Choose constructive emotions (and don’t forget your greatest asset) (2)


“Everything can be taken from a man but …The last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

— Viktor Frankel

Reading time: 10 mins

What is it you can tell yourself and that will ensure that every time you get in a negative loop you have constructive thoughts and actions which bypass that habit? Think of it as building new houses of emotion imbued with positive feelings in every wall and every beam. Make sure that you are not in an environment, relationship or work situation that continually places you in that loop. And if you are, ask yourself how much of those negative triggers are under your control to diminish? You’ll not be able change everything externally in your life but you can change how you react to these pressures and head off the kind of habitually negative thinking that harms you. Then you are laying the foundation for your life to change naturally. (Yes, really, you are). That requires faith and not a little persistence. But if you are able to cultivate feelings and emotions that work for you that’s when reality begins to change, even if it seems like a pipe dream.

I struggled with many things in my youth and beyond but passive aggression and an overly critical attitude were high up on the scale. This was due to intermittent depression rooted in a poor sense of self. It was only when I found constructive channels for release which took me away from my inner stress was I slowly able to heal. I could indeed choose positive emotions instead of wallowing in resentment and projected angst. In fact, we are choosing all the time, even if unconsciously.

Remember the two sets of thinking systems: system1 (instinctive and emotional) and system 2 thinking (logical; deliberative) and what Daniel Goleman called the “high and low roads” of emotional intelligence. We are literally a complex, tangled mass of biases and mechanical processes which make a mockery of free-will and independent thought. But we can get closer to those ideals. Our job is to ease into the marriage of the two and make them work for us. And to do that we need to be both internally considerate of our own experiences, pains and fears whilst affording the same external considerations to those with whom we live and work.

Learning to exert proper control over the wild horse emotions and chaotic feelings isn’t a bundle of fun but like unruly animals they can be gently tamed so that they begin to love their master rather than follow the bad parent of the ego who let’s them do anything at all for the next tasty treat.

A concurrent theme that appears throughout this whole blog is that we need a good social network present to keep us nourished. For example, snaps shots of positive social memories is an effective way to bring you back from the negative maelstrom. In combination with breathing this can help to re-connect with the biochemical component of that remembered reality. [1] 

Interestingly, as you being to get a handle on your feelings and then how your emotions express themselves, you’ll begin to experience reciprocity from others. Even the petty tyrant in your office or family who always winds you up like a clockwork toy won’t have the same power. It doesn’t mean you’re in some blissed out state of ignorance and escapism, but the resilience and decentralisation of one’s own importance does arrive with a more positive outlook, given the right set of complementary tools. In the end, such things won’t effect you as much and you’ll be wide open to using your emotions to bring together disparate negative elements in your own psyche. You’ll also  build bridges for others to do the same. That’s how it works. Sincerity, authenticity and a cheerful outlook – incrementally binds.


The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions

If the previous simple example to stop negative thought loops offers some respite, it does so without the anticipation that we are going to transform our emotional life to heights of joy over night. What appears useful is to introduce small changes which accumulate exponentially on an arc of positive change. (This is based on the creation of your open feedback system in no.1).

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson is one of the foremost experts on positive emotions. Her research was originally rooted in the relationship between survival and positive emotions which arose from their success in vanquishing challenges. Fredrickson’s theory posits that negative emotions helped our ancestors survive by elevating the flight-or-fight response in the face of serious threats from predatory animals to tribal conquest.  Yet, as we know, when the threat is over, the power of negative effects can remain in the body and mind as an echo, creating a legion of future mental and physiological health problems.

Fredrickson’s decades long research offers a pragmatic and compelling data that suggests the lasting benefits of positive emotions leave their mark long after the initial experience has faded. It’s almost as though positive feelings and emotions are an essential tool for survival. As Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory explains, it is the  accumulation of positive moments over time which promotes growth and awareness by building inner resources essential to proper functioning in this topsy-turvy world of ours.

