The evolutionary function of positive emotions?
It is quite an easy task, to understand why emotions such as fear and anger were important for early man’s survival. The proverbial caveman would not have survived if he acted without caution, or didn’t react appropriately to threats – whether they were dangerous wild animals or social threats. Fear and anger, even jealousy, helped early “man” to survive.
What about positive emotions, such as love, joy, serenity and awe? It seems an odd question to ask, but… what is the use of those emotions?
What do emotions do to us?
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, in her book, Positivity, explains what her research has found to answer this question. A summary of her findings follows below.
Negative emotions have two major effects on us, the one being more cognitive and the other more physical. Firstly, it narrows our focus. Early man did not behold the predator stalking him, and simultaneously note the breathtaking sunset behind the creature. Fear (and other negative emotions) narrow our focus so that we can zoom in on what is most important – survival – through what we know as the “fight or flight” response.
Secondly, it releases a flood of chemicals into our bloodstream. The corticosteroids and adrenalin provide our bodies with the extra strength and energy required to react quickly and, hopefully, survive the encounter. Simultaneously, heart rate and blood pressure increase in order to provide muscles with the blood flow and resources needed for this physical escape or fight.
Positive emotions have two similar effects which, in fact, serve to undo the effects of negative emotions. Where the fight or flight response readies the body by releasing hormones and increasing the heart rate and blood pressure, positive emotions normalise blood pressure, slows the heart rate and undoes the harmful side effects of long term, chronic stress – the result of an excess of corticosteroids in the system.
Furthermore, positive emotions broaden our attention, allowing us the cognitive capacity to be more fully aware of our environment, to connect with others, and, to come up with creative solutions problems.
Without positive emotion and the resulting cognitive “broadening”, early humans may never havc emerged from the cave, forged social hierarchies and economies, created script, harnessed fire, or have thought to domesticate animals and establish agricultural practices.
Today, positive emotion still drives creativity in the arts, technological innovation and other creative endeavours. It is worth remembering that feeling good is about far more than happy smiley faces. Positive emotions enable creativity, social connection and physical health.
Always has, and always will.