Positive Emotions

Positive Emotions Graphics courtesy of Little LeagueOpens in new window

The interest in positive emotions has increased dramatically in the past two decades. Since much of the history of clinical psychology and related fields has been concerned with curing ills, the focus of research on emotion has traditionally been on negative emotionsOpens in new window. However, at least two developments have led to the increased attention on positive emotions.

  • One has been a concern with the good life, a focus associated with a field called positive psychologyOpens in new window.
  • A second, related development has been the discovery of the benefits that positive emotions provide. For example, positive emotions have been linkend with better health, better interpersonal relationships, a superior ability to cope with stress, and other favourable outcomes (e.g., Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005).

Humans experience a wide variety of positive emotions or affective states, including happinessOpens in new window, joyOpens in new window, ecstasyOpens in new window, satisfactionOpens in new window, interest, excitement, contentment, pride, awe, love, hope, and relief, to name a few.

These states differ on a number of dimensions. One dimension is arousal, with some emotions characterized by high arousal (e.g., excitement), others demonstrating low arousal (e.g., contentment), and many falling somewhere in between.

Positive emotions may be other-directed (interpersonal) or self-directed (intrapersonal). Whereas most emotions are self-directed, love is an example of an other-directed emotion.

Positive emotions are less distinct than negative ones; individuals experiencing a positive emotion are less likely to be able to identify exactly what they are feeling than are individuals experiencing a negative emotion.

Related to this, people are likely to experience more than one positive emotion at a time, whereas people often experience only one negative emotion at a time.

There is a functional explanation for these facts. Negative emotionsOpens in new window typically arise when an individual is threatened in some way and a fairly specific type of behavior is required. For instance,

  • fear occurs when one should flee,
  • anger occurs when one should fight, and
  • disgust occurs when one should expel (e.g., spit out food that is tainted).

However, positive emotions are usually not associated with threats. And positive emotions do, in fact, generate a wider range of thoughts and behaviors, opening oneself up to a greater number of possibilities.

Positive emotions are often associated with a desire to approach or to continue behavior that has already been initiated (rather than a desire to avoid, which is linked to many of the negative emotions).

This is likely one of the ways that positive emotions are voluntarily adaptive; positive emotions encourage us to interact with our environments, and without them, we may be passive to the degree that we jeorpadize our survival.

A contempory theory that has received significant support in explaining the function of positive emotions is Frederickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theoryOpens in new window.

Fredrickson argues that positive emotions produce their best benefits for the individual over the long term.

As previously described, the negative emotions tend to be most functional for emergency situations. However, the positive ones help one to broaden and build for the future.

Fredrickson and Cohn (2008) review research that supports the idea that positive emotions tend to produce a broadening of one’s attention and cognition. Several studies show that when presented with a visual stimulus, people who are experiencing positive emotions attend more to global or broader aspects of the stimulus, whereas people experiencing negative emotions pay more attention to the detail of the stimulus.

A large body of evidence also shows a broadening of cognition when one is in a positive emotional state. For instance, in one study, Frederick and Branigan (2005) induced positive, negative, or no emotions in participants, then requested that the participants list all the things that they felt they wanted to do.

Those who had a positive emotion induction listed more activities and more varied activities than those with either a neutral or negative emotion induction. Furthermore, those with the negative emotion induction listed the fewest behaviors of all. This research indicates that positive emotion is associated with thinking characterized by more openness and flexibility.

Additionally, as Fredrickson and Cohn (2008) describe, positive emotions are associated with broadening in the social cognition area, meaning in particular that people become more attentive of others, see fewer differences between themselves and others, and see fewer differences between different groups of people.

The second part of Fredrickson’s theory is building. Positive emotions are linked with building enduring resources over time. The resources are, for example, physical, social, and intellectual.

Both Fredrickson and Cohn (2008) and Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) review relevant studies. Play, associated with the emotion joyOpens in new window, can lead to physical development that can be helpful for survival. For instance, when a lion cub plays by attacking his sibling, he is practicing hunting skills.

Play also can build social resources. When laughing together, people often create a bond of loyalty.

As another example, positive emotions can build intellectual resources. For instance, children who are securely attached—those who are most secure in their feelings of love from parents—explore their environments more than do children who are less securely attached. Their explorations lead to intellectual improvements, for instance, they develop excellent cognitive maps (well-developed spatial memories) of the places they explore (Hazen & Durrett, 1982).

In sum, the broadening of attention and cogntion that occurs while experiencing positive emotions creates attitudes and propensities toward openness and flexibility. The positive emotions also tend to lead to developemtn of physical or intellectual skills or social bonds, each of which may come in handy in the future.

  1. Fredrickson, B.L., & Cohn, M.A. (2008). Positive emotions. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 777 – 796). New York: Guilford.
  2. Basso, M.R., Schefft, B.K., Ris, M.D., & Dember, W.N. (1996). Mood and global-local visual processing. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 2, 249 – 255.
  3. Fredrickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218 – 226.
  4. Frijda, N.H. (1986). The emotions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univeristy Press.
  5. Frijda, N.H. (1994). Emotions are functional, most of the time. In P. Ekman & R. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions (pp. 112 – 122). New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990). The past explains the present: Emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375 – 424.