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Positive Emotions

Abstract and Keywords

Positive emotions include pleasant or desirable situational responses, ranging from interest and contentment to love and joy, but are distinct from pleasurable sensation and undifferentiated positive affect. These emotions are markers of people's overall well-being or happiness, but they also enhance future growth and success. This has been demonstrated in work, school, relationships, mental and physical health, and longevity. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions suggests that all positive emotions lead to broadened repertoires of thoughts and actions and that broadening helps build resources that contribute to future success. Unlike negative emotions, which are adapted to provide a rapid response to a focal threat, positive emotions occur in safe or controllable situations and lead more diffusely to seeking new resources or consolidating gains. These resources outlast the temporary emotional state and contribute to later success and survival.

This chapter discusses the nature of positive emotions both as evolutionary adaptations to build resources and as appraisals of a situation as desirable or rich in resources. We discuss the methodological challenges of evoking positive emotions for study both in the lab and in the field and issues in observing both short-term (“broaden”) and long-term (“build”) effects. We then review the evidence that positive emotions broaden perception, attention, motivation, reasoning, and social cognition and ways in which these may be linked to positive emotions' effects on important life outcomes. We also discuss and contextualize evidence that positive emotions may be detrimental at very high levels or in certain situations. We close by discussing ways in which positive emotions theory can be harnessed by both basic and applied positive psychology research.

Keywords: broadening, evolution, happiness, growth, resources

Positive emotions have long been studied as markers of people's overall well-being or happiness (Diener & Seligman, 2004; Kahneman, Kreuger, & Schkade, 2004), but looking at positive emotions as outcomes is just the beginning. In hundreds of well-controlled studies, positive emotions and experiences have also been shown to predict or contribute to valuable life outcomes (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005), including greater satisfaction and success at work (Losada & Heaphy, 2004), improved immune function (Cohen, Doyle, & Turner, 2003), and even longer life (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Levy, Slade, & Kunkel, 2002; Moskowitz, 2003; Ostir, Markides, & Black, 2000). We will use the “broaden-and-build theory” of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001) as a framework for reviewing the research on long-term effects and short-term mechanisms of positive emotions. We attempt to answer a central question: How is it that our fleeting experiences of joy, interest, or love—which can be so easily squelched or dismissed—produce lasting gains in strengths and well-being? At the end of the chapter we will address a larger question of particular interest to positive psychology: What is the role of positive emotion in a full and well-lived life?

(p. 14) Defining Positive Emotions

The theories of emotions that dominated psychology for most of its history proved fruitful for studying negative emotions but were often a poor fit for positive emotions (Fredrickson, 1998). In the past 10 years, positive emotions have come into their own. The renaissance in positive emotions research stems from two sources: a growing interest in the psychology of the “good life” (Fredrickson, 1998; Keyes & Haidt, 2002; Ryff & Singer, 1998) and several research programs that have sought to build an empirical, bottom-up model of positive emotions.

Although working definitions of emotions vary somewhat across researchers, consensus is emerging that emotions are best conceptualized as multicomponent response tendencies. Emotions involve not just subjective feelings but also attention and cognition, facial expressions, cardiovascular and hormonal changes, and more, unfolding over a relatively short time span (Cosmides & Tooby, 2000; Lazarus, 1991). Positive emotions subjectively resemble positive sensations (e.g., satiety, comfort) as well as undifferentiated positive moods. However, only positive emotions involve an appraisal of the situation (Oatley & Jenkins, 1996; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985) or the specific motivational effects we will discuss in this chapter.

Theorists differ as to how the differences between emotions are best modeled (e.g., Cosmides & Tooby, 2000; Russell, Weiss, & Mendelsohn, 1989; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). However, there is general agreement that valence on a bipolar continuum from highly unpleasant to highly pleasant is a primary characteristic of every emotion (reviewed in Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). Indeed, this pleasantness rating may be one of the earliest determinations we make when processing sensory input from our environment (Chen & Bargh, 1999). An appraisal of pleasantness can arise when a stimulus fulfills a biological need (e.g., Cabanac, 1971), when it contributes to a personally relevant goal, or when it remedies a noxious or goal-inconsistent state.

