How positive emotions work at work

Updated: Jun 10


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Editor’s Note: This article was originally written as a research dose for the Institute of Coaching. Become a member of the Institute of Coaching to access thousands of resources on coaching science. To get a 40% discount, select Wellcoaches when asked.


Positive emotions generate precious resources - they improve thinking, behavior, mood, and physiology, in turn improving self-efficacy, optimism, work engagement, creativity, stress coping and resilience, health, teamwork, relationships, customer satisfaction, and leadership. Positive emotions can be directly improved in organizations using practical techniques, leading to enduring resources and upgrading work enjoyment and performance for all.


Introduction

In April 2021, we lost a giant in the science of well-being – Ed Diener.


This article features one of Ed Diener’s last publications (in collaboration with Stuti Thapa and Louis Tay) – a mega review on positive emotions at work (2020) addressing some important questions for coaching:


  1. How are positive emotions defined at work?

  2. How can we regulate our positive emotions?

  3. How do positive emotions exert their effects?

  4. What resources do positive emotions expand in the workplace?

  5. What are other interesting findings on positive emotions?

1. How are positive emotions defined at work?


The first perspective – discrete positive emotions Scientists have explored and defined “discrete” positive emotions or constructs including gratitude, awe, pride, interest, optimism, and humor. The authors note that this perspective leads to studies of the effects of discrete emotions, for example: “different positive emotions have differential effects on job attitudes where pride is linked to psychological empowerment, interest is linked to work satisfaction, and gratitude is linked to satisfaction with supervisors and colleagues.”

One study showed that work-related gratitude positively predicts job satisfaction and negatively predicts emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Another study showed that awe led to the perception that time is more plentiful, reduced impatience, increased willingness to volunteer time, and much-improved goal progress.


The second perspective – positive valence or feeling good The common thread of discrete positive emotions is their underlying dimension of feeling good – they have a positive valence or mood, which brings us to the second perspective. Positive valence (a general sense of feeling good rather than a specific type of good feeling like inspired, enthusiastic or proud) has been shown to be associated with positive individual and organizational outcomes, including better performance and job attitudes.


The third perspective – positive adaptive function The authors describe a third perspective - positive adaptive function: “Emotions are regarded as positive insofar as they lead to positive personal and organizational outcomes; positivity is… the outcomes it produces… No emotion is universally “good” or “bad” but its value is context-dependent. For example, anger may be considered to be negative, but it can have prosocial functions if elicited by perceptions of injustice and unfairness and then induces remedial behavior to address the wrongdoing… A recent meta-analysis showed that shame can be positive, as it leads to prosociality and self-improvement when reparative actions can be taken. Although inducing gratitude can lead to prosocial behavior, it can have burdening and negative effects on the helpers.”


2. How can we regulate our positive emotions?

First, regulatory approaches that highlight, harness, and sustain positive emotions include cognitive practices such as savoring, positive rumination, journaling, and sharing one’s blessings or gratitude with others. A second approach is behavioral strategies that can improve the quality and quantity of positive emotions including:

  • being present and paying attention to the positive in current moments

  • expressing positive emotions in communications

  • celebrating positive events to amplify positive emotions

  • summoning a specific positive emotion, such as optimism, gratitude, or a positive reinterpretation

A third type of emotion regulation promotes emotional integrity—where the inner experience and outer expression of emotions are authentic and aligned. Emotional authenticity is both valued and less draining. An example is the concept of deep acting, as opposed to surface acting, where deep acting is the practice of modifying the inner emotion required of a job, whereas surface acting is merely modifying external emotional expressions. Deep acting is preferable, having shown more positive outcomes than surface acting.


A fourth approach in emotion regulation is the multi-faceted construct of emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and distinguish one’s own and others’ emotions and use that knowledge to guide thoughts and behavior.


Interestingly, there is a bi-directional street between positive emotions and regulation strategies for positive emotions – more of one generates more of the other, creating an upward spiral.

Emotion regulation strategies have been shown effective for both undoing negative emotions and up-regulating positive emotions. A study of six emotion regulation strategies (reflection, reappraisal, rumination, distraction, expressive suppression, and social sharing) found that rumination and expressive suppression decreased positive emotions, whereas reflection increased positive emotions. Positive humor has been shown to down-regulate negative emotion and up-regulate positive emotion.


3. How do positive emotions exert their effects?

The authors synthesize the literature into four channels that generate positive outcomes: cognition, affect, behaviors, and physiology.


