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The Inside Scoop on Positive Emotions—And Why They're Essential for Adults with ADHD

What are positive emotions? Why is the cultivation of positive emotions essential—especially for those of us with ADHD? What are the benefits of positive emotions? What are some examples of positive emotions? In this post, we'll explore these questions and more.

Smiling adult female with ADHD experiencing positive emotions, happiness, and wellbeing, being open to new possibilities

Positive emotions broaden our awareness and thinking and open us to new possibilities. In fact, they are a key ingredient for leading a happy and healthy life.

“Positivity doesn't just change the contents of your mind . . . It widens the span of possibilities that you see.” —Barbara Fredrickson

Why it's Important for Individuals (Especially Those with ADHD) to Cultivate Positive Emotions

All human beings have a cognitive bias known as the "negativity bias." We're hardwired for negativity—giving more weight to negative experiences than positive ones. Thus, our ways of thinking and our behaviors tend to be shaped more intensely by negative experiences. In fact, research reveals that negative emotions are three times more impactful than positive emotions. We use the negative to make sense of our world. According to Baumeister et al. (2001), the concept of "bad is stronger than good" is a universal phenomenon across the many psychological experiences we encounter in our daily lives.

The predisposition to focus on negative experiences (over positive experiences) and the intensity of negative emotions is heightened for individuals with ADHD. Many of us have internalized years of shame and negative self-esteem. As a result, we create beliefs and stories about ourselves based on these negative experiences. We even tend to make decisions (and often poor ones) based on negative information rather than positive information. And the ADHD brain's craving for dopamine indiscriminately seeks out the negative—after all, the negative is "interesting" and, at times, drama-worthy.

“Negative emotions and experiences linger—taking hold in our minds like velcro."

Negative thought patterns often lead to rumination, further intensifying our negative emotions. The more negatively we respond to a situation, the more stress we'll experience around that situation and the more of a lasting impact it will have on our mood. In other words, the negative lingers—it takes hold in our minds like velcro.

On the other hand, positive emotions fundamentally change how our brains work— improving our behavior, mood, thinking, and physiology. Unlike negative emotions, which narrow our thoughts and actions, positive emotions broaden possibilities for action and expand our thinking and attention. Positive emotions allow us to absorb more information and widen our lens. As a result, we are able to see more in the periphery and put that information to use in creative and integrative ways.

“Short-lived, micro-moments of positive experiences accumulate over time, creating an upward spiral which gives rise to our ability to thrive."

Short-lived, micro-moments of positive experiences build on one another, and their combined effects are lasting. The accumulation of resources we build, in turn, decreases stress and generates resilience, self-efficacy, optimism, creativity, physical wellbeing, positive relationships, and work engagement. Fredrickson refers to positive emotions as the "nutrients" needed to grow, be healthy, and thrive.

Benefits of Cultivating Positive Emotions:

  • improve physical health—increase longevity, enhance immune function, and reduce pain

  • buffer against depressive symptoms and help us recover from stress

  • foster social connectedness

  • boost resilience and resourcefulness

  • improve our overall wellbeing and allow us to thrive

Positive Emotions: DEFINED

Positive emotions can be defined as pleasant "multi-component" response tendencies, because they involve more than just our internal feelings. They can affect our physical health and include changes in our nervous system, hormones, facial expressions, thoughts, and more (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008). Keeping that in mind, positive emotion is different than sensory pleasure (which is more about sexual pleasure, satisfying hunger and thirst, or remedying pain). It is also different from positive mood (although they overlap). Compared to moods, positive emotions generally arise as a result of some experience—they are short-lived, and they are closer to the forefront of our consciousness (Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008).

For more than a century, the field of psychology ignored positive emotions, instead focusing primarily on negative emotions. This resulted in a relatively shallow or incomplete understanding of positive emotions. While we thought of negative emotions as discrete (sadness is different from anger, and anger is different from anxiety), we tended to lump positive emotions together—joy, contentment, and happiness were all the same in our minds.

