High levels of stress, especially if persistent or chronic, contribute to the development of anxiety and depression. In 2011, the CDC reported that antidepressant medications were the most frequently used prescription drugs among adults 18 to 44 years—a 400 percent increase since 1988. Aside from medications, however, findings from our research suggest that positive emotions may also protect us from the harms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Results of our latest study, published in the journal Stress & Health, support the theory that the experience of positive emotions—such as joy, gratitude, and love—promotes the use of adaptive coping strategies during stress management, which leads to enhanced resilience and improved outcomes.2 Furthermore, although we generally experience increasing anxiety and depression along with mounting stress, individuals with greater resilience appear to be shielded from the full impact of stress and thus react with smaller increases in anxiety and depressive symptoms.
It is important, however, to separate positive emotions from simply "happy thoughts." Positive emotions as "happy thoughts" is a big misconception, which in the past has caused confusion and antagonism from individuals who are struggling with their stress/anxiety/depression, and are then told "to simply think happy thoughts to fix their problems." The experience of positive emotions involves responses from our minds and bodies, which could then reciprocally affect how we interact with the world around us. The key is to set your life up in such a way that would allow you to regularly experience these positive emotions: amusement, fun, silliness, awe, wonder, amazement, gratitude, appreciation, thankfulness, hope, optimism, encouragement, inspiration, feeling uplifted and elevated, interest, alertness, curiosity, joy, gladness, happiness, love, closeness, trust, pride, confidence, self-assuredness, serenity, contentment, and peace.
Positive Emotions Make Us Wiser
According to Barbara Fredrickson's Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, the experience of positive emotions liberates our minds, which encourages more mindful and creative thinking, and enables us to view the world through a wider lens (in contrast to the narrowing effect of negative emotions).3 This broadened mindset allows us to see a greater array of the available potential coping strategies that we could use against our problems. Mindfulness and creative thinking then aid us in selecting the most effective coping strategies.
Positive Emotions Improve Coping
In the face of adversity, we often have many types of coping strategies. Some strategies successfully help us overcome obstacles, whereas others are less effective; avoiding a problem, for example, may be a temporary fix, but we will only have to face the same—likely larger—problem again sooner or later.
Effective and beneficial coping strategies are referred to as "adaptive" strategies, whereas the less effective—and potentially destructive—kinds are known as "maladaptive." Our data revealed that the experience of positive emotions is associated with more frequent use of adaptive coping strategies, which include:
- Active coping: tackling the problem head-on
- Planning: instead of attacking the problem at first sight, sometimes it is best to first step away, prepare a plan of action, and then attack accordingly
- Acceptance: some problems cannot be changed (e.g., death of a loved one), so the sooner you can accept this reality, the sooner you can recover and move forward
- Positive reframing: seeing the silver lining in the clouds or opportunities in challenges
- Emotional support: receiving love, encouragement, and motivation from friends/family
- Instrumental support: finding resources necessary to solve our problems
On the other hand, our results also showed that individuals who experience positive emotions more frequently are less likely to use the following maladaptive coping strategies:
- Denial: refusing to acknowledge the problem before us
- Distraction: doing other less important things, like going shopping or watching TV, in an effort to avoid having to deal with the problem
- Venting: yelling and screaming might help us feel better by allowing us to release frustration, but these will not fix our problems
- Behavioral disengagement: giving up instead of putting up a fight
- Self-blame: attacking ourselves instead of focusing that energy toward our problems
- Substance use: intoxicating ourselves with alcohol or drugs to temporarily escape from the problems
Improved Coping Builds Resilience
During times of stress, individuals who experience more positive emotions in their lives are more likely to equip themselves with adaptive coping strategies—and less likely to use maladaptive strategies—in their efforts to tackle their stressors. This smarter way of managing our stressors enables us to more effectively overcome challenges, more efficiently recover from losses, and perhaps bounce back even wiser and stronger. Positive emotions and adaptive coping strategies build resilience.
Resilience Protects Us From Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Findings from our research showed that, as expected, people generally experience increases in anxiety and depression symptoms in tandem with increasing levels of stress. However, results also indicated that individuals who possess higher levels of resilience are protected from the full impact of stress. In other words, all participants reported more anxiety and depressive symptoms with heightened stress, but those who had higher resilience experienced significantly weaker symptoms. Resilience could be compared to a bulletproof vest; the impact of a bullet would still hurt, but the injury would be much less than what we would sustain without it.
In sum, (a) positive emotions promote the use of adaptive coping strategies against stress, (b) positive emotions and adaptive coping strategies build resilience, and (c) resilience shields us from the harmful effects of stress, anxiety, and depression. Therefore, individuals who experience more positive emotions in their lives are more likely to experience weaker symptoms of anxiety and depression during times of heightened stress.
So how can we increase our positivity and experience more positive emotions in our lives? Here are some recommendations from Fredrickson's Positivity book:4
- Make time to do whatever brings about positive emotions (e.g., watching funny TV shows, playing games with family, going out with friends, starting a new hobby or continuing an old one).
- Look for the brighter side of things; recognize challenges as opportunities for growth.
- Take time to appreciate the good times, and have an attitude of gratitude.
- Follow your passion, and do what makes you feel alive.
- Focus on applying your strengths, and work on improving your weaknesses.
- Surround yourself with good people who make you feel great and help you become greater.
- Understand what regularly upsets you, and figure out how to fix or avoid it.
- Be open to actively pursuing positive emotions throughout your days in order to affect change in the way you interact with the world around you.
Date of original publication: December 19, 2014.
Updated on February 10, 2016 .
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1Pratt, L.A., Brody, D.J., & Gu, Q. (2011). Antidepressant use in persons aged 12 and over: United States, 2005:2008. NCHS data brief, no 76. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2011. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
2Gloria, C.T., & Steinhardt, M.A. (2014). Relationships among positive emotions, coping, resilience and mental health. Stress and Health. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1002/smi.2589
3Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
4Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.