Emotion to cognition to outcome Maintaining (or savoring) and enhancing positive emotions through cognitive processes can promote positive outcomes such as more open-mindedness and more strategic thinking and creativity, which is the basis of positivity spirals (i.e., positive emotions beget more positive emotions— both degree and types of positive emotions) and undoing effects (i.e., positive emotions reduce the effects of negative emotions). In the work context, a study showed that high positivity reduced the impact of negative emotions in reducing job satisfaction.


Emotion to behavior to outcome The authors explain: “positive emotions lead individuals to engage in novel and larger behavioral repertoires that lead to new opportunities and building of new skills. Positive emotions are related to positive promotion-focused individual behaviors that are important for worker health and productivity such as healthier eating, exercise, better sleep and stress management, and social behaviors like collaboration and cooperation.”


Emotion to emotion to outcome “In addition to the direct experience of positive emotions, emotion expressions act as social information and can spread to others, creating positive emotion contagion. For example, genuine smiles (or Duchenne smiles) promote perceptions of employee friendliness and customer satisfaction; positive emotion expressions are associated with more positive social outcomes such as greater potential for business relationships and cooperation.”


Emotion to physiology to outcome Substantial research supports the role of positive emotions in generating positive health outcomes such as greater longevity, lower intensity of illness, higher immune resistance, reduced inflammation, and better physiological recovery. Three physiological systems—cardiovascular functioning (lower heart rate and blood pressure), endocrine functioning, and immune functioning—are improved by positive emotions.


4. What resources do positive emotions expand in the workplace?

Positive emotions expand resources, building physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources that support positive outcomes or buffer against the damage of stressful situations. These resources include longer-term, habitual patterns of cognitions, behaviors, emotional responses, and physiology. The authors explain: “the broaden-and-build theory proffers the view that positive resources are an outcome of cumulative effect of positive emotions over time and are explicitly described as enduring.”


These ten enduring resources are listed below and summarized in the Appendix:

  1. Positive belief in self, including self-efficacy

  2. Creativity

  3. Work engagement

  4. Stress coping and resilience

  5. Health

  6. Teamwork

  7. Relationships

  8. Customer satisfaction

  9. Leadership

  10. Performance


5. What are other interesting findings on positive emotions?

  1. Fluctuations in positive emotion, regardless of the mean levels or intensity of positivity, is maladaptive.

  2. A high level of reactivity to negative events (quick drops in positivity) may be maladaptive to well-being.

  3. There are daily cycles for positive emotions but not negative emotions, and weekly cycles for both, where people have higher positive affect during the weekend and then “blue Mondays” where people have steep downward slopes in positive emotions.

  4. Seasons can influence emotion states – some experience less positive mood in winter than summer.

  5. Positive outcomes don’t always emerge from positive emotions, as they can sometimes lead to shallow, cognitive processing. Negative moods can be sadder-but-wiser, leading to deeper cognitive processing.

  6. Maximal happiness is not ideal. While those who experience the highest levels of happiness have better close relationships and engage in more volunteer work, those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness have greater success in terms of income, higher rates of employment, and greater political participation.

  7. There are cultural differences - happiness is associated with personal achievement in Western societies in contrast to interpersonal connectedness in Eastern societies. In Eastern societies, positive low arousal emotions (e.g., calm) rather than positive high arousal emotions (e.g., excited) appear to be more related to positive outcomes. For example, European Americans preferred excited (versus calm) applicants, whereas the converse was true for Hong Kong Chinese. Individuals’ emotional experiences have a much more profound influence on the judgment of life satisfaction in individualist cultures than in collectivist cultures.

It's important to note, that a focus on improving positive emotions in organizations is optimally combined with a focus on navigating negative emotions, including mindfulness, self-compassion, emotional agility, and post-traumatic growth.


In February 2022, Wellcoaches shifted its credential title to reflect the value of well-being. While the terms wellness and well-being were used interchangeably, this has now changed. In recent years, the burst of scientific exploration of the domain of well-being has been profound. Well-being has now overtaken wellness as a larger, broader, and deeper construct of human flourishing and thriving. This change is energizing and expansive for the Wellcoaches community as we integrate the fullness of the well-being domain (physical, psychological, life, work) into health and well-being coaching.


Takeaways for coaches

Organizations can benefit by developing a workplace that cultivates positive emotions. Organizations can consciously manage and shape a positive emotional culture (e.g., a culture of joy/fun/love versus a culture of fear/anger) that can enhance organizational performance downstream. In coaching, you can:

  1. Intentionally cultivate authentic positive emotions as resources for change and well-being for your clients during coaching sessions, using appreciative inquiry techniques for example.