According to Fredrickson’s discoveries, positive emotions can broaden behaviors (“thought-action repertoires”), such as play, curiosity and openness and in fact, includes many of the 31 ways listed here. The more we can facilitate positive emotions in everyday life, the more flexible, creative and resilient we are and the richer the range of thought-action repertoires. If you are in a state of stress and worry this blocks positive attributes rather than freeing them when we are in a conducive state of flow. The more constructive our behaviours and emotions the happier we are. As a consequence, the more we build “personal, physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources”) the more resilience, strength of will and social connectivity is available to you. And the extent to which we are flourishing both mentally and physically is tied to how socially integrated and emotionally intelligent we are, none of which can be forced. Setting the right conditions so that it happens naturally means preparing your environment and your work place so that you offer maximum potential for change.

If we are able to generate enough “micro-moments” of positive emotions be it cooking a meal, a telephone call or helping a neighbour carry out the trash it makes the difference between remaining stuck in negative loops and breaking out – usually by doing something that takes our focus away from our own preoccupations. And even better, once we have momentarily removed ourselves from that state of mind, life frees up. When we do re-visit that problem a solution is magically found.

This occurs from the match between our inner resources and an external unexpected occurrence that somehow “fits.” Once again, this returns us to non-anticipation and the often counter-intuitive retreat from the wish to “make it happen.” The ability to use the best of ourselves, to tune in to a greater purpose than our mere thwarted wishes and desires is key to resolving so many of our obstacles and issues. And it starts by cultivating and enjoying those moments in the present, bit by bit, so that over time those muscles are strengthened and the underlying molecules hurrying to build more receptors to that end.

As mentioned previously, if you can reduce your negative thought loops and the toxic emotional overload that comes with it, such an effort has implications for your health. As author Richard A. Lovett explained: “just as positive emotions can undo the cardiovascular effects of negative ones, they may also reverse the attention-narrowing effects of negative feelings: broadening our perspectives, rather than limiting them.” [2]

When modern-day threats become challenges then we are in the right ball-park to transmute negative emotions to positive ones, thus creating inner resources that build over time.

“In ancient China, the Taoists taught that a constant inner smile to oneself, insured health, happiness and longevity. Why? Smiling to yourself is like basking in love: you become your own best friend. Living with an inner smile is to live in harmony with yourself.”

— Mantak Chia, Taoist Master

Your greatest asset

I probably don’t display my pearly whites as much as I should. I tend to smile with my eyes.  (But ply me with a malt whisky it’s a slightly different story).  Conversely, when someone has a grin plastered across their face 24/7 it reminds me of born-again Christians or new age love ‘n’ lighters forcing their happy delirium down my throat.

Putting all that criticism aside, I love a genuine smile, especially when it comes from a face that’s usually stern and grim. In fact, I make it my goal in social situations to seek out the most crumpled-looking sour-puss and ease them into showing me their gnashers. When you break through that exterior armour, it’s like the sunshine coming up, regardless of gender.

Don’t you think the faces that repel the most, usually have a smile that lights up a room? Fredrickson called that moment of connection “positivity resonance,” which is very much on the same wavelength as limbic revision and not too far removed from the social lubricant that is love. The latter is an emotion, after all. (But that’s another story we’ll get to later on in the series).

You may think that there’s not much to smile about in your personal life and the world at large. But that’s missing the point. To offer a genuine smile is to give a firm finger to all that chaos and elevate your emotional state, despite what life throws at you. A smile can make the difference between a good day or a bad day. We humans are highly sensitive to those facial cues, even at an unconscious level. The smile is our foremost expression of the welcome mat and activates neurotransmitters which improve our health and happiness by:

  • Making us more attractive to others physically and energetically
  • Reducing stress by elevating one’s mood
  • Boosting our immune system
  • Boosting our longevity

Indeed, smiling seems to be built into our very nature. Facial muscles for smiling are found in all humans. As science writer Eric Jaffe wrote for the Association for Psychological Science: “At just 10 months, for instance, an infant will offer a false smile to an approaching stranger while reserving a genuine smile for its mother…” [3] This propensity to smile and its situational use is refined according to gender norms, social programming and contextual parameters of a given emotional climate.