Past research has suggested that positive emotions are less distinct and more likely to co-occur with one another than negative emotions (Barrett, Gross, Christensen, & Benvenuto, 2001; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2001; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). This was in part because positive emotions differ on dimensions such as relatedness, moral judgment, and spiritual experience, which did not appear in the foundational appraisals research on negative emotions (Tong, 2006). The specific positive emotions individuals feel also vary due to personality differences (Shiota, Keltner, & John, 2006), cultural differences (Tsai, Knutson, & Fung, 2006), and variations in the ability to make fine distinctions among emotions (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004).

Positive Emotions Versus Negative Emotions

Historically, emotions research has focused on negative emotions. The most general reason is that psychology as a whole has focused on understanding and ameliorating psychological problems (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Although positive emotions can contribute to problems (e.g., mania, drug addiction), negative emotions are more prominent causes and effects of pathology and thus captured the majority of research attention. Studies of positive functioning and strengths have only recently begun to catch up, raising interest in the contributions of positive emotions. We argue later that even the study of pathology has been hindered by overlooking positive emotions, which play a critical role in recovering from adversity and developing compensatory strengths.

General theories of emotion are typically built with the more attention-grabbing negative emotions (e.g., fear and anger) as prototypes. A key idea in many theories is a link between each emotion and a “specific action tendency” (Frijda, 1986; Frijda, Kuipers, & Schure, 1989; Lazarus, 1991; Levenson, 1994; Oatley & Jenkins, 1996; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). Fear, for example, produces motivation and physiological preparedness to escape, anger to attack, disgust to expel, and so on. These action tendencies are thought to have evolved because they helped our ancestors get out of life-or-death situations.

Positive emotions were often squeezed into these theories as an afterthought. Joy, for instance, was linked with aimless activation, interest with attending, and contentment with inactivity (Frijda, 1986). These tendencies seem far too general to be called specific, nor do they present the same obvious adaptive value as negative emotion tendencies (Ekman, 1992; Fredrickson, 1998; Lazarus, 1991). Our attempts to give positive emotions equal weight in shaping theories of emotion led us to develop the broaden-and-build theory.

The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions

Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions holds that positive emotions (p. 15) “broaden” people's momentary thought–action repertoires and lead to actions that “build” enduring personal resources (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001).

The specific action tendencies of traditional models are appropriate descriptions of the function of negative emotions: In a life-threatening situation, a narrowed thought–action repertoire promotes quick and decisive action that carries direct and immediate benefit.1

Positive emotions, in contrast, seldom occur in response to life-threatening situations. Thus, there is less need for them to evoke specific, focused response tendencies. Instead, positive emotions lead to broadened and more flexible response tendencies, widening the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind (Fredrickson, 1998). Joy, for instance, creates the urge to play, whether physically, socially, or intellectually. Interest creates the urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, and expand the self in the process. Love—which we view as an amalgam of several positive emotions—creates urges to play with, learn about, and savor our loved ones. Broadened thought–action repertoires did not evolve because of their short-term survival benefits, the theory posits, but because of their long-term effects. Broadening “builds” personal resources.

Take play as an example. In many species, juveniles play with behaviors—like running into a flexible sapling or branch and catapulting oneself in an unexpected direction—that adults use exclusively for predator avoidance (Dolhinow, 1987). Social play also builds enduring resources. Laughter appears to signal openness to new, friendly interactions (broadening), which can lead to lasting social bonds and attachments (building; Gervais & Wilson, 2005). Shared amusement and smiles have many of the same effects (Keltner & Bonanno, 1997; Lee, 1983; Simons, McCluskey-Fawcett, & Papini, 1986). Childhood play also builds enduring intellectual resources by increasing levels of creativity (Sherrod & Singer, 1989) and fueling brain development (Panksepp, 1998). Similarly, the exploration prompted by the positive emotion of interest creates knowledge and intellectual complexity, and the savoring prompted by contentment produces self-insight and alters world views. So, each of these phenomenologically distinct positive emotions shares the downstream effect of augmenting personal resources, ranging from physical and social resources to intellectual and psychological resources (see Fredrickson, 1998, 2001; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2001, for more detailed reviews).

