The Power of Broad and Narrow Emotions

Your feelings are an invaluable toolbox to construct well-being.

Most of us have been taught to think of emotions as being either “positive” or “negative.” This way of viewing emotions can be a very self-limiting habit. Assigning positive or negative connotations to our feelings is especially pernicious in Western culture, where we have been taught that feeling “good” is “normal” and feeling “bad” is a sign of dysfunction or weakness.

In addition, many of us seek to control our emotions. We make the mistake of thinking we must restrict or suppress how we feel, to meet some personal or social expectation. The reality is, our emotions are not some strange and unknowable force, or the vestigial remains of animal instinct that serve no purpose other than to torment us. They are a natural, integral part of what it means to be human. Appreciation of our emotions gives us a richer, deeper experience of life. They’re also a vital toolbox for approaching life heroically.

Here’s an alternate way to view emotions: think of traditionally “positive” feelings—such as gratitude, love, and happiness—as being “broad,” and “negative” emotions—like sadness, anger, and fear—as “narrow.”

Build with the Broad

Research in the discipline of positive psychology shows us the role of positive/broad emotions is more than just a mere shot of “good vibes.” What we call positive emotions are those that make us feel expansive. Thus, they “broaden” our appreciation of life. They raise our consciousness, and our awareness of ourselves and others, in a way that increases our well-being. It also helps us connect with others in a beneficial way.

A leading positive psychology researcher, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, is a pioneer of the broaden-and-build theory, which contends that the feel-good emotions evolved to encourage pro-social behaviors. In other words, fear and safety in numbers are not the only motivators for bringing people together.

However, there’s more to consider than just the obvious social benefits. Additionally, broad emotions allow us to build personal resilience resources such as self-confidence, curiosity, and creativity. There are also the physical perks from the release of “happiness hormones” like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.

When we feel broad emotions, we can open up to the world, imagine possibilities, and dare to hope. Life becomes more than just a matter of survival; it becomes something to savor. Broad emotions allow us to thrive.

Focus with the Narrow

If positive emotions broaden you, the negative emotions do the opposite; they narrow your perspective and force you to focus. Of course, this is fueled by our fear-based survival instincts. But there’s more to the narrow emotions than the subconscious urge to fight or flee.

Just like physical pain, narrow emotions are a warning signal. This is why it’s imperative to not suppress your sadness, anger, doubt, and fear. Negative emotions are meant to be felt and explored. They’re like a Geiger counter for detecting thoughts that are limiting you. When you can identify beliefs that hold you back from enjoying life, you can work on cultivating new beliefs that better serve you.

Seeing these emotions as narrow rather than negative transforms them into another pathway for personal development. They can help us in self-contemplation and self-exploration. Even anger, in limited amounts, can aid us in achieving goals. If we use them sparingly and avoid them becoming chronic, feelings like anger or frustration can motivate us to work harder and spur innovation.

At Your Service

We need all of our emotions, both broad and narrow. As a wise man I know says, “despite what you may have been told, all emotions do serve you.” Don’t brush this message off as “stating the obvious.” When was the last time you really paid attention to your emotions, not to mention your emotional health?

Let broad and narrow emotions serve their intended purpose for you. Don’t neglect these natural inner tools that can help you better navigate the adventure of life.


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A version of this post appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Author: Anthony Simeone

I'm a writer, speaker, and an advocate for everyday heroism. I have over two decades of experience in the practical application of literature, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines. The culmination of my work is the Live the Hero program, a life philosophy that promotes personal development combined with service to others. Live the Hero combines the wisdom found in the arts and humanities with the latest discoveries related to research in heroism science and positive psychology. You can learn more at

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