Positive emotions and resilience are closely linked. Positive emotions help people recover from stressful situations more quickly and the research is showing that the efect is cumulative. When we use positive emotions to work our way through stressful situations, the experience makes us more resilient for next time, more optimistic and more tranquil.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have studied the way students reacted to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. They found among those who felt anger, fear and sadness were many who not only thrived in the weeks ater the terrorist attacks, but became stronger as a result. Those resilient students also felt positive feelings particularly, being glad to be alive, more love for their family and friends and happiness that they were safe, and a greater interest in the political events in their country. ‘They were deeply moved by this national tragedy,’ the researchers say, ‘but not overwhelmed by It.
The students’ positive feelings were more than just distractions from the stress. Positive feelings, such as gratitude at being alive, increased love for others, humour, optimism and a greater interest in the world around us put our bodies at ease. We become more open to new ways of coping and more resilient next time. The Michigan study and others since then have shown that people who use positive emotions or feelings in stressful situations create an upward spiral.
Resilience is everyday magic because, as the researchers say, using positive emotions seems to be what we are programmed to do. Negative emotions are barriers to a natural human response to adapting to stress.
Research is also showing that even when there is no crisis, we can actively create positive emotions that protect us long-term. It’s as simple as counting our blessings, but it’s more than homespun wisdom. It checks out.
Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked students to complete daily and weekly diaries. Those who listed what they were grateful for in the last day or week came up with such things as, ‘Waking up this morning’, ‘he generosity of my friends’, ‘God giving me determination’ and ‘he Rolling Stones’.
The result? those who counted their blessings each day were happier, slept better, were more optimistic and more involved in their relationships at the end of the study than those who were asked to record hassles or simply events.
Perhaps the most important point of that study was the minimal way that the Emmons and McCullough induced gratitude. They were not selecting people who were naturally grateful. Just asking a range of ordinary people to list the things they were grateful about that day or that week was enough to create positive emotions and significant benefits. Perhaps it should be our first strategy when we are stressed or unhappy – if only because it is so easy.
Why not carry a list of ‘Things I am most grateful for’ in your head? Try making it a routine as you tuck your children into bed: ‘And what were the best things about today?’