The personal resources accrued during states of positive emotions are durable, outlasting the transient emotional states that led to their acquisition. These resources can be drawn on whenever they are needed, even if the individual does not feel positive at that moment (e.g., learning about a landscape out of curiosity, then using this knowledge while fleeing in terror). Figure 3.1 represents these three sequential effects of positive emotions: broadened mind-sets, built resources, and enhanced success in the future.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Positive Emotions

Our empirical investigation of the broaden-and-build theory has rested on two hypotheses: the “broaden hypothesis,” which targets the ways people change while experiencing a positive emotion, and the “build hypothesis,” which targets the lasting changes that follow repeated positive emotional experiences over time.

The Broaden Hypothesis: Positive Emotions Broaden Perception, Thoughts, and Actions

Visual Attention

The most cognitively basic form of the broaden effect we have examined appears in global—local visual processing tasks. Participants are asked to make a choice about a figure that can be categorized based either on its global, overall shape or on its local details (see Figure 2a). Positive emotions, with their broadened focus, produce a preference for the global level, whereas negative emotions often produce a preference for the details. This pattern holds both for emotionally relevant traits like optimism and anxiety (Basso, Schefft, Ris, & Dember, 1996) and for emotional states induced through a variety of means (Brandt, Derryberry, & Reed, 1992, cited in Derryberry & Tucker, 1994; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005). Wadlinger & Isaacowitz (2006) tracked participants' eye movement and found that induced positive emotion broadens visual search patterns, leading to increased attention to peripheral stimuli.

Cognition and Behavior

 Positive EmotionsClick to view larger

Fig. 3.1 The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.

Emotions affect both the focus and the process of cognition, and many long-standing findings on the effects of positive affect on cognition and behavior are consistent with the broaden hypothesis. Isen and (p. 16) colleagues tested the effects of positive states on a wide range of cognitive outcomes, ranging from creativity puzzles to simulations of complex, life-or-death work situations (Estrada, Isen, & Young, 1997). Her work demonstrates that positive emotions produce patterns of thought that are notably unusual (Isen, Johnson, Mertz, & Robinson, 1985), flexible and inclusive (Isen & Daubman, 1984), creative (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987), and receptive to new information (Estrada et al., 1997). Rowe, Hirsch, & Anderson (2007) replicated Isen's findings of improved performance on the verbal-associative Remote Associates Test (Figure 3.2b) and found that this improvement was correlated with decreased performance on a visual task that required participants to narrow their range of attention.

In the domain of more personally relevant behavior, we (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005) induced positive, negative, or no emotions in volunteer participants and then asked them to step away from the specifics of the induction and list all the things they felt like doing. Participants induced to feel positive emotions listed more and more varied potential actions relative to the neutral group; participants induced to feel negative emotions listed fewer potential actions than the neutral group. Similar research has shown that positive emotions produce more creative (Isen et al., 1987) and varied (Kahn & Isen, 1993) actions.

Another perspective on positive affect and cognition comes from the mood-as-information theorists. They have confirmed the beneficial effects of positive affect but also found a reduction in attention to detail and negative feedback, sometimes leading to an over-reliance on heuristics or stereotypes (reviewed in the volume by Martin & Clore, 2001). However, other work suggests that people in positive emotional states are more likely to incorporate challenging evidence (Trope & Pomerantz, 1998) and carefully consider difficult problems (reviewed in Abele, 1992; Aspinwall, 1998).

The general term “broadened thought” could apply to either vague, heuristic thinking or thorough, nondefensive exploration, and little has been done to reconcile these opposing interpretations. What work there is suggests that flexibility and openness are important attributes of positive emotions' cognitive effects (Bless et al., 1996; Dreisbach & Goschke, 2004), and these effects can enhance or hinder performance depending on the task and the context.

Social Cognition

 Positive EmotionsClick to view larger

Fig. 3.2 Three forms of broadened attention. (a) The participant is instructed to find the letter “T” as quickly as possible. It is present in both figures, but finding the first is facilitated by a broadened visual focus, while finding the second is facilitated by a narrowed (detail-oriented) focus (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Johnson, 2005). (b) In this item from the Remote Associates Test, the participant is asked to find a word that ties the three stimulus words together. Participants are more likely to find the answer (“jack”) when experiencing a positive emotion (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987). (c) Caucasian individuals are typically poor at distinguishing a previously learned Black face from a new one and good at determining where a morphed series crosses from “more White” to “more Black.” When experiencing positive emotions they recognize Black faces as well as they recognize White ones (Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005) and perform worse at dichotomous race categorization (Johnson, 2005).

