imaging study provides evidence for this theory. Subramanian and
colleagues(4) observed that patients who reported greater positive mood completed more tasks related to
insight and creativity . Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they discovered that
individuals who reported increased positive emotion showed greater activation in the anterior cingulate
cortex (ACC), and that this change was associated with processing that led to better creativity
performance. The ACC is a highly influential brain region thought to link behavioral outcomes with
motivation, as it is involved with emotion processing, learning, and memory(5) While this study did not
claim that increased activation in the ACC was due to dopamine per se, it does propose that there are
shared brain regions relative to both emotional experience and cognitive processing. Overall, there
appears to be neuroanatomical and/or neurochemical evidence to suggest that positive emotions enhance
certain kinds of mental performance.

Positive Psychology:

Isens research laid the groundwork to understand how positive emotions influence physical and mental
processes from a scientific perspective, which today we know as positive psychology. As defined by its
founder Martin Seligman, positive psychology is, the scientific study of optimal human functioning that
aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals to thrive.(6) As a field, it uses empirical
research to study topics such as well-being, wisdom, creativity, flow, personal strengths, psychological
health, and characteristics of positive groups and institutions. Furthermore, these topics can be studied
across multiple levels. For example, we can study positive psychology at a subjective level, focusing on
the mechanisms underlying happiness, contentedness, joyfulness, satisfaction, optimism, and flow, and
how these emotional states affect performance. Researchers can also study positive psychology on an
individual level, where they aim to identify the qualities necessary to live a good life and to be
considered a good person, such as courage, perseverance, originality, wisdom, forgiveness, and capacity
for love. Finally, understanding positive psychology at the interpersonal level relates to the factors that
contribute to the development of social relationships and communities, such as altruism, tolerance,
civility, and work ethics.

Regarding cognitive performance, Barbara Fredrickson(7) has conducted pioneering work within the field
of positive psychology. Fredrickson investigated the benefits of positive emotions from an evolutionary
perspective. While negative emotions are evolutionarily advantageous for our survival as a species (i.e.
we fear something dangerous so we run from it), how do positive emotions increase our chances of
survival? What is the point of positive emotions, apart from feeling subjectively pleasant? According to
her broaden-and-build theory,(7) positive emotions contribute to personal growth and development in the
following ways:

Positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoires:

Specific to cognition, positive emotions are thought to broaden your attention, promote thinking in more
flexible ways, and increase open-mindedness and acceptance of new opportunities. In one study,
Fredrickson presented participants with a film meant to induce one of the following feelings: Joy,
contentment, fear, and anger. Afterwards, they asked the participants to imagine a situation in which
Industrial phycology and human behavior

similar feelings would arise, and all the different behaviors they would engage in, given that situation.
Results(8) exhibited more actions for people who had watched the joy and contentment film clips,
compared to those who had watched anger and fear film clips, suggesting that positive emotions inspire
people to react in more ways compared to negative emotions.

Positive emotions undo negative emotions:

Positive emotions have been noted to counteract the effects of negative emotions, at least on a
physiological level. For example, positive emotions may reduce stress (such as reduce heart rate) that is
typically associated with negative emotions.

Positive emotions increase psychological resilience:

Positive emotions may help people cope with negative life experiences, and allow them to bounce back
comparatively quickly. In one experiment, Fredrickson gave people a stressful task (i.e. write and present
a speech) and assessed their level of emotionality, resilience and cardiovascular activity. She observed
that participants who reported higher resilience also demonstrated higher levels of positive emotions,
which in turn, remained high throughout the stressful task. Interestingly, those with higher resilience
showed a faster return to the baseline heart rate This indicates that resilience and positive emotions have
a protective influence on the effects of stress on physiological response.

Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being:

Positive emotions build on themselves, and enhance future psychological well-being. For example, people
who experience positive emotions during negative life events, like loss of a loved one, are more likely to
deal with their grief in a significantly shorter amount of time, as well as develop long-term plans and
goals. Therefore, the effects of positive emotions accumulate over time and predict how well one can
cope with future adversity.

Positive Emotions in Everyday Life:

Referring to Isens work, participants were made to feel positive emotions by giving them an
unanticipated gift have them watch a comedic film, read funny cartoons or experience success on an
ambiguous task. Emotion researchers have additionally used strategies such as presenting pictures, music,
videos and stories, or asking participants to remember some memory that elicits positive emotions. If
administered correctly, just about all of these procedures are effective at eliciting positive emotions. The
simple nature of these methods suggests that the beneficial effects of positive emotions can be prompted
easily, by small things in peoples everyday lives.

One common real-world manner in which we self-regulate our emotions includes seeking positive
imagery on the internet. For example, one recent study found that approximately 7000 individuals who
watched cat videos reported more positive and fewer negative emotions, and increased energy afterwards,
Industrial phycology and human behavior

suggesting viewing as a form of pet-therapy and stress relief Interestingly one recent study demonstrated
that positive videos and pictures commonly found on the internet can positively influence and improve
productivity. In this study, a group of participants presented with a series of cat videos commonly found
on the internet demonstrated an increase in productivity (using a typing task), compared to individuals not
exposed to positive stimuli before the task. While the task primarily assessed motor behavior (i.e. number
of words typed in a 2-minute limit), one can hypothetically infer that positive mood increased the number
of words typed partially due to an increase in attention and mental focus for the task at hand. Another
study presented participants with cute animal pictures; these participants reported higher positive
emotions and also showed improved performance on attentional and visual tasks, suggesting that positive
emotions may improve focus.

Obviously there are numerous ways in which we attempt to induce positive emotions, such as viewing
pictures, films or music. These vary from person to person based on factors such as age, sex, personality,
personal experiences and interests etc. You are the best judge of what makes you feel positive.

Taken together, these results suggest that positive mood may have beneficial
effects like:
Improving aspects of thinking such as memory, judgement, decision-making, flexibility and creativity.

Improving mental performance

Increasing the level of productivity

Counteracting the effects of negative emotions on a physiological level

Increasing psychological resilience and preparedness to face future adversity

Triggering overall emotional well-being

Just some reasons to take a few minutes from your busy work day to experience something positive!