Everyone experiences both positive and negative emotions in their lives. Though negative emotions are uncomfortable to feel and, if extreme or elongated, can cause downward spirals that lead to serious problems in people’s lives, emotion research has posited that humans developed them to keep safe. It has been theorized that emotions trigger specific action tendencies, or, in other words, a narrow selection of possible behavior options associated with a felt emotion. If we feel fear, it might be adaptive to flee as soon as possible, and if we feel anger, in threatening circumstances it could be adaptive to quickly attack (Fredrickson, 2004).
On the other hand, the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions proposed by Barbara Fredrickson argues that the function of positive emotions is not to limit one’s behavioral repertoire; rather, it is to widen it. While negative emotions are important because of their quick and direct benefits in threatening situations, positive emotions are significant because of their indirect and long-lasting benefits. These benefits are the personal resources that emerge from a broadened mindset, like social support, knowledge, brain development, and creativity, which are enduring and can be drawn upon in times of need (Fredrickson, 2004). Additionally, this broaden-and-build process is a self-perpetuating cycle; the more positive emotions one feels, the more valuable resources one gains, which then contributes to the creation of more positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2004).
Fig 1. Positive emotions can perpetuate emotional upward spirals that lead to human flourishing (Karici, 2019).
The takeaway from Fredrickson’s research is that cultivating positive emotions in the present can help people sustain greater psychological and physical well-being in the future. Especially for people who experience persistent negative emotions, it is important to understand that positive emotions can be self-generated, thus extending plausible accessibility to experience the benefits of positive emotions.
The Broadening Effect
While positive emotions make one feel pleasant in a given moment, this is not the entire story of their effect. Strong empirical evidence suggests that they also “broaden the scopes of attention, cognition, and action” (Fredrickson, 2004, page 1369). For instance, studies utilizing behavioral tests, eye-tracking, and brain imaging have shown that positive emotions expand the range of people’s visual attention. Findings further demonstrate that these emotions increase one’s action repertoire, creativity, openness to new experiences, closeness with others, and trust in people (Garland et al., 2010). Such an expanded mindset shows promise for individual and interpersonal benefits to be gained.
Positive emotions may also catalyze coping when dealing with negative emotions. Fredrickson’s undo hypothesis posits that “positive emotions might ‘correct’ or ‘undo’ the after effects of negative emotions” (Fredrickson, 2004, page 1371). Because positive emotions broaden one’s mindset, the urge to act in a specific manner triggered by a negative emotion may dwindle after a positive emotion is incited. In a study measuring participants’ cardiovascular activity induced by negative emotion, Fredrickson found that the experience of mild joy and contentment showed the fastest recovery compared to a neutral state and the experience of sadness, which resulted in the longest recovery time (2004). This evidence suggests that cultivating positive emotions at advantageous moments, such as during times of distress, can help one cope with negative emotions and move past their narrowing effects more quickly (Fredrickson, 2004).
As mentioned, the broaden-and-build process is a self-perpetuating cycle. Because this type of cycle leads to human flourishing, it is known as an upward spiral (Garland et al., 2010). Evidence for upward spirals appears in a study investigating whether positive emotions and broad-minded coping can reliably predict each other. It found that, in contrast to negative emotions, the experience of positive emotions predicted improved coping, while broad-minded coping predicted an increase in positive emotions (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). Positive emotions and broad-mindedness are reciprocally connected; one reinforces the other, and thus upward spirals emerge. As these spirals repeat, emotional well-being is enhanced, and the opportunity for building resources emerges.
The Building Effect
As positive emotions broaden one’s mindset and enhance their attention, scope of cognition, and scope of action, one is led to take action that may lead to self-enhancing benefits. For example, joy and other high-energy positive emotions may create the urge to play, which may involve play fighting and chasing that enhances muscle growth and fitness (Fredrickson, 1998). Further, positive emotions can build intellectual resources, such as enhanced learning and performance in school, possibly by improving understanding of complexity. As one learns more, the intellectual resource of mastery can be achieved (Fredrickson, 1998). Interpersonally shared positive emotions can lead to the creation of enduring friendships and bonds. This creates a strong social support network that is critical to the well-being of individuals (Fredrickson, 1998).