The mechanics of the smile comprises the zygomatic major, located in the cheek and the orbicularis oculi, which surrounds the eye socket. The former pulls the lips upward whilst the latter contacts the corners of the eye. Psychologists call this the “Duchenne smile” from the French anatomist Guillaume Duchenne, who was interested in emotional expression. He used electrical currents to find out how these muscles worked when we smile. When it’s authentic all the above muscles are at play, when fake, the orbicularis oculi is at rest. People are pretty good at discerning a fake smile from a genuine one and as we know, there is nothing more off-putting than to be confronted with such fakery, common as it is with our politicians and the infotainment culture in which we are immersed.

A Duchenne smile may also provide a window into a person’s true personality and an indicator of future circumstance. Past longitudinal studies have shown that matching up college yearbook Duchenne smile ratings and personality data from 20-something college students linked positive emotional expression with personality and life outcomes across adulthood. These findings showed greater levels of well-being and satisfaction in the students’ fifties. [4] This was confirmed in a study from 2009 in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion which provided a correlation between low-intensity smiles in youth and divorce later in life. [5]

The smile isn’t always about expressing happiness however. We can smile when we are lying, experiencing sadness or playing for time. But most of us can usually discern the fake from the genuine at a gut level. Yet, the crocodile smile of the psychopath can be particularly convincing – even alluring – and manages to lull even the most seasoned psychologist into a false sense of security.

Smiling through adversity, even if counterintuitive, does seem to help us get to the light at the end of the tunnel, whereas wallowing in negative emotions tends to create more of the same, keeping us locked into that loop so that very little light can penetrate the gloom. That schmaltzy maxim “Smile and the world smiles with you” is true;  it isn’t just a platitude, but based on the very real science of social contagions where positive or negative emotional and somatic markers can spread like wildfire.

Smiles, like any other marker of emotional expression – are contagious. [6]

Showing our gnashers and deepening our laughter lines serve as a biosocial purpose that reinforces cooperation and community cohesion in the face of threats to our survival. Our smiles make us feel good and they trigger the same feel-good factors in others.

It will then come as no surprise that graduating to laughter is probably one of the best natural tonics around for body and mind. Another well-used saying: “Laughter is the best medicine” has also proven to be 100% true. Even sex/making love you need a considerable expenditure of emotional and physical energy. Laughter is on tap – you just have to prime your mind for it – and the smile is the starting block.

Laughter takes the benefits of the smile and extends it. Having a good guffaw not only improves vascular health [6] but changes our physiology too. Here are some of the benefits of activating your funny bone:

    • Reduces Stress Hormones
    • Increases Health-enhancing Hormones
    • Boosts Immune System
    • Natural Exercise
    • Complementary Cancer Therapy
    • Regulates Blood Pressure
    • Increases Blood Oxygenation
    • Improves Memory
    • Enhances Mood
    • Promotes Creativity [7]

“He who smiles rather than rages is always the stronger.”

—Japanese proverb

In daily life, when you pop out from the office for a doughnut; out shopping for the family or just busy with your daily routine, whatever that might be, try smiling at people. If you’re not used to doing that and you are busy getting through the day with your default mask of grim impatience or cantankerous forbearance then a different approach can cause genuine ripples of constructive change.

For example, when you’re in a shop catch the cashier’s eye and smile. If s/he is the opposite sex make sure it doesn’t appear as a leery grin or insipid smirk. Bring forth a natural toothy smile followed up by some brief chit-chat and see what happens. Most people respond in kind and are usually very happy to be noticed and recognised. Let’s face it, if you are one of those who work in retail or the service industries on the high street, you’ll have a lot of contact with the public. And depending on the job, no one will argue that a kind word – or the mere fact you engage with the person serving you – makes a difference to the day.