Broadened social attention takes the form of enhanced attention to others and reduced distinctions between self and other or between different groups. Participants experiencing positive emotions report more overlap between their concept of themselves and their concept of their best friend (Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006; (p. 17) Waugh, Hejmadi, Otake, & Fredrickson, 2006) and become more imaginative and attentive regarding things they could do for friends (Otake, Waugh, & Fredrickson, in preparation). When a close relationship does not yet exist, induced positive emotions can increase trust (Dunn & Schweitzer, 2005) and may underlie the creation of a wide variety of bonds and interdependence opportunities (Cohn & Fredrickson, 2006; Gable, Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004).

Positive emotions also broaden social group concepts and break down an essentialized sense of “us versus them” (Dovidio, Gaertner, Isen, Rust, & Guerra, 1995). We have discovered the same result in a racial context: When we induce positive emotions in participants, people become less racially biased in their face perception and simultaneously worse at perceiving physical differences between races (Figure 2c) (Johnson, 2005; Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005).

The studies we have discussed demonstrate variety in the broaden effect, but more importantly, the outcomes they involve can make a substantive difference in what people learn, who they befriend, and how they understand their lives. In other words, these “broadened” mind-sets can lead people to “build” enduring resources.

The Build Hypothesis

Although positive emotions are temporary and transient, they encourage a broadened range of actions, which over time builds enduring personal resources.

In nonhuman mammals, juvenile play is associated with developing behaviors later used in predator avoidance and aggressive fighting (Boulton & Smith, 1992; Caro, 1988) and improves learning skills on complex motor tasks (Einon, Morgan, & Kibbler, 1978). A review of the human literature by Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) found that positive emotions lead to outcomes ranging from satisfaction at work and in relationships to physical health and effective problem solving.

In a direct test of the build hypothesis, we randomly assigned working adults to experience enhanced daily positive emotions. Participants in the experimental group were trained in loving-kindness meditation, a practice similar to mindfulness meditation (Davidson et al., 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 2005) but which focuses on deliberately generating the positive emotions of compassion and love.

 Positive EmotionsClick to view larger

Fig. 3.3 Results from a positive emotions intervention study. The intervention increased daily positive emotions, which led to building physical resources (top box), psychological resources (middle box), and social resources (bottom box). Resource building, in turn, led to increased life satisfaction.

After 3 weeks of practice, meditators began reporting higher daily levels of various positive emotions compared to those in the waitlist control (p. 18) group. After 8 weeks, meditators showed increases in a number of personal resources, including physical wellness, agency for achieving important goals, ability to savor positive experiences, and quality of close relationships. Mediation analyses suggested that these changes in resources were attributable to the increases in daily positive emotion and that these improved resources led those in the mediation group to judge their lives as more satisfying and fulfilling (see Figure 3; Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).

Positive Emotions and Stress

Prolonged negative situations like bereavement or joblessness evoke negative emotions but often cannot be solved by the kind of immediate, narrowly defined action that negative emotions encourage. Consistent with this view, studies have shown that grieving individuals who experienced some level of positive emotions alongside their negative ones showed greater psychological well-being a year or more later and that this occurs partly because positive emotions were associated with the ability to take a longer view and develop plans and goals for the future (Moskowitz, Folkman, & Acree, 2003; Stein, Folkman, Trabasso, & Richards, 1997). We found similar benefits of positive emotion in a longitudinal assessment of college students' emotions and mental health before and after the September 11 terrorist attacks (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003). Resilient participants were not devoid of negative emotions—they felt fear and grief much like their less resilient peers—but finding occasional opportunities to feel positive emotions seems to have alleviated some of the negative effects of a prolonged narrowed mind-set. Psychological resilience is also associated with the ability to distinguish many finely differentiated positive emotions (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004); perhaps this is because a broad emotional lexicon makes it possible to find positive moments without denying the seriousness of a negative situation.

