You Have to See Your Happiness to Believe It

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 13, 2017

Psychologists have long known that negative emotions narrow our thoughts and range of actions, which has served an important evolutionary purpose. In prehistoric times, if a saber-toothed tiger was running at you, fear and stress helped release chemicals that either prepared you to fight the tiger (which admittedly might not go very well) or flee from him (a contest you again might lose). Still, these were both better options than doing nothing and simply waiting to be attacked. So what evolutionary purpose would positive emotions have? Until recently, scientists were content to say that happiness merely makes us feel good, and end the inquiry there.

Related: Jim Rohn on How Happiness is an Art

Thankfully, the last 20 years have changed all that. Extensive research has found that happiness actually has a very important evolutionary purpose, something Barbara Fredrickson has termed the “Broaden and Build Theory.” Instead of narrowing our actions down to fight or flight as negative emotions do, positive ones broaden the amount of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative and open to new ideas. For instance, individuals who are “primed”—meaning scientists help evoke a certain mindset or emotion before doing an experiment—to feel either amusement or contentment can think of a larger and wider array of thoughts and ideas than individuals who have been primed to feel either anxiety or anger. And when positive emotions broaden our scope of cognition and behavior in this way, they not only make us more creative, they help us build more intellectual, social and physical resources we can rely upon in the future.


Allow yourself to feel positive emotions by going outside of your comfort zone and trying new things.


Recent research shows that this “broadening effect” is actually biological; that happiness gives us a real chemical edge on the competition. How? Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.

Related: A 4-Question Guide to Unlock Your Creativity

We even quite literally see more of what’s around us when we’re feeling happy. A recent University of Toronto study found that our mood can actually change how our visual cortex—the part of the brain responsible for sight—processes information. In this experiment, people were primed for either positivity of negativity, then asked to look at a series of pictures. Those who were put in a negative mood didn’t process all the images in the pictures—missing substantial parts of the background—while those in a good mood saw everything. Eye-tracking experiments have shown the same thing: Positive emotions actually expand our peripheral line of vision.

Think of the edge all this gives us in the workplace. After all, who wouldn’t want to see out-of-the-box solutions, spot opportunities, and better see how to build upon the ideas of others? In today’s innovation-drive knowledge economy, business success in practically every job or profession hinges on being able to find creative and novel solutions to problems. For example, when researchers at Merck first began studying the effects of a drug called Finasteride, they were intent on finding a cure for benign prostatic hyperplasia, otherwise known as an enlarged prostrate. During checkups with the research subjects, though, they learned that many of the participants were experiencing a weird side effect: They were re-growing hair. Fortunately, the Merck researchers could see the billion-dollar product hiding in the unexpected side effect, and Propecia was born.

The Happiness Advantage is why cutting-edge software companies have foosball tables in the employee lounge, why Yahoo! has an in-house massage parlor, and why Google engineers are encouraged to bring their dogs to work. These aren’t just PR gimmicks. Smart companies cultivate these kinds of working environment s because every time employees experience a small burst of happiness, they get primed for creativity and innovation. They see solutions they might otherwise have missed. Famed CEO Richard Branson has said that, “more than any other element, fun is the secret of Virgin’s success.” This isn’t just because fun is, well, fun. It’s because fun also leads to bottom-line results.

Related: 4 Ways to Plan Your Happiness


This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.