Peaceful Thoughts and Affirmations, Practices for Cultivating Love, Resilience

Can Cultivating Positive Emotions Help You Succeed?

So, here’s a question: Can cultivating positive emotions help you succeed?

I am going to answer this question shortly, but first I have a favor to ask. Please pause  for a moment and think of something you saw or experienced recently that delighted you or gave you joy.

Think about it for about thirty seconds and really remember how it made you feel.


We will come back to your happy memory shortly, but first, let’s return to my question: Can cultivating positive emotions help you succeed?

I ask this because sometimes we might feel like positive emotions can (or should) only occur after success.

“Work”, Ford Maddox Brown, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For example, perhaps we believe that we must work extremely hard to succeed. And only after we succeed (so we might think) do we deserve to feel happy or have other positive emotions.

I think a lot of us believe something like this: Success comes before happiness.

I know I sometimes believe this. But what if the opposite is, in fact, true?

That is, what if cultivating positive emotions like happiness helps us succeed? (By succeed, I mean achieve goals that we believe are important.) And what if the more we cultivate positive emotions, the more success finds us? Or what if cultivating positive emotions allows success to occur naturally?

Could such a claim be true?

This idea is intriguing. But before I explore it, let me tell you a quick story.

As you probably know, I am a philosophy professor.

“School of Athens”, by Raphael, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And whenever a new semester is about to start, I have a tendency to get anxious. For example, I worry about writing and proofreading all my syllabi, as well as organizing my classes.

And when I get anxious about the semester, here is a common pattern that occurs:

One: I feel anxious.

Two: I say things to myself like, “I’m never going to get this all done.”

Three: I start to feel more anxiety and pessimism. And then I feel like I can’t make progress on getting ready for the semester.

Four: So, I procrastinate and do other things to avoid the unpleasant feelings I have when I try to organize my classes, which now feels like an insurmountable task.

Five: Accordingly, I feel more anxious as the beginning of the semester looms. And the pattern repeats itself.

As you can imagine, this pattern creates some pretty negative emotions. Thankfully, I am usually able to break through my anxiety and organize my classes at least to some degree—but not without a lot of unnecessary suffering.

Now, as the semester approached this summer, I found myself repeating my common anxiety pattern. As I caught myself doing it, I said to myself, “Hey Shelly, let’s try something new because your old anxiety pattern is not working well for you.”

And I did try something new.

Instead of saying to myself, “I’m never going to get this all done”, I used my imagination, and I pretended like I was a pro at organizing for the semester.

So, I imagined myself starting the year with perfectly organized classes and feeling great about it. And I said to myself things like, “I’ve totally got this. I am doing an amazing job. In fact, I am organizing my classes LIKE IT’S MY JOB[1]. Wow! I am an organizing genius!”

Picture courtesy of Library of Congress, Use and Reuse.

And sometimes I would feel my anxiety creeping in again. But whenever I did, I would imagine myself starting the school year successfully with beautifully organized classes, feeling awesome. And I would repeat to myself some version of “I’ve totally got this!”

Now, you might think I am going to tell you that I did in fact start my classes in a beautifully organized manner, and I felt completely in control.

Well, this is only partly true.

When I got to the beginning of the semester, I wasn’t quite as organized as I would have liked to have been. However, I was more organized than I usually am. And I felt great about what I had accomplished.

Plus, I was much more confident, calm, and peaceful than I normally am at the beginning of the semester. In fact, I had an awesome first day.

And here is the point of my story.

Usually before the semester, I feel like I have to work hard so I can get everything done and feel happy. But as I mentioned, that stresses me out, increasing my procrastination and decreasing my organization.

However, this time, instead, I worked on cultivating positive, happy emotions. Accordingly, I felt much less stress. I also procrastinated less, and I organized more.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This helped my semester get off to a great start, and I felt successful. So, it seems that in my case, I didn’t need to wait for success to feel good. Rather, the more I worked on cultivating good feelings, the more success followed in terms of organizing my class.

Interestingly, evidence suggests that cultivating positive feelings helps people, in general, be more successful. It’s not just me.