These results contradict common-sense criticisms that positive emotions are unhelpful or inappropriate for people in negative circumstances: Even adults dealing with suicidal thoughts (Joiner, Pettit, Perez, & Burns, 2001) or disclosure of childhood sexual abuse (Bonanno et al., 2002) showed better coping when some degree of positivity accompanied their painful feelings. In a longitudinal study of college students coping with ordinary life problems (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002), we found that state positive emotions correlated with the use of creative and broad-minded coping strategies and that use of these strategies, in turn, predicted increased positive emotions 5 weeks later (above and beyond initial level of positive emotion). Research on pessimism and depression recognizes a self-reinforcing downward spiral; we are now finding evidence that positive emotions contribute to an upward spiral of increasing resources, life successes, and overall fulfillment.

Positive Emotions and Health

People who experience high levels of positive emotions tend to experience less pain and disability related to chronic health conditions (Gil et al., 1997), fight off illness and disease more successfully (Cohen & Pressman, 2006; Ong & Allaire, 2005), and even live longer (Danner et al., 2001; Levy et al., 2002; Moskowitz, 2003; Ostir et al., 2000). We believe that these findings may be explained by the ability of positive emotions to lift people out of stressed, narrowed states.

It is already established that the physiological changes that accompany negative emotions are beneficial for decisive, short-term action but detrimental to long-term health (Sapolsky, 1999), and that there are benefits to properly regulating the stress response (McEwen & Seeman, 1999). We have explored whether positive emotions help with regulation, neutralizing the body's biochemical stress response once a threat is past.

We exposed participants to an anxiety-provoking experience, ended the experience, and then showed (p. 19) them an emotional film clip, all while measuring their biological stress responses. Participants in the two positive emotion conditions (mild joy and contentment) recovered more quickly than those viewing a neutral clip, who recovered more quickly than those viewing a sad clip (Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000, study 1; see also Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998). When there was no stressor, none of the films had any biological effect (Fredrickson et al., 2000, study 2). In other words, the positive films are not notable for what they do to the cardiovascular system, but rather for what they can undo within this system. We have also discovered that people who are generally resilient against negative events recover more quickly and that they do so by self-generating positive emotions during the recovery process (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).

We take these laboratory experiments as a microcosm for the influence of emotions on coping and of coping on health. Imagine that some individuals typically seek positive emotions to help them quickly bounce back from life's stressors, while others spend more time remaining physiologically activated and prepared to react, even after the threat is gone. Over time, the latter group will accumulate more physiological wear and tear and be more vulnerable to a wide range of stress-related illness (Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, & Glaser, 2002; McEwen & Seeman, 1999). Whether the undo effect of positive emotions factors into long-term health in this way is a challenging and deeply important question for future research.

Measuring Positive Emotions

Self-Report Measures

There are few self-report emotion measures that do justice to the diversity of positive emotions. Often specificity is not critical, and many studies generate valid results with a single-item question about emotional valence, possibly combined with arousal level (Russell et al., 1989). The popular Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) measure (Watson, Wiese, Vaidya, & Tellegen, 1999) is designed for theoretical reasons to differentiate high-arousal emotions only and underrepresents low-arousal positive emotions. The Multiple Affect Adjective Check List (MAACL; Larsen & Sinnett, 1991) has a full positive affect subscale, but with 132 items, it is often not feasible to use as part of experimental research.

The modified Differential Emotions Scale (mDES; Fredrickson et al., 2003) asks participants to assess how intensely they are experiencing 20 discrete emotions. We developed the mDES to include both low- and high-arousal examples of both positive and negative emotions (e.g., contentment, excitement, sadness, and anxiety). Thus, it is useful both for finely categorizing a person's emotion experience and for measuring his or her overall level of positive and negative emotion. The mDES also includes emotion-like states without an inherent valence, such as surprise, and emotions that are considered less prototypical and so may not be reported participants independently, such as interest and compassion. By varying the response options, the mDES can measure either intensity or frequency of either present or recalled emotions. The mDES uses terms that most participants are familiar with and takes only 1–2 min to complete, so it balances the goals of quick assessment and emotional breadth.2

