Throughout history, psychologists have typically focused on negative human states.
This focus ultimately influenced the way psychologists studied the experience of emotions; for years, investigations typically targeted negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and depression.
Consequently, one critical question remained unanswered: What good are positive emotions?
This question was the title of a groundbreaking article by Barbara Fredrickson, published in the Review of General Psychology in 1998. In the article, Fredrickson forwards a novel theory of positive emotions, arguing that they serve to broaden individuals’ momentary thought-action repertoires, thereby contributing to good health and functioning.
This theory is now known as the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions.
In this article, we’ll explore some key differences between positive and negative emotions, outline the core principles of Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory, and point you toward additional resources to learn more about your emotions.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will not only enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions but will also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.
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Why Are Positive Emotions Understudied?
Everyone wants to feel positive emotions like happiness, excitement, and love. Despite this, research on how to cultivate such emotions has only recently begun to flourish with the rise of movements like positive psychology.
So why have scholars chosen to neglect such an important dimension of the human experience?
In her article (1998), Fredrickson offers three possible explanations.
Positive emotions are few and less differentiated
Overall, there appear to be fewer positive emotions than there are negative ones. Indeed, for every positive emotion specified in scientific taxonomies, there are three or four negative emotions (Ellsworth & Smith, 1988).
Likewise, positive emotions seem to be less differentiated in their expression. While negative emotions like anger, sadness, and disgust will elicit unique changes in one’s facial expression, emotions like joy, contentment, and relaxation are likely to produce quite similar expressions, such as the raised lips associated with a smile (Ekman et al., 1987).
This lack of differentiation among positive emotions often crops up when we try to recall emotional memories.
To illustrate, try reflecting on one or two positive interactions with a friend and identify the emotions they elicited. Chances are, you’d describe them as enjoyable, fun, relaxing, or possibly all three.
Now, think about a couple of negative interactions with a friend and try to describe these in emotional terms.
You will probably find that the words you choose will be quite specific to the situation. For instance, if you got into an argument with a friend who divulged a secret of yours, you might feel betrayed or hurt. However, you would not feel this way if you were visiting your friend in the hospital. Instead, you would probably feel concerned, yet these situations both elicited negative emotions.
Scientists speculate that the reason for this differentiation among negative emotions may come down to natural selection and survival. Whereas opportunities to feel positive may serve to boost our wellbeing temporarily, a failure to respond to threats risks killing us either directly or through disconnection from others on whom we depend for survival.
Therefore, this differentiation in our experience of negative emotions may have helped our ancestors respond appropriately in life-threatening situations (Nesse, 1990).
Problems demand attention
Negative emotions create problems for individuals and society, pointing to yet another reason for scholars’ focus on them (Fredrickson, 1998).
For instance, those who cannot contain their anger may be prone to acts of violence. Chronic experiences of negative emotions can lead to physical ailments, such as heart disease, which places a burden on healthcare systems (Barefoot, Dahlstrom, & Williams, 1983). Further, the chronic experience of sadness (i.e., depression) may lead to suicide.
While many links have been drawn between negative emotions and undesirable outcomes, there are much fewer links between positive emotions and negative outcomes. Perhaps one exception is the experience of mania or euphoria, alternating with depression among sufferers of bipolar (Fredrickson, 1998).
Nonetheless, these clear links between negative emotions and adverse outcomes for individuals and society point to yet another reason psychologists have likely neglected the study of positive emotions. However, as we will discover, positive emotions may play an important yet understudied role in guarding us against negative psychological and physical ill-being.
Theorists link emotions to action tendencies
Positive emotions don’t demand specific action tendencies in the same way that negative emotions do, and this does not align with most models of emotion forwarded by theorists.
In psychology, the phrase action tendency refers to the urge to act in a particular way.
Most prototypical models of emotions are characterized by a focus on negative emotions, and these models tend to link emotions to specific action tendencies. For instance, anger urges us to attack or flee, and guilt encourages us to make amends.
