RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you think your satisfaction with life boosts your positivity, you’ve got it backwards. A 2009 study published in the journal Emotion implies that life satisfaction trickles up from tiny, positive events that occur every day—not down from what you have or what you think you need.
THE DETAILS: Researchers wanted to test a few theories on why people with more positive emotions consider themselves more content with life, and whether their levels of negative emotion had any impact on that. They surveyed 86 college students, who filled out online emotion diaries at the end of every day. At the beginning and end of the study, the students also filled out questionnaires based on life satisfaction and “ego resilience,” a measure of how easily people bounce back from life’s challenges and curveballs.
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The researchers found that experiencing a greater number of positive emotions was a much better predictor of life satisfaction and resilience than having fewer negative emotions. People who were more content weren’t content just because they had fewer bad days. Their satisfaction with life came from being better able to deal with challenges, which itself was influenced by experiencing more positive emotion.
WHAT IT MEANS: Ultimately, the researchers found, positive emotions predict your satisfaction with life, not the other way around. “People have assumed in the past that your feelings of one day are just a reflection of your overall satisfaction with life,” says Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and lead author of the study. “But positive emotions actually build resources that account for life satisfaction,” she says.
Unlike negative emotions, which narrow your thinking and cause you to focus on the immediate problems you’re facing, positive emotions, Fredrickson says, allow you to broaden your horizons, which in turn allows you to discover new resources and connections with people. And the benefit shows up in the long term, as positive moments build on resilience and end up helping people deal with life challenges. All that, she adds, makes for a better life.