Facial Measures

Self-report measures share a number of flaws. They are vulnerable to desirable responding; they distract participants from the task or experience at hand; and they cannot measure emotions that are too subtle to reach conscious awareness but that still affect cognition (e.g., Winkelman & Berridge, 2004). They are also poor at demonstrating the course of an emotion over time. For these purposes, psychophysiological measures may be better. In facial electromyography (facial EMG), electrical sensors placed on the face detect changes in muscle tension. Positive emotions cause activity in the zygomasticus major and the obicularis oculi, the two muscles used in a spontaneous (nonposed) smile. This occurs even if the participant is not aware of any change and an observer would not be able to detect a smile. Another option is Ekman and Friesen's (1978) Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a procedure for describing the movement of all facial muscle groups, including those that display emotion. Facial EMG is more sensitive to small changes, whereas FACS can discriminate a wider range of emotions. Both are useful as covert measures of emotional change over time.

Future Directions

Physiological and Neurological Connections

We are eager to see empirical findings on positive emotions embedded in a broader physiological (p. 20) context. A review by Ashby, Isen, and Turken (1999) suggests that the broaden effect may be associated with release of mesolimbic dopamine, which enhances cognitive flexibility, set switching, and proactive curiosity. Notably, this is the same neurological system Berridge and Robinson (2003) associated with the motivational component of positive affect. It is also the mesolimbic dopamine system that is inhibited by older antipsychotic drugs, which lead to notable cognitive narrowing and rigidity (Berger et al., 1989). There is no doubt that the neurological substrate of the broaden effect will turn out to be more complex than a single neurotransmitter or neuronal system, but Ashby et al.'s (1999) observations help pave the way for future investigation.

Scattered results linking physiology and positive emotional effects are emerging in other areas. Haidt (2005) has early but suggestive evidence linking elevation and other moral emotions to changes in vagal tone. Results from neuroimaging studies demonstrate heightened left-hemispheric activation both while experiencing positive emotions and tonically in individuals with higher trait positive emotionality (Davidson, 2004). Our work on the undo effect (Fredrickson & Levenson, 1998; Fredrickson et al., 2000) demonstrates that positive emotions can reduce the duration of cardiovascular response evoked by a stressor. As we learn more about how positive emotions are situated in the brain and body, we will be able to make better predictions about emotions and health and take advantage of more research from medical and animal research.


Interventions based on the resource-building effects of positive emotions require us to have emotion inductions that are reliable and continue to work over time. Emmons and McCullough (2003) have designed an intervention based on counting blessings; Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) have combined counting blessings with visualizing one's best possible self, and Seligman, Steen, and Park (2005) had participants count blessings, express gratitude, and practice using their signature strengths. Our research on loving-kindness meditation produced the strongest evidence to date that induced positive emotions lead to gains in resources, but its intervention is cumbersome and resource intensive. Positive emotions research needs a variety of inductions that can work with different populations, different lifestyles, and different levels of resources and participant commitment. We encourage future research on popular or folk methods for changing one's emotional state to see if we can empirically verify and harness their effects. Related areas of psychology can also help: practitioners of cognitive-behavioral therapy have a stable of techniques for generating positive emotions as a bulwark against depression (Beck, 1995), and these may be adaptable for nondepressed individuals as well.

Properties of Specific Emotions

So far, the empirical evidence suggests that the broaden effect is common to many positive emotions and may describe their most general shared effect on cognition and attention. However, different positive emotions should also have distinct thought—action repertoires, subjective components, and physiological effects. For example, Tiedens and Linton (2001) compared the cognitive effects of contentment and pleasant surprise along a certainty—uncertainty continuum, and Gonzaga, Turner, Keltner, Campos, and Altemus (2006) studied cognitive, behavioral, and biological distinctions between romantic love, friendship, and sexual desire. Tong (2006) found that distinguishing different positive emotions may require attention to dimensions of experience that researchers have not previously thought of as inherent to emotion, such as social connection and spiritual experience.


The broaden-and-build theory provides a description of the short-term effects of positive emotions and a plausible mechanism for long-term growth, but at a very general level. There is much more to learn about how the broaden effect works and what it does in specific situations. How does a broad mind-set affect perceived familiarity with and interest in a new relationship partner? In a learning situation, is it likely to increase interest in the topic at hand or increase the tendency to switch between topics? In what situations does it lead to heuristic use versus careful processing?

