The Thoroughly Positive Effects of Positivity & Why Environmentalism Could Use More Of It


photo: Kelly Schott/Creative Commons

There's a really fascinating feature over at Greater Good on the powerful transformative effects that positive emotions have on our wellbeing, our lives, our bodies, those around us. I won't relay all that Barbara Fredrickson has to say on the subject, and again it's all pretty great stuff, but I do want to emphasize that this is exactly the sort of thing that the environmental movement needs to be paying far more attention to. Some summary is in order though, if only to set the stage.

Firstly, as Barbara notes, positive emotions aren't just "jump for joy" emotions. There's a whole spectrum of positive emotions that she's talking about and are worth cultivating: Gratitude, serenity, tranquility, love and closeness with those people around us. Just to name some of them.

And just some of effects of cultivating this positivity (which to use some alternative terminology from the world of Hinduism and yoga, really could be called santosha or contentment):

  • People are more creative when they're experiencing positive emotions; when solving a problem, they come up with more ideas of what they might do next. This enhanced creativity has been directly linked to having a wider awareness.
  • People are more likely to be resilient. I have conducted a whole line of research showing that people are able to bounce back more quickly from adversity when they're experiencing positive emotions.
  • Positive emotions make us more socially connected to others, even across groups. My former students Kareem Johnson and I found that positive emotions allow us to look past racial and cultural differences and see the unique individual behind those traits. They help us see the universal qualities we share with others, not our differences. And other experiments show that if you induce positive emotions, people are more trusting and come to better win-win situations in negotiations.

Secondly, we're not talking here about forcing positivity or abolishing negative emotions. You can't fake it or impose it.

If you make your motto, "Be Positive", that will actually backfire. It leads to a toxic insincerity that's shown to be corrosive to our own bodies, to our own cardiovascular system. It's toxic for our relationships with other people. I think we all know that person who's trying to pump too much sunshine into our lives. ... How to foster that mindset [of positivity]? It helps to be open, be appreciative, be curious, be kind, and above all, be real and sincere. From these strategies spring positive emotions.

So what does all this have to do with environmentalism as a movement? A couple things spring to mind.

No doubt all of the issues that we are trying to make more people aware of, to cajole more people to take seriously, all of them are serious and grave and shocking and dire and at times downright face-palm smacking annoyingly depressing in that there are probably twelve or so civilizationally threatening areas of crisis that all have to be solved concurrently if humanity has a chance at surviving at current population levels and with something even resembling a shadow of the standard of living the average TreeHugger reader currently enjoys. Phew. The weight of just writing that induces sore shoulders.

And though it may be tempting to think it an overstatement, if anything it's an understatement, if we are to place any stock in the scientific method and scientific community.

It's heavy. But it need not be negative. And simply reporting on those facts of the environmental matter need not be seen as doom, nor gloom--even though it's often portrayed that way, usually in contrast to fluffy cute animal stories or inspiration dolphins saving dobermans or cool new shiny ways to make iPod speakers from bamboo or recycled t-shirts.

That characterization is but one perception, one way of focusing attention, one way of many.

In fact, by choosing to portray these issues as negative rather than presenting them as opportunities for truly radically evolutionary change, to cultivate compassion, patience, gratitude, by playing into people's fears, insecurities, worries and by too little emphasizing genuinely positive emotional responses the environmental community is just activating ways of thinking that stifle the very creativity and openness to new ideas that is needed in this hour of human need.

But we keep activating the negative, even the best among us--from trying to jar people with headlines of shocking new studies, talk about the dire state of ecosystem x or species y, the tragic state of political corruption, the outrageous way people over there are treating their animals, the horrible things climate change is going to force us to do.

Its not that many environmental issues aren't shocking, dire, tragic, outrageous and horrible. It's just that while these emotions have their place, in the long term they aren't as effective and lasting motivators for the personal and systemic change we need as encouraging the development of internal transformation, of compassion, gratitude, and contentment.

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Tags: Green Spirit