From an evolutionary perspective, fear makes a lot of sense. If you’re not at least a little scared that a saber-tooth tiger might eat you, you’re probably not going to survive long enough to pass on your genes. Aggression, too, is pretty obvious – we want to defend our territory and our precious resources from other people who might take them from us.

So negative emotions, which trigger the “fight or flight” response, are easy to understand. A harder question is why we have positive emotions. What’s the role of happiness or play or joy?

According to psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, unlike fight or flight, a positive outlook leads us to “broaden and build.” As she says: “[B]roadening an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire – whether through play, exploration or similar activities – positive emotions promote discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas and social bonds, which in turn build that individual’s personal resources. . . . Importantly, these resources function as reserves that can be drawn on later to improve the odds of successful coping and survival.”1

Positive emotions, in other words, drive us forward. They help us envision new solutions, to connect with others, and to allow us to move forward, even as we face difficulty after difficulty after difficulty. Indeed, while “positive thinking” won’t often help us address our biggest problems, a positive affect can help us expand our horizons.

Rabbi [Joseph] Skloot reminds us that in this week’s portion, the Israelites are under stress – they are hungry, they are scared, and they are tired. They are “complaining bitterly” to God (Numbers 11:1). But as Rabbi Skloot tells us, “So often we find ourselves . . . despondent, unable to visualize realities beyond the present.” But “[t]here are times . . . when we are able – perhaps because of imagination, or faith or simply hope – to see realities of abundance beyond our horizon.”

Fear can paralyze us. But as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield once taught, “Love makes you brave.” Expanding our horizons, connecting with others, finding joy and hope and love – these are the tools we need to help us overcome the challenges we all face.

  1. Barbara L. Fredrickson, “The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” Philosophical Transactions B, (London: The Royal Society, Sept. 4, 2004) pp. 1367-1378

(This post first appeared as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Ten Minutes of Torah. It is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series “When Religion Heals, When Science Heals.”)