Positive Emotions & Flow: Encouraging Creativity and Commitment

Positive Emotions & Flow: Encouraging Creativity and Commitment


This isn’t a traditional academic text, it opens with a call for the reader to read slowly to take it all in and really connect to their emotions. This when compared to other scientific papers is odd, as more often than not as scientists we are encouraged to distance ourselves from our work. Writing ourselves out of the narrative of the science. Instead of us implanting the eel, the eel is implanted. This allows us to be incredibly direct with what we mean so our audience can’t misunderstand us, but it also creates a very sterile view of what science is. Disconnected from the reality and the emotion of the situation. We are told to write as if we are above this, as if science is above it. This is what is being challenged by this paper showing that science can encourage positive emotion.

The piece opens with two different texts discussing the future and how climate change will affect it.  The first is an excerpt from James Lovelocks ‘The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years’ a cynical fearmongering piece that reads like my ramblings when I’m 6 pints down and someone asks me how I feel about farming. It’s an unpleasant read. It’s bitter, unhappy and honestly, it paints a picture that we’ve all read before. The world will end, it will be climate change, but before then we will be miserable. At times I felt like the idea of everyone suffering was a secret pleasure for the narrator, the way he goes into detail makes me wonder if he’s just counting down the days for the world to end so that he can don his Mad Max gear and set me on fire for the last thimble of petrol.

The second piece however takes a different approach, Holger Kahl “Urban New Zealand in 2020 – An organic society” paints the future as being something positive where everyone has adopted a more sustainable form of living. Imagine the ideal future for those who are really into Farmers Markets and you are about halfway there. Mix in technology predictions that in the far flung future of 2020 we will have “Photo-voltaic hexacycles” and you’ve got a future that anyone who uses reusable bags will think is wonderful. It’s positive and unashamedly optimistic.

This contrast becomes the crux of the piece’s argument, saying that positive emotions make us imagine new opportunities and negative emotions make us see fewer ways out of our bad situations. It uses a number of examples, and refences other bits of literature to back up it’s points however none are as effective as the contrasting stories. Which is a shame as a solid chunk of the article can simply be skimmed over as the inital demonstration is so powerful connecting anecdotes and data fall flat to me. The argument is that we should frame information more positively if we want to enact change and be happier more productive and more proactive people. I get it, stop telling me over and over and tell me how to do it. This section of what I know is useful and helpful information frustrates me a little. It slowly but surely becomes the classic, impartial and authorotive voice of science that causes no emotional response in the reader. I wouldn’t be so annoyed if it didn’t start off so well.

After praising positivity for several pages, it stats discussing the downsides. Which as someone who is often cynical gets me excited; I’m about to have my negativity justified by science. It discusses how people in bad moods spend more time thinking about information as those more content are content with making quick decisions and find it much harder to focus on more boring tasks. 

It then goes into the three upsides of negative emotions, “fear, anger and sadness”

Anger is useful for strong political action, (this much has become incredibly obvious in recent years). It has been proven to be more important than enthusiasm when it comes to politics, it doesn’t matter if you aren’t incredibly keen for one person as long as you really, really hate the other guy.

Fear is also useful in order to enact induvial change but fails on wider more global and environmental issues where it can backfire as people feel hopeless. This is an incredibly common feeling, why should I bother to put my stuff in the right bins, when forces outside of my control are doing much more harm to the environment than me. Fear and lead to fatalism and fatalism can lead incredibly easily to inaction.

Sadness is also another tool that can be used to enact change, it’s a more gentle and seems less immediately useful than making your audience feel like completely terrible people. It’s the difference between a video of a polar bear falling through the ice set to the song the sound of silence; and me detailing the exact numbers and charts that prove that we will all die set to CGI of the earth catching on fire.

The trick is using these emotional responses responsibly. You want people scared of very real threats, but you don’t want them hopeless, and you want them optimistic so that they actually want to do something, but not so cheery that they don’t think thing through.

The piece then discusses how to effectively use emotions to communicate sustainability and create “flow”

 Flow is when you’ve done something so many times it becomes something you do not think about at all.  Like driving or walking the same path to work every day, you become so used to it you zone out and become productive and perform in such a way that you couldn’t before. Something you used to think about become as natural as breathing.  This state is very productive and pleasurable. However, this article states that in order to be sustainable we need to create sustainable flow communities where everyone does what they love and tries to enact change in their community. Hope helps this state occur.

As a summary of the points made, I’m going to tell a personal story that I think relates to the overall message of the piece.

I once went on an ecology trip. This was not a particularly good trip for me, as I was overworked, frustrated that I thought I could mark and track 600 sand hoppers a day. This was frustrating, and because of abundance of nail polish fumes I was frustrated and a little high for around a week. This explains why during the talk by one of the heads of the Paris climate agreement I got incredibly giggly looking at someone’s slippers, and why after the lecture I went outside and sat next to the guy who had just run the lecture, it was raining it, America had just pulled out of the Paris agreement.

 I think about climate change a lot, probably an unhealthy amount, it’s what got me into Ecology but it’s probably one of my biggest constant worries. Which is why I asked what I asked.

I was frustrated about the mixed messaging by my lectures, the constant mix of hope and fear we had drilled into us every lecture. Climate Change is discussed quite vaguely when writing about Ecology, the phrase “presents a set of new challenges” was often used as a reminder that it’s a problem and we simply don’t know the scale yet. It’s in the back of everyone’s minds but it often can be hard to think about, the scale of the issue I think isn’t often grasped by the public. Perhaps because we don’t want to alarm them and also perhaps because the experts are still unsure of how much damage will occur.

So, I asked him quite bluntly. “Are we actually able to do something about climate change?” Hoping for something concrete from someone who knows the data incredibly well.  He looked back at me and said something to the effect of “I’m hopeful, but we have very little time.” To hear this from one of the main guys writing the accords frustrated me.  On the surface it appears like an incredibly cop out answer, the middle ground where you try to indicate there’s an issue but keep people optimistic and able to help. But looking back on it, it’s the only answer you can really give.

If he was to look me in the eye and say, there’s no chance of a recovery. I’d feel bad, of course. No one wants to know that there’s no hope, but at the same time it would have been an odd relief. To take myself out of the constant stress cycle of worry and trying to get people to see the issue the way I did. I could just live my life knowing that there was nothing I could do before it all goes to toffee.

In this imaginary world he also could have said we would be fine, and I probably would have done the same thing without the nihilism. But the constant mixture of hope and fear is what engages people. Having a back and forth of these positive and negative emotions is what works. We can’t lose hope, or we will be fatalistic. We can’t lose fear, or we won’t think things through. We need both to achieve effective communication.

Some of these issues can seem insurmountable. They certainly feel that way when looking at the raw data. But if one thing is true is that without hope it’s easy to fall into fatalism. We need it to hold on to and we as science communicators need to give it to others even if we don’t have it ourselves.

Hope helps.  

Mātauranga Māori—the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand

Mātauranga Māori—the ūkaipō of knowledge in New Zealand

Sampling/ Evaluation Tools

Sampling/ Evaluation Tools