How Positive Emotions can be Leveraged to Impact Global Change

Living a flourishing life comes with myriad rewards, including better health, longevity, and creativity, as well as increased energy levels. These benefits to the individual have the potential to influence their family, co-workers, local community and eventually, by extension, the whole of society (Lyubomirsky, 2007). Global statistics on depression, anxiety and suicide frequently remind us that the world is in dire need of change. One of the biggest challenges facing the positive psychology community today involves translating the abundance of research and knowledge into the mainstream audience beyond academia. There have even been some who expressed concern that perhaps positive psychology and flourishing are a luxury afforded only to the privileged few. Fredrickson (in press) has performed seminal work in demonstrating that positive emotions carry significant cognitive advantages, by broadening our accessible repertoire of thoughts and action potentials. I propose that examining Fredrickson´s research on positivity resonance, in light of Saarinen and Hämäläinen’s pioneering systems intelligence theory (2010), may offer a deeper insight into the way positive emotions can ignite great social change. The following paragraphs seek to outline the framework for the practical application of positive systems intelligence for mainstream society.

Fredrickson is a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, and her research represents the forefront of a new rigorous science of positive emotions (Fredrickson, in press). Together with her collaborators, Fredrickson has brought major contributions to our understanding of positive emotions and how to use this information to build a better future. Positive emotions, as with any emotions, are small, multi-faceted interpretations of our changing environment. Fredrickson distinguishes between ten separate positive emotions including joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love (Fredrickson, in press). All positive emotions have their distinct features, triggers, broadening effects and benefits, and they each help build a specific positive resource. Essentially, they all spark motivational changes and lead to mutual care for and momentary investment in others people’s well-being. They have a tangible, chemical effect which induces positive chain reactions.

Systems intelligence studies the results of individual behaviors accumulated in the context of complex systems, involving interaction and feedback mechanisms (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2010). A key component of an intelligent system is that its combined features are greater than what could have been inferred by examining its separate constituents. These systems are dynamic, non-linear and have boundaries which are re-definable and dependent on the perspective. This means that a small change somewhere in the system can lead to a disproportionate effect in other parts, due to circular causal connections (p. 10). We all operate in a complex network of relationships, events and occurrences, to which we contribute in our own unique way. All human life is systemic at its core, and each individual’s emotional state manifests itself in the broader context of this systemic resonance. In this network, negative and positive emotions (whether displayed publicly or tacitly experienced) have impacts beyond those of the individual (E. Saarinen, personal communication, September 23rd, 2012). Fowler and Christakis (2009) evaluated a broad network of people over a time span of 20 years, in order to study whether happiness spreads in social networks. Their study demonstrated the transfer of this emotional state from one individual to another, impacting people up to within three degrees of separation. Unfortunately, negative emotional states, such as loneliness, obesity, and even prevalence of divorce, have also been shown to spread in networks through the same mechanism of social contamination (Christakis & Fowler, 2007; N. Christakis, MAPP Summit lecture, October 20th, 2012).

Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, and Sripada´s (in press) study on prospection focuses on how individuals make their decisions: are they drawn by the future, or driven by the past. This question encapsulates the fundamental essence of human functioning, by examining how we choose. Research in quantum physics echoes some of the theories of prospection, as we understand there are innumerable possible paths a particle can take; selecting one option immediately changes the network of prospective events. Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle asserts a fundamental limit to the precision with which the position and velocity of a particle can be simultaneously known (Rosenblum & Kuttner, 2008). What follows from this remarkable premise is that there are infinite possible futures ahead of us, selecting any one of which entails discarding all possible others. It is a world of both uncertainty and opportunity, depending whether we observe it from the standpoint of sickness or the prospection model.

We are all connected to each other not just biologically, but also socially through the systems within which we all operate. While social networks advance the spread of several negative phenomena, such as depression or perhaps it can similarly offer a useful platform for instigating social change toward positive narratives. Acknowledging the power we each possess to change the broader network, and embracing what we know about the benefits of positive emotions, offers a promising road to instigating social change.  Intelligent systems are more than the sum of their constituents, and by impacting smaller parts of this network in a constructive manner we might propel change on a scale much broader than we could possibly anticipate, thereby creating positive intelligent systems. There is no such thing as an insignificant act of goodness, because even if the receiver fails to acknowledge this act the action impulse has already passed through, changing the system forever. We need to create social awareness of the real significance each person has in the dynamic web of possible futures, and of how sensitive the broader dynamic system is to each of our individual actions – both positive and negative. This is where the responsibility and leverage of each individual lies.

What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.


Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham heart study. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 338(7685), 1-13. Retrieved November 20th, 2012 from

Fredrickson, B. L. (in press). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances on Experimental Social Psychology. Retrieved September 22nd, 2012 from

Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. H. (2007). The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. The New England Journal of Medicine, 357(4), 370-379. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsa066082

Hämäläinen, R. P., Saarinen E. (2010). The originality of systems intelligence in Raimo P. Hämäläinen, R. P., Saarinen, E. (Eds.) Essays on systems intelligence (pp. 9-26). Systems Analysis Laboratory, Aalto University. Retrieved on September 21st, 2012 from

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness. A new approach to getting the life you want. London: Penguin Books.

Rosenblum, B., & Kuttner, F. (2008) Quantum enigma: Physics encounters consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R., & Sripada, C. (in press). Navigating into the future or driven by the past: Prospection as an organizing principle of mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science.  Retrieved on September 21st, 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania MAPP600 Blackboard site.

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