Neuroscience Shows How Feeling Good Can Improve Your Ability To Get Things Done
Positive emotions don’t just feel good — they also strengthen our mental and physical capabilities. The chemicals released when we feel a sense of inner peace, fulfillment, joy, or love help activate the immune response and restore our natural state of health. This, in turn, allows our brain to function in its optimal state: with sharper focus and an improved ability to make connections and handle difficulties.
Tools like goal-tracking or time-blocking apps can help us stay focused on our most important tasks. While they may indeed ward off the temptation to check our news feed in the middle of a project, they are useless if we have cultivated the habit of stressful thinking. Our worries use up precious mental energy that could’ve been used for the task at hand. Our ability to think clearly and creatively diminishes.
Stress and other fear-based emotions like anger or frustration trigger the brain’s fight-or-flight response. When our brain senses danger (whether real or only in our minds), it prepares the body for action.
Energy must be redirected from “non-essential” functions — such as analyzing, higher cognitive thinking, or the healing of wounds — to functions that will help us ward of immediate (or perceived) danger. A faster heart rate and increased blood flow to our limbs, for example, are the means through which we can run away from a tiger around the bush. This does not help us, however, if we are trying to focus on a complex task that requires our full brain power.
The HeartMath Institute has done vast research on the effect of emotions on our mental and physical states. Below is an excerpt from one of their research papers that shows positive emotions’ impact on our cognitive functions:
“HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. (This helps explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when we’re under stress.) The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes — actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress. In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect — it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence, by sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, and perform.”
The brain and the heart communicate through electric signals. It has been found that most of these signals go from the heart to the brain, not the other way around.
When we experience an emotion, the heart encodes the information to our brain through heart rate variability and blood pressure. The brain responds by releasing chemicals that we then feel as emotions. The mind-body feedback loop becomes clear.
Focusing our attention on what is going well in our lives triggers a cascade of feel-good chemicals such as endorphin, serotonin, or dopamine. Our brain functions optimally under the influence of these chemicals.
Here are 4 reasons why cultivating positive emotions is beneficial to our productivity:
1. BOOST CONFIDENCE
When we feel good, our cognitive skills are sharper. As we use these skills to work on important tasks, our confidence increases. This perpetuates the cycle of feel-good chemicals, motivating us to keep the momentum going. When we feel confident, we are more likely to take on new challenges and grow in the process.
2. BUILD RESILIENCE
The better we feel, the more we can focus our energy on building our skills and creating our lives more consciously. This builds up our resilience to deal with inevitable challenges in the future. Positive emotions thus play an important evolutionary role by ensuring that we are always expanding our skillset to increase the odds of our survival.
3. IMPROVE LEARNING
Through fostering creativity and helping the brain make more new connections, positive emotions keep our minds open to learning. Learning broadens our perspective. A broader perspective helps us notice possibilities that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. This opens the door to taking on new opportunities.
4. IMPROVE SOCIAL INTERACTIONS
When we are at peace, we are more likely to have positive interactions with everyone around us. From responding more kindly to our partners to appreciating the customer service representative, feeling good helps us strengthen our social network. Our own happiness makes us more compassionate which in turn helps us feel more connected to others.
We can use the power of our own neurochemistry to overcome our brain’s negativity bias. Teaching ourselves to live in more positive states sets us up for success in numerous ways. As we align with coherent states, we will naturally notice a greater ability to navigate our feelings, respond to challenges, and take advantage of opportunities.
Awareness is required to change our automatic habits of stressful thinking to the habit of positive thinking. We must consciously train ourselves to focus on the positive aspects of our lives. Need a few tips? Here are 6 Positive Habits to Immediately Improve Your Life.
To look, feel, and perform your best, reach for the following states more often: joy, laughter, compassion, kindness, silliness, playfulness, light-heartedness, openness, wonder, and awe. When you do, you may just inspire many others to find that same source of joy within themselves.