“We just hope the world gets more positive, and be happy. That’s our goal.”RM speaking about BTS’ new single Dynamite, USA Today
Recently, I presented a piece of writing on BTS and positive psychology at an online ARMY conference. In describing different approaches that a positive psychology perspective could offer for understanding and amplifying BTS’ positive influence, I purposefully excluded positive emotions as a major topic. That was a mistake. I was trying to avoid the (understandable, incorrect) perception that positive psychology is only interested in “surface-level happiness”—that it’s only about feeling good. But by doing so, I played into a pattern that I actually want to reject: the undervaluation of joy.
Dynamite is an explosively happy song, and the music video is bursting with exuberant dance-around-your-bedroom and rainbow-firework energy. It’s a timely reminder that “just feeling good” is actually much more important and impactful than the pleasantness of the fleeting emotions themselves. Dynamite is a testament to the fact that we ought to take happiness, and the things that bring us happiness, seriously.
On the one hand, the “goodness” of experiencing positive emotions seems ridiculously obvious; why should we need to justify or explain it? On the other hand, art that expresses, explores, or promotes happiness is often seen as superficial and of limited value. It was just last year when another BTS song, Boy with Luv, was criticized by corners of the fandom. Some worried that BTS wouldn’t be taken seriously as artists in America with such a happy, pink, bubble-gummy song. They argued it didn’t distance BTS enough from the derided stereotypes attached to categories like “boyband” and “K-pop.” We can easily see how the dismissal of positive emotions and the dismissal of joyous pop-culture phenomena are related to one another. They are both seen as frivolous.
Although Dynamite has not altogether avoided these same criticisms from a minority, it is perhaps easier for many to understand our need for pure joy in the dark and difficult year of 2020. Even the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, thanked BTS not only for reminding fans to wear a mask, but also “for supporting those who are going through some tough times right now with your energizing, happy tune.”
The truth is, pandemic or not, we need to experience positive emotions on a daily basis for our general well-being. This is partially because positive emotions help us offset whatever negative emotions we are experiencing. Although there is not enough evidence to name an exact tipping point for healthy functioning across all contexts, psychological research tells us that we need to experience more positive than negative affect for optimal well-being: perhaps around three positive emotions for every negative one (Fredrickson, 2013). Experiencing positive emotions on a regular basis is associated with things like professional success and more satisfying social relationships (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005), and perhaps even better physical health and a longer lifespan (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). There is evidence that these associations are bidirectional: it’s not just that people who do better in those areas of life are happier, it’s that people who are happier are also more likely to do better (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory offers a well-supported explanation for the benefits of positive emotions. This theory posits that whereas negative emotions tend to narrow our attention and thought patterns (often in order to deal with fight-flight-or-freeze situations), positive emotions generally broaden our attention and cognitions, allowing us to make discoveries, think creatively, and reach out to others. Such behaviors can build our psychological and social resources, making us more resilient and increasing the likelihood that we will experience more positive emotions in the future (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Kok & Fredrickson, 2010). In this way, positive emotions can create “upward spirals toward enhanced emotional well-being” (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002, p. 172).
I’m not even necessarily talking about high-energy, jumping-for-joy positive affect, though that’s great every so often. Research suggests that for overall happiness, intensity doesn’t matter as much as the frequency of positive affect; and, indeed, most of the positive emotions we experience in life are not high-intensity (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 2009). Additionally, “low arousal” positive affect (ex, relaxation and contentment) and “high arousal” positive affect (ex, excitement and interest) predict different well-being outcomes; specifically, low arousal emotions are more predictive of low anxiety and stress levels, but high arousal emotions are more predictive of gratitude and meaning in life (McManus, Siegel, & Nakamura, 2019).
All of the evidence of the greater benefits of feeling good come with the caveats that only pursuing pleasure (i.e., hedonia) does not constitute a fulfilling life (see Henderson & Knight, 2012), and that it’s absolutely possible to have too much of a good thing (Fredrickson, 2013). But as long as we keep these points in mind, they should not detract from the importance of valuing and seeking out experiences of joy and pleasure, in their various forms, every day.
A few weeks after stay-at-home orders were issued across the US, Dr. Martin Seligman, known as the father of modern positive psychology, was asked about his advice for maintaining health and well-being over a live-streamed interview. Although there are yet to be any published studies about the effects of positive affectivity for COVID-19 specifically, Dr. Seligman cites existing research (Marsland, Pressman, & Cohen, 2007) to hypothesize that
“what all of you should be doing right now is having fun, being cheerful and merry…. My hunch is that happiness and fun right now are important, and they may actually fight the probability of infection….”