More recently, however, researchers provided some clarity, enabling us to better differentiate between positive emotions. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a leader in psychology research on positive emotion, offered insight into the differences between four key positive emotions: joy, interest, contentment, and love (Fredrickson, 1998).

Joy (happiness, amusement, exhilaration)

Joy arises in situations that are safe, familiar, and low-effort. Experiencing joy is thought to result in a state referred to as 'free-activation'—or readiness to engage in whatever comes—and it leads to a desire to play. As adults, "playing" may mean reading, using our imagination, or doing other creative activities. Joyful play can also help us build social and emotional skills (Fredrickson, 1998).

Interest (curiosity, excitement, wonder, flow)

Interest arises in situations that offer novelty, change, and a sense of possibility. Interest also involves a feeling that something is important and that we should pay attention and exert effort. Interest is thought to lead to exploration and the development of knowledge and personal growth (Fredrickson, 1998).

Contentment (tranquility, serenity, relief)

Contentment arises in safe situations with a high degree of certainty and a low degree of effort. Some researchers suggest that contentment leads us to savor our circumstances and experience a sense of 'oneness with the world. In other words, it results in a mindful broadening of a person's self-views and world views (Fredrickson, 1998).

Love (romantic love, companionate love, caregiver love)

Fredrickson (1998) argues that love merges joy, interest, and contentment. More specifically, our loved ones stimulate experiences that lead to these other positive emotions. That means that love can lead us to be playful, grow personally, and broaden our worldview.

Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions

Based on Fredrickson's understanding of joy, interest, contentment, and love, she proposes that micro-moments of positive emotions accumulate over time, placing people on a growth trajectory by broadening their awareness, thoughts, and actions and building their personal, social, intellectual, and psychological resources. Over time, this leads to an upward spiral of positive emotion. This theory is now known as the broaden and build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 1998). It suggests that increasing positive emotions is not only good for mental health but also just about everything we might want, including physical health, success, and satisfying relationships.

Chart explaining how Barbara Fredrickson's Broaden-and-Build theory creates an upward spiral of positive emotions

Understanding Our Experiences and Responding to Our Emotions

The ability to identify and define our emotional experiences with greater specificity—referred to as emotional granularity—contributes to our wellbeing. The more specific we get, the better we can understand our experiences. As we increase our grasp of the complex granularity of our emotions, we can respond more insightfully to them (vs. reacting to them), communicate more clearly with others, and fully process our emotions. Below are examples of positive emotions according to the emotion circumplex theory (Russell, 1980).

  • Excitement: feeling of great enthusiasm and eagerness.

  • Delight: state of taking great emotional pleasure in something.

  • Astonishment: feeling of great surprise and wonder.

  • Happiness: state of experiencing or showing pleasure or contentment.

  • Pleased: feeling of pride or satisfaction or satisfaction.

  • Content: state of happiness and satisfaction.

  • Relaxed: state of being at rest or ease.

  • Calm: state of not being excited or upset.

Strategies for Cultivating Positive Emotions

“The pleasant life: a life that successfully pursues the positive emotions about the present, past, and future.” —Martin Seligman

There are many ways to cultivate positive emotions, including:

  • Practicing gratitude by regularly reflecting on things you are thankful for

  • Engaging in activities that bring you joy, such as hobbies or spending time with loved ones

  • Practicing mindfulness and being present in the moment

  • Setting and achieving personal goals

  • Helping others and committing acts of kindness

  • Practicing positive self-talk and reframing negative thoughts

  • Getting regular exercise and spending time outdoors

  • Finding humor in the world around you

  • Savoring positive experiences through journaling

  • Listening to uplifting music and surrounding yourself with positive influences

It's important to note that cultivating positive emotions is an ongoing process, and it's essential to find what works best for you.


  • Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of general psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Cohn, M. A. (2008). Positive emotions. Handbook of Emotions. 3rd edition, Guilford Press. New York.

  • Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 39(6), 1161.


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