For example in one study, researchers divided children into three groups. They asked one group of children to think of something that made them happy. And they asked the second group to think of something that made them sad. They didn’t ask the third group to think of anything.

Then the researchers gave the children problems to solve. Interestingly, the children who thought of something that made them happy solved the puzzles 50% faster than children in the groups that thought about something sad or of nothing at all.[2]

In a second instance, researchers divided medical internists into three groups. They asked one group to reflect on the role of the humanities in the medical field. And they didn’t do anything to the second group. And for the third group of internists? They gave them all a bag of candy.

And interestingly, the group of internists that received the bag of candy did a better job of handling routine tasks than internists in the other two groups.[3]

It appears in these two situations that cultivating positive emotions helped people to solve puzzle or perform tasks better. Researchers speculate that this is because positive emotions help people relax.

And when people relax, they can think more clearly and, thus, solve problems or perform tasks better, leading to success.

Interestingly these aren’t the only two studies that point to a link between positive emotions and success. In other studies, researchers discovered that students who focus on happy memories before studying foreign language increase their retention.[4]

And other studies suggest that cultivating positive emotions can even lead to increases in one’s salary.[5]

Now, let’s address a potential worry someone might have at this point.

Someone might be concerned that this kind of thinking can lead us to blame people who struggle in various areas of their life. For instance, we might worry that someone would tell a struggling person, “You struggle because you don’t cultivate enough positive emotions.”

Let’s note that while someone could indeed struggle because of individual choices they make, there are a lot of reasons people can struggle that don’t have anything to do with them.

For instance, people could struggle because of injustice or cruel treatment or because of random tragedy. (And the proper response in this case is compassion. You can read more about this here: Compassion—A Way Forward Through Suffering.)

So, we shouldn’t assume that just because someone struggles, it’s because they lack the requisite positive emotions.

Not everything that happens to us in life is under our control. But some things are.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus expresses this well when he says,

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions.

Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

“Epictetus”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Epictetus reminds us that at least some things are in our control.

And here is one thing we can control: We can decide to cultivate our own happiness as much as we are able. And while some people may be able to cultivate happiness more easily than others, everyone can cultivate practices that increase their positive emotions.

When we adopt such practices, we help our minds relax and build our confidence and resilience. This definitely makes us more happy, but it can also increase our ability to succeed in the tasks and puzzles we take on in life.

Knowing this encourages me a lot.

It reminds me to let go of self-criticism and to be my own best cheerleader, coach, and mentor. The more I treat myself this way, the more I cultivate positive emotions and empower myself to move forward in a joyful and excellent manner.

Here are some things I have been doing lately, backed by research, to cultivate positive emotions.

One: I have been walking outside in nature every day, usually 10,000 steps.

A few years ago, I started walking every day, especially around a lot of trees and water. It has helped my mood so much. You can read more about this here:

10,000 Steps a Day for Two and a Half Years

Effects of Outdoor Walking on Positive and Negative Affect: Nature Contact Makes a Big Difference

Two: I search for glimmers.

Glimmers are internal or external occurences that increase feelings of joy and excitement. As such, they are the opposite of triggers, and they can greatly increase our feelings of well-being.

You can read more about glimmers here–Glimmer: How to Trigger Feelings of Joy and Safety.

I usually look for glimmers while I am outside walking. For instance, last night I went on a walk at a local park. It was around sunset, and the light was spectacular.

I took a bunch of beautiful pictures, and I left the park feeling relaxed, joyful, and filled with enchantment.

Here’s a picture I took on my walk.

Three: I believe I have intrinsic worth and can achieve any loving goal I have.

At one point in my life, I held the mistaken belief that some people were better, or more worthy, than other people.

This belief caused me a lot of negative feelings, as I often felt like I didn’t meet the right kind of standards. But I thought this is just how life was and that I had to accept it.

And then I discovered that everyone has intrinsic worth. So, our job is not to prove our worth by meeting standards. Our purpose is to express the worth we already possess inside us. It’s like a beautiful treasure.

