“Positive emotions are worth cultivating, not just as end states in themselves but also as a means to achieving psychological growth and improved well-being over time”
- Barbara L. Fredrickson
Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, 2001
According to recent psychological research, the experience of positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment and love, not only makes us feel good but also helps us develop new skills, build new relationships and become more resilient in the long run.
“Positive affect” – the conscious experience of a positive emotion – allows us to be more creative and open to new opportunities. It makes us more likely to have more flexible thought patterns, be more responsive to new information, and process it in novel ways, compared to when we are experiencing “negative affect” (Isen, 2000). Positive affect allows us to broaden our attention and our cognitive thinking, whereas negative affect – anxiety, depression, or feelings of threat – narrows our attention and prevents us from thinking and acting in a flexible productive way. We are more open to new experiences and different actions when we are in a positive state than when we are in a negative state.
The Broaden-and-Build Theory (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001) explains why this might be the case. A negative emotion such as fear is triggered by a threat signalling for us to escape, or anger which signals us to attack. Negative emotions limit our behavioural options for quick, decisive actions so that we act appropriately to maximise our chances of survival (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). Positive emotions, on the other hand, signal opportunities for exploration and creativity, allowing us to think and behave in a more flexible way where no threat is present, and broadening our repertoire of thoughts and actions.
Whilst negative emotions help us focus us on a narrow range of immediate options, positive emotions give us the mental space in which to build our personal resources, whether physical, intellectual, social or psychological. Positive affect makes it easier for us to approach new experiences (what is known as “approach behaviour” rather than “avoidance behaviour”), enabling us to engage with the environment and be involved in activities that promote development and growth. Examples of this include increasing our attention and curiosity to learn new things, allowing flexible thinking to finding new creative solutions to problems, or simply being more open to develop our social relationships that can lead to support in the future.
The broaden-and-build theory highlights the benefits of experiencing positive affect, not just for feeling good, but for living and working more effectively. When we feel good, we are more able to learn new skills and build our support networks, helping us cope better and enjoy our lives in the future.
What all this means is that promoting and maintaining positive affect matters much more than just how we feel in the moment. Keep great people in your life and you won’t have to look for cross country moving quotes. Taking care of how we feel can help us boost our development, improving our wellbeing and our health, and enabling us to do more in our lives, and our work.
By Ruta Marcinkus
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
Isen, A. M. (2000). Positive affect and decision making. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland- Jones (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (2nd ed., pp. 417-435).
Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424.