Since interest in positive emotions has grown, scholars have struggled to draw similar causal links between positive emotions and behavior. To illustrate, consider the following question:
What action tendency should follow from the emotion of joy?
Unlike emotions like anger or guilt, one could do just about anything while in a state of joy. You might go for a walk somewhere new, play a musical instrument, or laugh with a friend.
Therefore, positive emotions appear to be linked with a state of “free activation” that invites experimentation, aimlessness, and willingness to pursue whatever opportunities present themselves (Frijda, 1986).
The trouble with this conclusion, while likely true, is that it runs contrary to existing models of negative emotions that draw links between emotions and specific action tendencies as survival mechanisms, such as fear that prompts us to flee from oncoming danger.
The consequence is that models of positive emotions have tended to lump all positive emotions together, rather than exploring each and its consequences deeply (Fredrickson, 1998).
2 Assumptions for a Theory of Positive Emotions
So if positive emotions don’t protect us by promoting specific action tendencies, what purpose do they serve?
In an attempt to answer this question, Fredrickson (1998) begins by doing away with two key presumptions.
First, she argues that, unlike negative emotions, positive emotions need not yield specific action tendencies. Instead, they leave us free to engage in a diverse range of possible behaviors.
Second, she suggests that any action tendencies positive emotions elicit need not necessarily be physical but may also be cognitive. These changes in cognition may then flow on to affect behavior.
For example, the positive emotion of interest may spark changes in cognition; one might begin speculating about a topic, such as a historical event or the species of a strange-looking insect he or she has happened upon while on a walk. That emotion of interest may then indirectly influence behavior via cognition, such as if the person conducted a Google search on the historical event or began poking the bug with a stick.
The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions
At the crux of her theory, Fredrickson (1998) argues that while negative emotions narrow thought-action repertoires, positive emotions broaden these repertoires, enabling us to draw on a wide array of possible cognitions and behaviors in response to emotional stimuli.
Through this lens, positive emotions leave us free to be creative, playful, curious, and experimental, and from these behaviors flow opportunities to gain new physical, social, and intellectual resources.
For example, the emotion of joy in children facilitates play. Consequently, play develops critical skills and competencies, such as social-affective skills during social play, physical skills during rough-and-tumble play, and cognitive skills during play with objects (Boulton & Smith, 1992; Dolhinow & Bishop, 1970).
Likewise, the positive emotion of interest reliably leads to the acquisition of new knowledge, and the emotion of love helps us develop social resources.
What becomes apparent when considering these examples is that having one’s thought-action repertoires broadened via the experience of positive emotions ultimately aids individuals in building a range of personal resources, hence the name broaden-and-build (Fredrickson, 1998). These resources may subsequently serve us long after the emotions that led to their acquisition have passed.
For clarity, resources in this context are anything that allows an actor to enact a schema (Feldman, 2004). That is, resources are anything that can be put to use to accomplish something. Examples of resources include new physical capabilities, social networks, or intellectual abilities.
For instance, our physical strength becomes a resource when we use it to move a heavy object blocking our path. Likewise, social connections can serve as resources when difficult events prompt us to seek emotional support.
According to the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, we are most likely to acquire these resources while experiencing positive emotions. To draw again on the above examples, we will probably be more motivated to get out of bed and do a muscle-strengthening workout when feeling positively energized.
Likewise, we are more likely to make an enduring friend or social connection when we are initially upbeat and happy upon first meeting a person.
Considering these propositions together, we can now answer the question posed in Fredrickson’s (1998) article: What good are positive emotions?
Positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoires, thereby helping us to build resources that may serve us later down the line.
Empirical Support for Broaden-and-Build Theory
Following Fredrickson’s development of the Broaden-and-Build Theory, many studies emerged across several sub-disciplines of psychology, serving to test the theory’s key propositions.
These studies also provide initial evidence for some of the practical benefits of experiencing positive emotions (see Fredrickson, 2004 for a review).
Broadening thought and attention
First, experimental findings have repeatedly demonstrated that those experiencing positive emotions exhibit thought patterns consistent with those put forward by the Broaden-and-Build Theory.
