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The role of positive emotion

Positive affect - positive emotions, positive moods and positive attitudes may in fact be the single most important active ingredient in the recipe for human flourishing (Barbara Fredrickson, 2005)

Until the advent of Positive Psychology, empirical psychologists had little interest in positive emotion. In fact, they often only paid attention to feelings of positive emotion, such as joy or happiness, as an indicator that an individual wasn't suffering from depression!  While it was easy for psychologists to understand the role of negative feelings they found it very difficult to understand positive emotions. This meant they found it difficult to say why human beings have the capacity to feel joy, contentment, pride and so forth. 

Ground-breaking work by Professor Barbara Frederickson has now provided an explanation for the role of positive emotion. Her work is known as 'the broaden and build theory of positive emotion'.  Frederickson's thesis is that positive emotion does not simply signal well-being and the absence of negative emotions but has the capacity to encourage well-being and flourishing. Frederickson argues that while negative emotions narrow people's perspective and keep them focused on the specific problem in hand (e.g. flight or fight), positive emotions 'broaden' people's likely thoughts and actions as well as their behaviour. In other words, when we are experiencing positive emotions we have more 'behavioural flexibility' and this allows us to build 'intellectual and psychological resources'. So if we are feeling positive we are more likely to be curious, to learn, to explore and be creative than if we are negative. If we experience a negative emotion, such as fear, we are more likely to withdraw and avoid. So it is when we are experiencing positive emotions that we are able to build personal resources which have lasting benefit to us and hence help us cope better with adversity. It is also in a positive frame of mind that we are more likely to build relationships with others. Positive emotion is also good for our health. It is for all these reasons then, as the above quote shows, that Frederickson  argues that being in a positive frame of mind is the essential ingredient in 'human flourishing'. 

Frederickson's thesis has evolved from, and is supported by, various experiments. By inducing different emotional states in participants (either contentement and joy or fear and anger) Frederickson and her colleagues have shown that those who were feeling positive had a 'broadened attentional focus' and, for example, were less likely to display a race bias when shown faces of people from different racial groups. They also found that positive emotion has the ability 'to undo' the affects of stress and so encourages resilience.

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, 2006

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