Throughout the interview, there are many mentions of different ways to focus on joy and happiness, including music and dancing, and the potential of “prosocial, positive media.”
In addition to potential (but yet unconfirmed) benefits for fighting COVID infections, positive emotions can help us connect us to other people (see Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006), which is obviously critical in a time when we can feel isolated. I believe there is significance in the social aspects of Dynamite’s delivery of positivity. Firstly, BTS themselves presented the song with intention, sincerity, and a caring attitude towards listeners (just like they always do). When BTS first announced they were releasing a single, j-hope explained: “While listening to this song and getting it recorded, we felt like our spirits were lifted up naturally…. We thought that we wanted to share this energy with you all.” This intention for social connection and sharing positivity permeates other aspects of Dynamite’s promotion, for instance, a “Lip Sync Party” that invites fans to film themselves lip syncing and grooving to the song, which BTS also participated in. It’s very likely that the positive emotions fans feel are amplified by this social aspect: the knowledge that the artists themselves were experiencing the same emotions and wanted to share that positivity with others out of concern for their wellness.
Positive emotions might also help group cohesion and connection amongst fans, and this social engagement likely enhanced individual experiences of those emotions. We can see this happen in moments such as the heightened excitement of collectively counting down to the song’s release, and in fans supporting each other while pursuing goals for the single’s success (ARMY unintentionally trended encouraging phrases, including “GROUP HUG,” on Twitter at the end of the first 24-hour tracking period).
I find it interesting that shared positive emotions and mutual care are two of the three core elements by which Dr. Fredrickson (2016) defines the emotion of love. Although love as a specific kind of emotion is a larger topic for another time, it’s relevant to consider the role of love in affirming the importance of positive affect.
Dynamite is not explicitly a love song, but it has many similarities in purpose and aesthetics to Boy with Luv, as mentioned earlier. A press release about Dynamite states that the group “sings of joy and confidence, treasuring the little things in life that make life truly valuable and special.” This message is very close to the expression of love in Boy with Luv, which is titled in Korean as “A Poem for Small Things.”
Dr. Fredrickson (2016) points out that “For [other] emotion scientists…love may well seem too large, too all-encompassing, if not too pop-culture” (p. 2, emphasis added). This commentary reminds us that taking love and other kinds of positive emotions “seriously” shouldn’t require elevating them beyond their pop culture associations, but rather recognizing the value in those associations.
In the countdown to Dynamite’s release, Suga advised, “this is a song we made to cheer ARMY up, so don’t overthink, just enjoy the song.” So with my apologies to Suga, I’m going to end the post here, and simply recommend that you take some time to revel in the feel-good vibes of Dynamite or whatever music brings you happiness today.
Diener, E., Sandvik, E., & Pavot, W. (2009). Happiness is the Frequency, Not the Intensity, of Positive Versus Negative Affect. In E. Diener (Ed.), Assessing Well-Being: The Collected Works of Ed Diener. Springer, Dordrecht. (Originally published in 1991.)
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Updated thinking on positivity ratios. American Psychologist, 68, 814-822.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2016). Love: Positivity resonance as a fresh, evidence-based perspective on an age-old topic. In L. F. Barrett, M. Lewis, and J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, 4th Ed. New York: Guilford Press. Retrieved from http://peplab.web.unc.edu/files/2019/06/Fredrickson2016ChapteronLoveforHandbookofEmotions.pdf
Fredrickson, B. L. & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172-175.
Henderson, L. W. & Knight, T. (2012). Integrating the hedonic and eudaimonic perspectives to more comprehensively understand wellbeing and pathways to wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2, 196-221.
Kok, B. E. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85, 432-436.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L, & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.
Marsland, A. L., Pressman, S. D., & Cohen, S. (2007). Positive affect and immune function. In R. Ader (Ed.), Psychoneuroimmunology (Vol. II), Academic Press.
McManus, M. D., Siegel, J. T., & Nakamura, J. (2019). The predictive power of low-arousal positive affect. Motivation and Emotion, 43, 130-144.
Pressman, S. D. & Cohen, S. (2005). Does positive affect influence health? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 925-971.
Waugh, C. E. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2006). Nice to know you: Positive emotions, self–other overlap, and complex understanding in the formation of a new relationship. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 93-106.