Positive Emotions has become the topic of vast (and exciting) research over the past two decades moving us beyond the three basic groups of negative emotions: fear/anxiety, sadness/depression, and anger/hostility although positive emotions are more difficult to define and measure.
Since 1978 Alice Isen and various colleagues have been publishing research around the effect of positive affectivity and self-regulation, problem-solving, creativity and kindness to oneself and others. They are showing that people get more satisfaction from their work, become more creative and find it easier to solve problem tasks. Contrary to what people may assume, experiencing positive emotions does not necessarily mean that a person becomes irresponsible in seeking to maintain their positive emotions. Positive-affect participants report higher levels of enjoyment in performing interesting tasks but when asked to perform difficult work they perform these at greater speed and accuracy than those experiencing neutral or negative emotions.
Diener and Biswas-Diener (2008) however point out how in a group of gifted children, those who were extremely happy died earlier in their adult life than those who were quite happy. Recent health and happiness research also shows that the happiest people who had a terminal illness were more likely to die than those who were less happy because they took their symptoms more seriously. Extremely positive emotions could raise heart rate and blood pressure which over-taxes the body. Another possibility might be that the happiest people have a heightened sense of spirituality and/or religiosity that enable them to courageously embrace death as a transition to an even happier after-life. This would be an interesting future research area?
Socio- and psychopathology are other conditions where positive emotions may overshadow the reality of considering other people's feelings and the reality of having to work through problems rather than ignoring them. Negative emotions can be very useful in helping us to be aware that we we might need to change a situation or sort out problems in our relationships.
Barbara Fredrickson has dedicated her career to researching the role of positive emotions and has created the broaden-and-build theory which theorises that positive emotions such as contentment, joy, love, pride and interest broaden a person's intellectual, physical, social and mental resources. Fredrickson has done extensive research using emotionally provocative film clips in order to evoke specific emotions such as joy, interest, anger etc. She would for example compare a group experiencing provoked positive emotion with a neutral emotive group (who had been shown non-emotional film clips) regarding their thought-action patterns by giving them a list with 20 lines to fill regarging what the person would like to do directly after viewing the film clip. The individuals experiencing joy or contentment wanted to do more things than people in the neutral group and even more than people in a negative emotion condition group.
Fredrickson and her colleagues also found that those who were shown positive emotive film clips and were shown some negative clip afterwards recovered their initial heart-beat much quicker than those who were shown non-emotional film clips. Those who were shown sadness provoking film clips were the slowest to recover. The conclusion was that positive emotions may help individuals to view their lives in a bigger context and thereby lessen the negative effect of distressing experiences.
Positive psychology has been criticised as inconclusive, over-simplified and misleading, often only measuring the participants' emotions in a short moment at a particular time instead of over a life-time. That criticism is not just of positive psychology but of psychology research in general which sometimes gets funding for short 'superficial' research rather than more costly longitudinal studies which are more reliable.