Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions

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The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions:
What is it and how can it be applied to our everyday lives?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Positive emotions enable us to achieve higher functioning. Happiness is not only the result of hard work and success, but it is also present before we experience our greatest achievements or moments of higher functioning[factual?]. Positive emotions build an individual's long-term psychological, intellectual, social and physical well-being and resources (Fredrickson, 2004). Positive emotions are the building blocks for people to become the best version of themselves, helping them to learn, grow, thrive and hold a higher level of life satisfaction. To help support and understand the effect positive emotions have in a person's life, Barbara Fredrickson developed a theory which explains how people's minds are broadened through experiencing positive emotions. The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions suggests that positive emotions broaden a person's awareness and encourage exploratory thoughts and actions. In light of the discoveries made by Fredrickson and other positive psychologists, this chapter will focus on the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, what it is, how it can be applied to our everyday lives, what the benefits are of feeling good, and also look at some of the theory's limitations.

Finding ways to be satisfied and happy with life is important, and something that not many people realise can be changed if they dedicate enough time and awareness to it.

A few questions you can ask yourself while reading this chapter are:

  • When I feel good, am I more motivated to learn and explore?
  • When I have overcome challenges in life, what feelings were most prominent?

What is the broaden-and-build theory?[edit | edit source]

There have been several studies that look at the impact of positive emotions, but have not fully captured the unique effects that they have on our emotional and physical well-being and functioning. In light of this, Fredrickson (2004) developed an alternative model that was designed to capture the significant impact that these positive emotions have on our daily lives, called the Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions.

It has been proven that positive emotions broaden people's momentary thought-action repertoires and build their enduring personal resources (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001). The broaden-and-build theory describes the form and function of a subset of positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment and love. These positive emotions have a complementary effect and are related to neutral states [explain?] and widen the variety of thoughts and actions that come to a person's mind. For example, when someone is feeling joyful, this creates the urge for them to play, push their comfort zones, be impulsive and creative and not only in their social and physical behaviour but also intellectually, in their intimate relationships and artistically too (Fredrickson, 2004). Similarly, when a person is feeling interested this can create the urge to explore, retrieve and take in new information and experiences and expand their sense of self amidst the process of developing and adopting these new interests. Contentment is the third most distinct positive emotion, which elicits the urge to sit back and appreciate current life circumstances and combine this appreciative nature into new views of the self and beliefs surrounding the world (Fredrickson, 2004). Finally, love, which is viewed as the combination of all the distinct positive emotions mentioned, is experienced within a person's safe, intimate relationships and nurtures a person into creating a recurring cycle of all the urges created by joy, interest, and contentment.

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions can help a person cultivate these positive emotions and use them to help in coping with their negative emotions or other challenges they may experience in their everyday lives. People who are optimistic are able to deal with the problem at hand and move forward and away from the negative emotions that may be holding them back. This broadening effect increases the probability of being able to see the good in future events rather than continuously looking at the possible setbacks. Generally, people who express a high amount of positive emotions also have higher levels of psychological resilience, which assists them in building resources which will in turn help them cope with negative experiences[factual?]. A component of the Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions that sets it apart from [which?] similar theories is the build aspect. The Broaden-and-Build theory focuses on how positive emotions allow a person to create and build resources which can be drawn upon to improve their life satisfaction for extended period of time rather then just in the moment.

Fredrickson has made it clear the her [grammar?] theory explains the unique effect that positive emotions have on our well-being and self-growth. She has demonstrated through several studies that positive emotions are not just a sign of simply surviving in life but rather they are a sign of flourishing, thriving and expanding in life and they can also help create and maintain this growth in the present and in the future[factual?].

