We spend much of our lives worrying about the future and dwelling on the past. According to psychologist Martin Seligman, a catastrophizer can take a single bad event and attach a permanence to it, with no room for improvement. On the other hand, an optimist with a positive explanatory style will view negative events as temporary and caused by external factors. This outlook enables him/her to view stress as a challenge and approach negative situations in a way that will build strength.


Neuroscientists believe that some stress is good for you and provides an inoculation to protect you from greater adversity in the future. Does it make sense, then, to only chase after positive emotions? One does not need to be intensely happy all the time to flourish. Negative emotions and the growth opportunities they present are what ultimately leads to a better life.  

Positive emotion is only one piece of the well-being puzzle. Benefits of positive emotions include increased flexibility, creativity, and greater working memory. They also help to increase the breadth and depth of an individual’s social and physical resources. Finally, there is evidence that positive emotions are good for your health and help undo the cardiovascular after effects resulting from negativity.

While positive emotions are essential, they alone do not create the “good life.” So what does? 



There is evidence that some ‘appropriate’ negativity is part of the recipe for flourishing. One example of suffering through negative emotions to achieve greatness can be found in athletes who compete in the Ironman triathlon. These individuals commit to months of rigorous training to enter a grueling race that includes 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking, and 26.2 miles of running. This elite group of athletes has a growth mindset that enables them to view challenges as hurdles, not roadblocks.

Why would someone choose to punish his/her body in this way? The discomfort is part of the journey; each small step in the process is a victory.

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow, a rock climber describes being in pain but moving forward anyway. When he reaches his destiny, he looks back in awe of what he has accomplished with a feeling of ecstasy.

Many athletes train in a group, creating strong relationships and a sense of community as they work towards a common goal. For some, getting into shape through these intense workouts gives their life a sense of meaning and purpose. Inactive, unhealthy people who begin exercising regularly are likely to enter an upward spiral of positivity. 

Each small training victory provides micro-moments of positivity which accumulate and compound over time through what Barbara Frederickson calls the broaden and build effect.

These athletes frequently experience pure engagement in the activity, a state of flow, when the individual feels that the work is easy and loses track of time. Training for an Ironman produces difficulties, physical pain, and negative emotions but athletes who complete this challenge may find that many elements of well-being have been positively impacted, leading to increased flourishing. 


It is easy to think that life will only improve with more positive emotion. There are many examples from everyday life, similar to the one above, that indicate that negative emotions, especially those associated with overcoming obstacles and challenges, along with those positive emotions, will lead to even greater flourishing and well-being.

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