Namely, people tend to think more unusually, flexibly, and creatively, while also being more open-minded (see Isen, 2000 for a review).
Findings have also shown that positive emotions facilitate an expanded locus of attention (Basso, Schefft, Ris, & Dember, 1996; Derryberry & Tucker, 1994). Likewise, those experiencing positive emotions appear to be better able to focus on a big picture as opposed to small details compared to those primed to experience negative or neutral emotions (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).
Undoing negative emotions
According to the theory, negative emotions narrow thought-action repertoires, while positive emotions broaden this same repertoire. This means that positive emotions should ‘undo’ the lingering effects of negative emotions by facilitating this broadening process.
To test this proposition, Fredrickson and colleagues designed an experiment where participants were required to prepare a speech in just one minute and told that their speech would be recorded and presented to their peers. This time pressure induced cardiovascular symptoms of anxiety, such as elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure, which were measured.
Following the preparation of the speech, participants were randomly assigned to view films that elicited the emotions of either joy, contentment, or sadness. One ‘neutral’ film also served as a baseline condition.
Across three different experiments, those who viewed the films eliciting the positive emotions exhibited quicker cardiovascular recovery (i.e., lowered heart rate, blood pressure) than those in the negative and baseline conditions, thereby supporting this ‘undoing’ hypothesis (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000).
Fueling psychological resilience and wellbeing
Maintaining a positive outlook and experiencing positive emotions during times of stress has been shown to protect well-being (Folkman, 1997). We often refer those who intuitively understand this to as resilient.
Those who are resilient inherently experience more positive emotions. Such people tend to be more optimistic and energetic, and these positive emotions facilitate upward cycles that help combat adversity through effective coping (Fredrickson, 2004).
Hypothesizing that this ability to ‘bounce back’ using positive emotions may manifest physiologically, Fredrickson conducted another experiment using the same speech-preparation task as before (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). In the experiment, participants reported their psychological resilience using a self-report scale.
The findings revealed that higher levels of resilience positively predicted participants’ reports of positive emotions during the stressful speech-preparation task; resilient participants were more likely to report experiencing happiness and interest alongside their anxiety. These participants also experienced quicker cardiovascular recovery, which was accounted for by their experience of positive emotions (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).
Extending upon the above findings, evidence has shown that positive emotions may not only indicate the presence of resilience but serve to build it as an enduring resource that aids in long-term coping (Fredrickson, 2004). Likewise, it is believed that the effects of positive emotions may compound over time, fueling the psychological state of flourishing (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).
Guarding physical health
There is evidence that positive emotions may not only facilitate desirable psychological states but also protect our physical health through their broadening-and-building effects.
For instance, those who regularly experienced positive emotions with their parents when they were children, as well as with their partners as adults, were significantly less likely than others to experience unpleasant physical symptoms, be diagnosed with chronic conditions, or report poor overall health (Ryff, Singer, Wing, & Love, 2001).
Likewise, one longitudinal study of Hispanic Americans found that those reporting higher positive affect were significantly less likely to have become disabled or died in a two-year follow-up (Ostir, Markides, Black, & Goodwin, 2000).
Overall, it’s clear positive emotions play a fundamental role in the life of a happy, resilient, and healthy person.
For a useful summary of these and other findings on Broaden-and-Build Theory, take a look at this talk by Barbara Fredrickson herself, who discusses the importance of positive emotions for strengthening our awareness of happenings around us and tuning into others’ needs.
Broaden-and-Build Theory in the Workplace
As research on positive psychology grows, managers are increasingly exploring the role of positive states in contributing to a thriving workplace. Positive emotions have an important role to play in such a work environment.
In an interview with Gallup, Fredrickson offered several pieces of advice for helping managers conduct business in such a way that cultivates and leverages the benefits of positive emotions (Robinson, 2003):
- Look for ways to enable employees to connect with others on a human level at work. That way, they can look forward to coming to a place where they feel recognized and experience connection. You can tell whether these efforts are working by paying close attention to the emotions your employees display and even tracking them.