Why it's good to feel good[edit | edit source]

Research has found correlations between reports of positive emotional well-being and increased life expectancy[factual?]. A longitudinal study conducted in the 1930's[grammar?] investigated the emotional well-being of Catholic nuns. The research found that participants who reported the most positive emotions lived up to 10 years longer than those who did not experience as many positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2003). Furthermore, recent research has found supporting results, also finding that people who feel good live longer. Naturally, there are questions that arise from this discovery; What defines positive well-being and happiness? And why is it that people live longer if they feel good?

A person that[grammar?] experiences optimal daily functioning is generally in an environment where they can learn, thrive, flourish and reach higher ground. They exercise positive thoughts, mindfulness and deal with negative thoughts and feelings about themselves or the world around them by being aware, addressing the effects these thoughts may have on their mind and body and even the people around them. Positive emotions and people who function highly and are happy and balanced are hard to come by, therefore making the positive emotions they experience a little harder to study. In contrast, there is a natural tendency to study something that burdens or troubles the well-being of humanity and unfortunately, the expression and experience of negative emotions are responsible for much of what ails the world (Fredrickson, 2003).

Happiness is a combination of life satisfaction, coping resources and positive emotions[factual?]. It is no wonder that feeling and experiencing these things can lead us to live long, fulfilling lives[explain?]. As stated by Fredrickson (2011) positive emotions open us and literally change the boundaries of our minds and hearts and our outlook on the world surrounding us. By feeling good, being happy, and experiencing emotions such as joy, gratitude and love, our visual perspective opens up, we can see our common humanity with others, we are open to new experiences and build on our knowledge and urge to explore the world around us. Fredrickson (2011) has conducted a [vague] number of studies looking at how positive emotions affect our lives. In one of the studies[factual?], it was found that if people are induced with positive emotions [how?] they are more likely to step back and see the big picture and similarities in life or their current situation. Evidence[factual?] has also uncovered that people who experience and express positive emotions widen the scope of what they scan for in their environments and relationships. These [which?] characteristics and behaviours are expressed by people who lead more positive lives and contribute to reducing stress, negative emotions and unstable relationships or mental health and increase chances of a happy and invigorating life[factual?].

Learned optimism[edit | edit source]

Learned optimism is an idea in positive psychology that positive thoughts and feelings can be done [awkward expression?] consciously by challenging any negative self talk that a person experiences. Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. Seligman states that optimism has several benefits, optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health but unfortunately optimism is no where near as common as pessimism. Pessimistic people are more likely to suffer from depression and poor physical health. Similar to Fredrickson, Seligman invites and encourages people to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to challenges and daily stressors in a new, alternative way. This new way and shift of thinking from pessimism is what Seligman defines as learned optimism.

Please click this box to take an online Learned Optimism test, adapted from Martin Seligman's book, Learned Optimism. Please note this is not a diagnostic tool, if any of the questions or results cause distress please seek support.|}

Applying the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions[edit | edit source]

The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions proposes that positive emotions are evolved adaptations that function to build lasting resources (Cohn et al., 2009). Below is a case study based on research conducted by Cohn et al (2009) which focuses on the application of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions and psychological resilience.

Case study

Cassie is an easy going, positive, adaptive, determined and happy person. She likes to learn, explore new interests and meet new people. She is always willing to listen to her friends, family and work colleagues and tries to keep an open mind and heart in all aspects of her life. Cassie has a stable, long-term relationship and is extremely content with her life.

Cassie recently started a new job, she has never worked in the industry before and has been finding it hard to adapt to the new environment and get along with her new work colleagues. She has been thinking of ways she can change her circumstances and eventually become comfortable in her new surroundings. Cassie knows that her positive emotions and motivation have helped her deal with a range of life's challenges, such as when she chanted positive affirmations in her head before her new job interview. Cassie's daily positive emotions and determination to build on and broaden her knowledge about herself and her environment have made her skillful, resourceful and increased her ego resilience, which is a psychological resource proven to be useful in daily stressors.