  2. Consider using the positivity ratio to help your clients get a quick read on their levels of positive emotions and negative emotions.

  3. Help your clients understand the various approaches to regulating positive emotions and negative emotions.

  4. Help your clients understand the organizational impact of elevating positive emotions – self-belief, engagement, creativity, teamwork, relationships, health, customer satisfaction, leadership, and performance.

Citation:

Diener, E., Thapa, S., & Tay, L. (2020). Positive emotions at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 7, 451-477.

Appendix

Resources improved by positive emotions in organizations

Positive belief in self The authors summarize: “positive emotion enhances positive belief in self that arm individuals against negative consequences of negative experiences. Self-efficacy is one such positive belief that has clear connections to work motivation and performance. There is substantial evidence that positive emotions promote self-efficacy. There is also evidence that people in a good mood set more ambitious goals and have higher expectations. Therefore, people who feel good see the world in a more optimistic light and have more positive beliefs about succeeding, which in turn promotes higher performance downstream. Studies also suggest that positive emotions are related to increases in ego-resilience over time.”


Creativity Say the authors: “In the creativity literature, positive emotion (conceptualized often as mood) is one of the most reliable predictors of the creativity process. Multiple meta-analyses of the influence of positive mood on creativity have found positive moods to be a predictor of the creativity process (e.g., flexibility and fluency, the number of unique ideas produced) when compared to control conditions. For example, one study showed that physicians in a positive mood were more flexible and made more accurate diagnoses when solving a case of a patient with liver disease.”


Work engagement Work engagement is a positive work-related state of mind, characterized by vigor (high energy and motivation to invest effort at work), dedication (strong involvement in work and experiencing pride and enthusiasm about work), and absorption in work (flow at work). Positive emotions have been shown to be a driver of work engagement, and their lack leading to disengagement.


Coping Positive emotions and emotion regulation approaches can help people be resilient and cope with the inherent stress of work, supporting solving problems, planning, and positive reinterpretation rather than some of the less effective emotion-focused strategies such as avoidance, denial, disengagement, and turning to alcohol and drugs. One study showed that those with high levels of emotional intelligence use emotion-focused coping such as venting, denial, and disengagement, for both letting go of negative emotions and prolonging positive emotions (e.g., joy).


Health “Multiple meta-analyses have found positive moods to be associated with better health and greater longevity… Research suggests that positive affect was associated with lower blood fat and blood pressure and a healthier body mass index…People with low levels of positive feelings were at a higher risk for heart disease….Experimental studies have found that inducing positive feelings led to faster cardiovascular recovery.”


Teamwork “Positive emotions can contribute to collaborative behavior as well as choices and trust. Negotiation studies have found that positive emotions boost cooperative and collaborative behavior instead of withdrawal or competitive behavior. Individuals induced with positive moods are more willing to make concessions. Moreover, displaying positive emotions during negotiations can lead to increased interest in future business relationships and the likelihood of closing a deal as well as greater concession from the other party. In group managerial settings, induced positive affect promoted positive emotion contagion; in turn, it improved cooperation, decreased group conflict, and increased perceived task performance.”


Relationships “There is firm evidence for the relation between positive emotions and good relationships; additionally, some studies also show that positive emotions may causally lead to better relationships...Experimental studies find that positive mood induction leads to interpersonal communication and self-disclosure, improved social skill assessments, and lasting social relationships.”


Customer satisfaction “There is also a body of work showing a causal relation between positive emotions of employees to positive customer experience. Studies have identified emotion contagion as one of the explanations for how positive mood of workers can lead to better customer satisfaction….One study found that positive behaviors of shoe salespeople, such as greeting, smiling, and eye contact, correlated with customers’ in-store positive mood and subsequently the time they spent in the store and their willingness to shop there again. In general, there is evidence that positive emotions can promote greater sales performance through higher customer satisfaction.”


Leadership “Positive emotions are recognized as a crucial aspect of charismatic, transformational, and authentic leadership…Theoretical and empirical work on authentic leadership posits positive emotion as a distinguishing feature between authentic and nonauthentic leadership…Authentic leaders affect employee creativity through the mediating role of employees’ positive affect and hope.”


Performance “Research has shown that individuals disposed to positive affectivity perform better in ratings on decisional and interpersonal tasks. Furthermore, positive interpersonal affect has been shown to be associated with better performance ratings…One study found that collective positive emotions led to team resilience, which in turn leads to increased team performance as measured using supervisor ratings.”

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