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Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences

Michele M. Tugade
Boston College
Barbara L. Fredrickson
University of Michigan

Published in 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,' 86(2), 320-333, 2004

The following studies investigated how resilient people use positive emotions to rebound from, and to find positive meaning in, stressful encounters. 

Study 1
Psychophysiological methods were used to explore the emotion regulatory processes associated with psychological resilience. This study aimed to demonstrate that the experience of positive emotion results in faster cardiovascular recovery from negative emotional arousal. 57 undergraduate students (74% female) were asked to mentally prepare a speech within a limited period of time. They were then told they would record their speech into a video camera and the film would be shown to peers in another study. After the speech preparation task, they received a message that they would not have to record their speech after all. Participants recorded their feelings during the speech preparation task. They were also attached to equipment that monitored their physiological responses throughout the experiment. People with high resilience scores reported increased positive emotions compared with those with lower resilience scores, who experienced relatively less positive emotions. The experience of positive emotions appeared to aid resilient individuals in achieving accelerated cardiovascular recovery from the negative emotional arousal triggered by the speech preparation task however, high-resilient individuals appraised the stressful task as less threatening compared with low-resilient individuals. Overall, positive emotions and cognitive appraisals contributed to the ability for resilient people to recover quickly from negative emotional arousal.

Study 2
This experiment examined the role of cognitive appraisals (i.e. challenge v- threat) in psychological resilience. 57 undergraduate students (49% female) were given instructions for the speech preparation task given in study 1. Half of the group were told to psyche themselves up and to think of the task as a challenge that should be met and overcome. The other half was told that their performance would be evaluated, and that these evaluations would be used to predict their academic and social success at university. Higher trait resilience was associated with shorter durations of cardiovascular reactivity in the threat condition but no significant differences were found for those with high trait resilience in the challenge condition. Higher trait resilience was also associated with increases in positive emotions for both the threat condition and the challenge condition. For the threat condition, people who scored high for resilience reported increased scores for eagerness, excitement and happiness, compared with those with lower trait resilience. The people with high resilience scores, who were told to treat the task as a challenge, reported increased rates for eagerness, excitement, and interest. 

Study 3
192 undergraduate students (65% female) were asked to write a short essay about the most important problem they were currently facing. They were then asked to indicate the extent to which they experienced a number of different emotions in response to the problem they had just described. Higher trait resilience was positively correlated with positive emotions, such as, eagerness, excitement, and happiness. Participants also rated the degree to which they found positive meaning within the problem and high-resilient individuals found greater positive meaning in their problem situations.

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