The [which?] theory suggests that over time these positive emotions and novel experiences accumulate into significant resources that can change people's lives. For example, trivial curiosity can evolve into someone having expert knowledge, or affection and shared interests can become a lifelong supportive relationship. Positive emotions predict valued outcomes like health, wealth and longevity because they help build the foundations and resources to get there (Cohn et al., 2009).

People who experience positive emotions discard automatic, negative responses such as, "Maybe I'm not good at this job" or "Maybe people don't like me because I ask too many questions". Instead, people who express positive thinking and feelings discard these thought processes and look for creative, flexible and unpredictable new ways of thinking and acting to help their situation. Learned optimism and the broaden-and-build theory are similar in their views and how they can be applied in everyday life. They both highlight the importance of positive thinking and managing negative thoughts, views or behaviour so that someone's daily functioning and overall life satisfaction are joyful, content and full of positive moments.

Quiz yourself[edit | edit source]

Which reaction to each scenario best reflects the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions?

1 You've had a fight with your friend, it's been a week and you still haven't spoken. What's your next step?

Give up. They should've contacted you first.
Contact them and blame them for the argument.
You apologise, explain how you feel and then tell them you'd like to move forward from what happened.
You make amends but are still frustrated with what happened.

2 You just received a test mark back and you've failed. Your thoughts are:

Disappointed, you thought you did well.
Upset, but constructive. You try and look at where you went wrong to improve next time.
I'm not smart enough to be doing this class.
Ah well, maybe I'll do better next time.

3 You've been feeling down throughout the week. How does it make you feel?

Sad. You can't drag yourself out of it.
You've accepted it's been a bad week, but you put your favourite show on and tell yourself it'll be better tomorrow.
You just tell yourself it's because your mum has been on your back all week about university.
You don't care, eventually you'll be happier again.

So, how do we increase and sustain our positive emotions? An insightful study conducted by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) looked into this exact question. An interventional study was conducted on 14 undergraduate students looking at raising global happiness sheds some light onto some of the factors that maintain and predict increases of positive emotions. Fordyce (1977, 1983) gave the undergraduate students some founding techniques such as, stay present orientated, spend time socialising and reduce worrying thoughts. Other studies aiming at increasing positive moods in daily, naturalistic settings have discovered that by creating habitual tendencies of expressing feelings of gratitude, committing acts of kindness, looking at one's best self and remembering one's strengths and working on personal goals (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005) also allow people to reach a higher state of happiness allowing them to broaden and build their thought-action repertoire's as identified by Fredrickson[Rewrite to improve clarity].

Limitations[edit | edit source]

Shifting and changing the way we think and feel is easier said than done. It is a natural phenomenon that people look at the negatives in their life and focus more on the challenges they have to face everyday rather than all the good things that they feel or have[factual?]. A sad memory or trauma tends to be much more prominent in our minds, and the emotions we feel during these times can be a lot stronger and make quite an impact on our daily functioning. The majority of the studies mentioned in this chapter look at the 'in the moment' positive emotions people experience and how these emotions affect their daily lives and life satisfaction. If future research looked at inducing positive emotions consistently and over a longer period of time, it could be determined whether the resources built through the broaden-and-build theory of emotions are durable and withstand their efficacy (Cohn et al., 2009). Another limitation of the broaden-and-build theory is that for a lot of people, the amount and severity of negative emotions they experience could interfere with the benefits of positive emotions or may even prevent them experiencing enough positive emotions to make a difference in the resources they could gain and their ability to deal with life's challenges[factual?].

A lot of research conducted using the broaden-and-build theory has come from a laboratory setting. Therefore it is crucial to consider how these findings could translate to the outside world. There are many more variables that are involved outside a laboratory which could change the affect positive emotions have on the people experiencing them. A person's relationships can impact their happiness, if they are surrounded by people who are mentally ill or going through a trauma we can not comfortably say that the broaden-and-build theory will be effective for these individuals (Kjell, 2016). Evidence shows that for positive emotions to be of any influence they must be in context and occur frequently (Diener et al., 1985). However the broaden-and-build theory does not incorporate this or focus on the sustainability of positive emotions. Therefore, if the theory is going to make a lasting impact on a person's well-being and frame of mind it must look at the long-term durability of it's influences.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

What were your answers to the questions given at the beginning of the chapter? Do you feel like you can relate to the effects positive emotions have on our lives and well-being?