An important psychological resource built by positive emotions is resilience or the “ability to ‘bounce back’ after adversity” (Fredrickson, 2004). To test if positive emotions do indeed lead to enduring benefits, Fredrickson spearheaded a study investigating whether people are more resilient because they experience more positive emotions. She found that resilient individuals recovered significantly faster from their negative emotion-induced cardiovascular surges and that these speedier rates of recovery were due to higher levels of experienced positive emotions (2004). These findings suggest that inducing positive emotions after feeling negative ones can help people lower back down to their baseline level of functioning faster, and if repeated over time, can improve the ability to overcome negative feelings and the events they stem from. In the long run, feeling positive emotions can make one more resilient in the face of hardship.
Fig. 2. Resilience is a crucial skill for overcoming negative events and emotions. Positive emotions help to strengthen it (Miller, 2020).
Self-Generating Positive Emotions
Looking at the evidence supporting the broaden-and-build theory, the question arises of how to utilize this discovery to both increase well-being in the general population and help those who suffer from devastating downward spirals caused by persistent negative emotions. An easily accessible way to do this may be for individuals to learn how to create positive emotions in themselves.
One such likely way of self-generating positive emotions is through mindfulness meditation. The practice of mindfulness meditation involves the regulation of one’s attention in a way that is nonreactive and nonjudgmental to the thoughts, emotions, or sensations that arise in the present moment, without being fixated on any thought or stimulus (Garland et al., 2010). This practice allows one to detach from thoughts, emotions, and sensations, lessening the effects of distressing content and achieving a perspective with fewer distortions and less emotional reactivity (Garland et al., 2010). This state of increased awareness reflects the broadening state triggered by positive emotions, which suggests that mindfulness meditation may lead to increased experiences of positive emotions.
Practicing loving-kindness meditation can also engender positive emotions that lead to lasting personal resources. This meditation involves “verbalized aspirations and visualizations designed to cultivate positive emotions in both mind and body”, and repeated practice can result in the gradual acceptance of these aspirations as one’s own and the cultivation of compassion and positive emotions (Garland et al., 2010, page 19). In a randomized experiment testing the build effect, researchers found that loving-kindness meditation, once learned by participants over the span of seven weeks, led people to report more positive emotions within the duration of the study compared to control groups (David et al., 2013, page 23). This demonstrates that regular practice of loving-kindness meditation could lead to opportunities for upward spirals.
Fig. 3. Mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation are promising paths to self-cultivate positive emotions (McDargh, 2022).
Behavioral activation, a therapeutic technique for depression that involves directing behavior to activate positive emotions, makes patients more susceptible to experiencing positive events, which in turn can lead to increased experience of positive emotions (Garland et al., 2010). In nonclinical populations, research has demonstrated that creating a drawing of a “happy” subject has been shown to positively affect emotional valence after being induced with negative emotions (Dalebroux et al., 2008). In line with the idea underlying behavioral activation, engaging in activities that are personally pleasurable or which develop mastery can result in the activation of positive emotions. In any case, engaging in behaviors aimed to elicit positive emotions and practicing meditation may be practical methods for people to feel more positive emotions, experience upward spirals, and build enduring resources.
Fredrickson’s theory of positive emotions is an illuminating revelation for the field of emotional research that has profound implications for how researchers and individuals think about improving well-being. The ability to self-generate positive emotions through evidence-based tactics is incredibly promising for people struggling with persistent negative emotions, especially because positive emotions can lead to upward spirals that sustain personal growth and flourishing. It is important to pay attention to these emotions, as they harness the power to transform lives over time for the better.
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