Lack of emotion has long been considered a sign of strength. The most masculine—or macho—men don't reveal or discuss their feelings and are admired for their toughness. Real men don't ask for directions, don't go to the doctor, and rarely (if ever) shed a tear.

Being emotional, on the other hand, is thought to reflect weakness. "When you share your vulnerability there is a sense of shame that is much worse for men than women," says clinical psychologist Ron May, PhD. "It's not acceptable for men to say they need help or aren't in control of a situation."

A growing body of research shows that this behavior is not healthy. One of those researchers is Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill and author of Positivity (Crown, 2009). Fredrickson has spent most of her career investigating the significance and impact of emotions and says both positive and negative feelings are essential. According to her findings all emotions are fleeting. Happiness and sadness come and go. Neither is permanent, but both are essential to flourish.

However, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology believes that people infused with positivity—laughter, amusement, interest, and inspiration—are healthier, more productive and more generous. "Their zest for life and optimism helps them bounce back from adversity more quickly, be more effective at work, sleep better and live longer, too," she said in press reports.

Go Ahead, Get Happy

On the website of the University's Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab (PEPLab), Fredrickson explains her research and describes positive emotion as follows:

You tap into it whenever you feel energized and excited by new ideas.
You tap into it whenever you feel at one with your surroundings, at peace.
You tap into it whenever you feel playful, creative, or silly.
You tap into it whenever you feel your soul stirred by the sheer beauty of existence.
You tap into it whenever you feel connected to others and loved.
In short, you tap into it whenever positive emotions resonate within you.

Positive emotion is not an overall feeling of satisfaction with life, but rather the short bursts of elation that overcome people at various moments in time.

But being all good all the time should not be the goal. Fredrickson admits it's not only impossible, it's also counterproductive. "Feeling bad is just as essential as feeling good." she said explaining that the key is to balance the two. "People get pulled into downward spirals. Their behavior becomes rigid and predictable and they begin to feel burdened and lifeless."

Psychologist Ron May agrees and claims that middle aged men are particularly susceptible. In his Madison, WI-based practice, May sees the results of harmful machismo all the time. "Men in our society are achievement oriented. Their happiness is tied to how well they're doing in the competition and their struggle is the result of that socialization."

May explains that many men feel depressed as they age. "Their wives are divorcing them and their kids are distant from them because they've been distracted by competing at work during the week and on the golf course—or in front of the television watching sports—all weekend," says May. "Sadly, they haven't spent any time with their spouse or their children and it's those personal connections that bring the most happiness."

To help men assess what's important in their lives, May does a value clarification exercise with them. "I ask questions to help them figure out who they are and what they stand for. Doing this sort of interior work early on can prevent a mid-life crisis later."

Fredrickson's feel-better formula is to increase positive emotions. "Positivity helps us find more meaning and purpose in life. It opens our minds and helps us see the world in a more inspiring way and enables the emergence of innovative solutions to problems," says the well-known researcher.

And there are other benefits, too. "Positive people report fewer aches and pains. They are more mindful to living and enjoying life in the present and have better relations with other people," Fredrickson says. She also recommends paying attention to human kindness. "Not only what others have done for you, which helps unlock feelings of gratitude, but also what you can do for other people; how you can make somebody's day. We found that even just paying attention to when you are kind—not necessarily increasing how often you're kind—can make you more positive.

Finally try arranging your life around your strengths. Ask yourself: Am I really doing what I do best? Being employed in a job that uses your skills is a great source of enduring positive emotions.




The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lag

The National Institutes of Health

Interview with Ron May, PhD
Clinical Psychologist in private practice at the Psychology Center of Madison, WI