Reflecting on this truth always fills me with positive feelings. It helps me remember that I am already worthy and acceptable right now, and my goal is to express the power I already possess inside of me.

By the way, the idea that we possess intrinsic worth has a long and noble history in both philosophy and psychology. You can read more about this here:

Should We Love Ourselves Unconditionally?

Unconditional Positive Regard in Psychology

Four: I believe in my own loving dreams.

Have you ever gotten really excited about a new dream, only to have someone say, “You’ll never be able to do that”? Such discouragement can feel soul-crushing.

That is because our loving goals and dreams are an expression of our intrinsic worth and are meant to grow. A loving goal and dream is one of the things that brings more goodness into our lives and the lives of those around us.

It’s our life purpose to achieve our loving dreams as an expression of our intrinsic worth. So, when people discourage our loving, good goals, it can feel like a denial of our intrinsic worth.

Now, we can’t always control what other people say to us. However, we can control what we say to ourselves. As such, we can always listen to and believe in our own loving goals. When we do so, we cultivate positive emotions like excitement, joy, and peace.

Five: I use positive visualizations and affirmations to act as my own best coach and friend.

Our purpose in life is to express our intrinsic worth by setting loving goals and then  achieving them. I call this the Great Adventure, and it makes the world a better place for everyone.

In fact, that’s how people have been solving problems and inventing cool things for thousands of years.

When we visualize the kinds of adventures we want to have and then speak kindly to ourselves (with affirmations), we do two things. First, we build confidence and excitement for our Great Adventure.

Second, we build confidence that we can achieve our dreams, sometimes in small ways, but often in large ways. And this builds more confidence and excitement, as well as a great deal of happiness.

“Dreaming”, by Joseph Israels, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Often in this process, we discover ourselves achieving our dreams in ways we didn’t think were possible. And we will find ourselves making the word a better place as we do so.

So, the awesome thing is that dream, visualizing, and affirming our own worth isn’t selfish, as perhaps we might fear it is sometimes. Nor is it naïve. It helps us make the world a better place.

You can read more about this here:

Affirmations for People Who Hate Affirmations

Use Your Imagination Like a Boss

Visualizing Happiness

And, Visualize Happiness

Six: I practice gratitude or reflect on mental snapshots of awesome things.

It seems like every where we turn lately, someone is talking about gratitude. And some of this discussion is not very helpful. For instance, sometimes when people encourage others to express gratitude, it feels like they are shaming folks for not be grateful enough for good things in their life.

Shaming people is never helpful.

On the other hand, it’s possible to practice gratitude without shame. That kind of gratitude is spontaneous and joyful. I think of joyful gratitude as practice that helps us reflect on the high points of our day or week to recapture their magic.

For instance, I love taking pictures of beautiful or funny things I see in my day. Later when I look at these pictures, I recapture the positive feelings I experienced in the moment.

Joyful gratitude is a lot like that. It allows us to reflect on mental snapshots of great moments in our day—like when I asked you at the beginning of this post to think about something that delighted you.

While there are certainly difficult things in the world, reflecting on mental snapshots of great moments increases our recognition of beauty, humor, and awesomeness in the world.

And simply put, that makes us feel good.

From a run this morning.

To make it even better, when we feel good, other good things often happen. You can read more about the benefits of gratitude here:

Health Benefits of Gratitude

A Reminder

Like a lot of people, you may feel like happiness only comes after success or that you only deserve to be happy if you are successful.

But research suggests that cultivating positive emotions and happiness first actually helps you be more successful. And the good news is that anyone can adopt practices that increase positive emotions.

Furthermore, cultivating positive emotions isn’t selfish. It, in fact, makes the world a better place.

What awesome news! You can be happy, feel successful, and make the world a better place all at the same time.

By the way, just like cultivating positive emotions is important, so is accepting and working with negative emotions. You can read more about this here: Dealing with Our Dark Side.


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[1] Okay, I realize that it is my job, but you get the point.

[2] Lerner, Dan and Alan Schlecter. UThrive, pg. 17

[3] Ibid

[4] Also, Ibid, pg. 18.

[5] Ibid, pg. 25.

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