With less and less genuine contact care of social media, we need to re-enchant the smile.

Circumspection when it comes to the opposite sex goes without saying. A flirtatious smile has its place but needs to be executed in context. Smiling at the lady with whom you are face to face with in a middle of a tube-train scrum might not be advisable. In this climate of hyper-offence at the slightest perceived breach into our ideological bubbles, we need to read the situation carefully lest innocent intent is perceived as potential rapist or serial harpie….

Similarly, there’ll be occasions where your dazzling smile makes no difference at all and your attempts are met with a blank stare and utter indifference. Some people are determined to be miserable, or their nerves are just too shot. Generally however, smiling at strangers makes both you and your brief encounter feel much better.

How hard is it to just stop those reactive emotions from spewing out onto another person and replace them with kindness or just a fleeting interest in another person’s life – even when we’ll likely never see them again?  I very often try to accompany my grin with a question that hopefully allows us to be momentarily plucked from our mutual state of automatism.

“How’s life treating you today?”

Or something to that effect. Such a question usually takes people aback due to the mere fact you asked.

Sure, this is simplistic and not everyone will respond. But a return to simplicity is what it’s all about. A little effort here and there can go a very long way to make someone’s day a bit more bearable. After all, how many people do you know that aren’t struggling in some way or another? Whether we know it or not, a smile and a few words of encouragement is a very real form of nourishment. And we all need that from time to time.

So, heal yourself, be aware of your dominant negative emotions, choose to work towards regulation and integration. Broaden and build your capacity to house a greater number of constructive, positive feelings that support emotional intelligence that works with you. Above all, discipline your mind to choose decisively in favour of greater emotional awareness. Do not deviate from this goal. There are plenty of tools and techniques out there to assist you in that process. The only thing you need for success is persistence and conscious faith – which is the road to freedom.

(And remember to smile. It’s your greatest asset).

In the next post we’ll look at bit more at the dark side of too much positive emotion and how it can become just as harmful as excess negativity.



[1] ‘Remembering and savoring positive memories is a practical and effective way to lift your mood’ By Jeremy Dean, PsyBlog, 22 Apr 2016 |
[2] ‘Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires’, Cogn Emot. 2005 May 1; 19 (3): 313–332. doi: 10.1080/02699930441000238 |
Barbara L. Fredrickson and Christine Branigan
[3] ‘The Psychological Study of Smiling’ By Eric Jaffe, Observer, Association for Psychological Science, February 11, 2011 |
[4] ‘College photos indicate later personality development and marital success, study suggests’ January 2001, American Psychological Association, Vol 32, No. 1 |
[5]  ‘Smile intensity in photographs predicts divorce later in life’ Motivation and Emotion, (DOI 10.1007/s11031-009-9124-6) Matthew J. Hertenstein, Carrie A. Hansel, Alissa M. Butts, Sarah N. Hile. |
[6] Primitive emotional contagion. Hatfield, Elaine; Cacioppo, John T.; Rapson, Richard L. Clark, Margaret S. (Ed), (1992). Emotion and Social Behavior.; Review of personality and social psychology, Vol. 14., (pp. 151-177). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc, xi, 311 pp. |
[7] ‘Laughter Improves Vascular Health’ By Rick Nauert, PsychCentral, 29 Aug 2011 |
[8] ’10 Impressive Benefits of Laughter’ by Meenakshi Nagdeve,


  1. This whole series is SO helpful, thank you, thank you, thank you! As anyone who has read much of your blog can tell, you are certainly aware of how dark and disturbing this world can be, and it’s such a treat to have you turn your formidable intellect to thinking of ways to help us all choose better focus and attitude. Simply because that’s what works. I’ll probably always struggle with it, but your practical and simple strategies are extremely valuable.
    Keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

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