- Remember that small moments of recognition, such as telling a team member that you appreciate their hard work, produce positive emotions that may compound and lead to something greater. For instance, telling someone they’ve done a good job instills the positive emotion of pride. This may fuel subsequent cognitions about what that person can accomplish next, triggering desirable behaviors such as goal-setting.
- Be aware that emotions experienced across different life domains travel. If an employee is regularly suffering negative emotional states at home, this is likely to carry over to their experiences and expression of emotions at work.
- Keep in mind that we remember emotions more than we remember judgments. This means that customers are more likely to remember moments when they felt emotionally engaged when interacting with your business. When these emotional experiences are positive, customers may experience feelings of gratitude, which they repay by remaining loyal to your business. Therefore, finding ways to engage your customers’ positive emotions through human connection may be the key to securing their loyalty.
For related ideas on cultivating positive emotions in your workplace, take a look at some of our other blog posts on these themes:
- The Importance of Positive Relationships in the Workplace
- Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace (90+ Examples & Reward Ideas)
- Positive Leadership: 30 Must-Have Traits and Skills
Hopefully, you now understand the necessity of positive emotions for living a fulfilling and healthy life. Indeed, it appears the benefits of positive emotions may be cyclical, accumulating and compounding, making us more receptive to experiencing subsequent positive emotions at a later point in time.
Consider the following proposition by Fredrickson (2000):
“The psychological broadening sparked by one positive emotion can increase an individual’s receptiveness to subsequent pleasant or meaningful events, increasing the odds that the individual will find positive meaning in these subsequent events and experience additional positive emotions. This can in turn trigger an ‘upward spiral.’”
Clearly, there are myriad benefits to experiencing more positive emotions. But how do we go about cultivating these emotions on an average day?
What follows are several useful resources to help you or your clients assess the frequency and intensity with which positive emotions are experienced, cultivate more positive emotions, and learn more about the Broaden-and-Build Theory.
Books and Further Reading
Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive – Barbara Fredrickson
In this book, you’ll discover more about what positivity is, why it is important, and how to foster a 3-to-1 “positivity ratio” in your life that will make you happier.
Find the book on Amazon.
Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection – Barbara Fredrickson
In this book, Fredrickson forwards a bold new conception of love, arguing that the positive emotion of love is made up of micro-moments between people that we can all practice each day.
Find the book on Amazon.
6 Exercises for Positive Emotions: Start Your Upward Spiral Today – Sarah Battey
In this article, we explore six simple, science-backed techniques to help you experience more positive emotions today.
Read more about these positive emotions exercises.
- The Positivity Self Test
This free two-minute test developed by Barbara Fredrickson will help you determine whether you experience the ideal 3-to-1 ratio of positive emotions that predicts flourishing.
- The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS)
The PANAS is one of the most widely used and scientifically validated assessments of positive (and negative) emotions. You can read more about this assessment and its different versions in our dedicated article.
- Understanding Emotions: 15 Ways to Discover What You’re Feeling
For a range of worksheets and activities to help you disentangle your emotions, check out our dedicated article on understanding emotions by Dr. Jeremy Sutton.
A Take-Home Message
While positive emotions may not directly affect our actions in the same way that negative emotions do, they play a critical role in healthy human functioning by broadening our minds and building our resources.
These resources may become critical during times of need. The positive moments you have shared with friends may pay dividends when you find yourself leaning on these networks for support.
Likewise, the interest and curiosity that propelled you to learn a new skill may serve you upon taking up a new profession that uses that skill.
Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory draws a framework around these examples, highlighting how experiencing positivity today can help secure our happiness tomorrow.
We hope this article has provided a new lens through which to understand the emotional experiences of you and your clients. And if nothing else, take this post as your reminder to do something that puts a smile on your face today.
Don’t forget to download our 3 Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.
If you wish to learn more, our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© is a 6-module emotional intelligence training package for practitioners which contains all the materials you’ll need to become an emotional intelligence expert, helping your clients harness their emotions and cultivate emotional connection in their lives.
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