There is a sufficient amount of empirical literature which demonstrates that people who are happier achieve better life outcomes including financial success, supportive relationships, good mental health, effective coping, and even physical health and longevity (Cohn et al., 2009). However, even though we can see that there is a correlation between happiness and higher life satisfaction and functioning there seems to not be a large amount of knowledge known specifically about how or why happiness can lead to such a wide range of beneficial outcomes. This is where Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (1998, 2001) comes into play, offering a comprehensive theoretical explanation, by linking the increasing experience of momentary positive emotions to the development of resources for long-term success and well-being (Cohn et al., 2009). As highlighted by the broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions impact our thought and action repertoires, increase mental flexibility and motivate our engagement in new activities and social relationships (Garland et al., 2010). Even though positive emotions are only transient, it has been discovered that they have lasting consequences on our overall mood and disposition, which help us to build durable personal resources. Over time these resources help to trigger more positive emotions which can eventually lead us to a self-sustaining upward spiral of well-being[factual?].

It is hopeful that due to the amount of evidence that has come forward embracing the beneficial effects derived from positive emotions, people will slowly realise that they can control the state of their mind and the direction of their thoughts. Research[factual?] about the broaden-and-build theory has demonstrated how people can use their positive emotions to better their relationships, work environment and overall life success. Along with these {{what]} factors, broadening people's mindsets and building their psychological resources means that over time it is possible that positive emotions will also enhance people's emotional and physical well-being. In line with this view, studies have shown that people who experience positive emotions during grief and other traumatic events are more likely to develop long-term plans and goals and have a higher rate of succeeding in them (Garland, et al., 2010).

The evolution of positive psychology and teaching people how and why it is important to be aware of not only their negative emotions but even more importantly their positive emotions, has allowed psychologists like Fredrickson to develop theories like the the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Fredrickson has provided a new perspective surrounding the significance of positive emotions and how they can be applied in our daily lives and help us to develop our sense of self, how we think about others and the world and last but not least, how we can begin broadening our horizons.

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Book chapter: Smiling, laughter and happiness.
  2. Book chapter: Psychological resilience development in children.

References[edit | edit source]

Cohn, M., Fredrickson, B., Brown, S., Mikels, J., & Conway, A. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9, 361-368. doi: 10.1037/a0015952

Danilowski, J. (2015). How can Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory enhance personal resources? Retrieved from[This URL is broken]

Diener, E., Emmons, R., Larson, R.J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale: A measure of life satisfaction. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49, 71-75. Retrieved from 10.1207/s15327752jpa4901_13

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. Retrieved from

Fredrickson, B. (2004). The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367-1377. Retrieved from

Fredrickson, B. (2003). The value of positive emotions. The Scientific Research Society, 330-335. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1511/2003.4.330

Fredrickson, B. [Barbara Fredrickson]. (2011, June 21). Barbara Fredrickson: Positive emotions open our mind [Youtube] Retrieved from

Fredrickson, B., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172-175. Retrieved from

Garland, E., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A., Johnson, D., Meyer, P. & Penn, D. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 849-864. Retrieved from DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.002

Kjell, O. (2016, no-date). The beneficial and potentially problematic effects of positive emotions. [Weblog]. Retrieved from

Lino, C. (2016). Positive Psychology Program. Retrieved from

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, R. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 42, 874–884. Retrieved from

Sheldon, K. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualising best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82. Retrieved from

Waugh, C. & Fredrickson, B. (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(2), 93-106. Retrieved from doi: 10.1080/17439760500510569

External links[edit | edit source]