Conclusion: Positive Emotions and Positive Psychology

Positive psychology's domain includes both the hedonic definition of happiness—good moods and pleasurable experiences—and the eudaemonic definition—personal growth, meaningful occupation, and connection with others. These have sometimes been portrayed as conflicting, and positive psychology has sometimes had to emphasize the eudaemonic to counter media portrayals of the (p. 21) field as Pollyannaish or emotionally manic. We see the emerging view of positive emotions as undoing this dichotomy. Evolution shaped the enjoyable emotions of friendship because investing energy in another person does not always promote survival immediately, but it reliably does over time. We evolved the ability to feel interest to move us through the idle stage of learning about a new topic (e.g., an animal's migratory patterns, the nuances of a landscape) to the point where we develop potentially life-saving knowledge. Positive emotions contribute to both the pleasurable life and the good life.

Many positive emotions are related to immediate pleasure, and there is no question that positive emotions are also part of arrogance, addiction, and complacency. However, in most cases we see positive emotions as part of humanity's toolbox for growth: Positive emotions allow us to sample the rewards of the future in the present.

We encourage positive psychologists to consider the resource-building value of positive emotions in their work. When studying people who are successful in their own lives, we should remember to seek positive emotional mediators for their successful behaviors. When designing interventions, we should remember that positive emotions encourage participants to stick with a program (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) and also help move them from entrenched habits to new and adaptive ways of acting (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005).

Our critics do sound a useful warning: A full scientific understanding of positive emotions should include the pitfalls and boundary conditions of their benefits. For example, although more securely attached infants show faster cognitive development, insecure attachment may be an appropriate response to threatening or unreliable family circumstances. Positive emotions help undo the lingering cardiovascular effects of stressors, but people in particularly dangerous circumstances may have good reason to remain ready to act, even when a threat appears to be gone. Additionally, there is some suggestion that extremely high levels of positive emotions, untempered by sufficient negative emotions, can degrade performance (Diener, 2004; Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). We would like to develop a nuanced understanding of when positive emotions can help resolve a negative situation (as in Fredrickson et al., 2003; Moskowitz et al., 2003; Stein et al., 1997) and when they might be dangerous, excessive, or unacceptably costly.

Despite these caveats, we believe there is good reason to celebrate and encourage positive emotions. Research on critical ratios of positivity to negativity (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005; Gottman, 1994) suggests that most individuals and groups are on the low end. There are important questions about when and how to experience positive emotions and which emotions are appropriate in different situations, but few of us are fortunate enough to have the problem of simply experiencing too much joy, interest, contentment, or love. If we were to make a recommendation based on the current state of the research, it is that people should cultivate positive emotions as a regular feature of their lives without giving up their ability to react to good and bad events as they come. Negative emotions help us respond to threats, avoid risks, and appropriately mark losses, while positive emotions help us take advantage of everything life has to offer.

Future Questions About Positive Emotions

  1. 1. Is broadening one thing or many? Is there a single underlying biological, neurological, or psychological state that increases the breadth of perception, motivation, attention, and social cognition, or are these all separate but conceptually related adaptations? If they are separate, why does broadening in one domain appear to be associated with broadening in others? If they are unified, then what features of distinct positive emotions or distinct situations determine the type of broadened thoughts and actions that will result?

  2. 2. When is a broadened thought—action repertoire beneficial? Some evidence suggests that positive emotions can interfere with intense attention and detail-oriented thinking, but many real-world situations clearly benefit from both close attention to details and openness to new ideas or unexpected information. It will be especially critical to understand how the broaden effect plays out in a variety of task, work, and study contexts.

  3. 3. If positive emotions are widely beneficial, why don't we experience more of them? A variety of research indicates that most people would benefit from modest increases in their daily levels of positive emotions. Are there benefits, in either the evolutionary or the modern context, to a conservative approach to positive emotions? Or are there potentially remediable features of the modern world that cause many people to experience more worry and distress and less interest, joy, and contentment than would be optimal?


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (1) A life-saving response need not involve action per se. Evolutionary research suggests that sadness may have evolved to prevent action at times when opportunities were too poor to merit expending any energy (Keller & Nesse, 2005).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (2) The most current version of the mDES is available at