The broaden-and build-theory could be defined as a model for explaining the mechanisms behind positive emotions in our minds and bodies, what their effects are, what the evolutionary reason is behind them and why studying them is so important for our well-being.
Studying emotions has always been a challenge. There are different points of view as to what is considered an emotion. Barbara Fredrickson refers to them as “multicomponent response tendencies that unfold over relatively short time spans”.
Models based on this perspective have usually studied emotions like fear, anger, disgust (i.e. negative emotions), leaving the whole array of positive emotions unattended.
Why? Fredrickson has pointed out some of the reasons:
- They are few and less differentiated than negative emotions. Mainly, they all have similar facial patterns, little or no autonomic response, and recalling is often undifferentiated (meaning, it’s hard for someone to remember if they felt joy, contentment, pride, etc.).
- The problem-focused approach (which has characterized Psychology for years). Since they don’t arise when there are problems, they’re not studied when needing a solution.
- Models built on prototypes. Finally, positive emotions have been left aside because they don’t exactly fit the model where they serve as a signal for a specific action tendency.
Positive emotions are a key component in happiness or subjective well-being, as Myers and Diener put it. This raised some questions in Fredrickson’s mind, mainly “How?” How do positive emotions contribute to happiness? If they don’t fit the model of emotions it would be understandable not to invest resources into them. So, why do we feel them? Why, after centuries, haven’t we lost the ability to experience positive emotions? Let’s take a closer look.
Fredrickson, in her 1998 article, started to look into some positive emotions. For instance, she realized that Joy is an emotion that’s often experienced while playing, and that it leads to approaching behavior. Also, through play, kids build important physical, intellectual and social abilities. Interest stimulates exploration, which is the base for knowledge and personal growth.
Feeling contentment allows for people to expand their world view and the view of themselves, which later leads to building better social relations and skills. Love could be defined as a combination of these three emotions, and in close relationships, it promotes cycles where all of these can be experienced.
This author realized that the positive emotions she studied shared a pattern, and it was different from the one that was elicited by negative emotions.
“Broaden-and-build theory is notable for drawing explicit attention to the positive and showing that insights result when we do something more than simply look at the absence of the negative.”
Looking with the wrong lens…
Negative emotions lead to specific action tendencies, and thus, have an effect of narrowing what Fredrickson calls the momentary thought-action repertoire. This is why, when we are feeling fear, for example, we tend to focus our attention on getting rid of the menace or fleeing the scene (a.k.a. the fight or flight response). It has been an adaptive evolutionary response.
But positive emotions don’t emerge on menacing situations, they occur when we’re out of them. Does this mean there is no evolutionary reason for them? Definitely not. Fredrickson came to the conclusion that we had been looking at positive emotions with the wrong lens. They work in a different way.
Broadening and Building
She hypothesized that positive emotions have a broadening effect on the momentary thought-action repertoire, discarding automatic responses and looking for creative, flexible and unpredictable new ways of thinking and acting.
That’s the broadening part of the theory. So what do we build? By broadening our perspectives and actions, we tend to build important and lasting physical, intellectual, psychological and social resources that, across history, may have contributed to our ancestors’ survival.
In Fredrickson’s 2001 and 2004 articles there’s a review of different experiments that can be considered as empirical support for the broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Some of them have to do with a broadening effect on attention and a more global visual processing, some with a more creative cognitive processing, including making more connections and creating more inclusive categories.
Some of the implications of the broaden-and-build theory are that positive emotions may have an undoing effect on the residue of negative emotions. This means, for instance, that when your heart rate rises after experiencing a negative emotion, you bounce back to a calmer pace when experiencing a positive emotion, instead of a neutral or negative one. This could also mean that positive emotions have an effect on protecting health, wellbeing and in leading a meaningful life.
“The psychological broadening sparked by one positive emotion can increase an individual’s receptiveness to subsequent pleasant or meaningful events, increasing the odds that the individual will find positive meaning in these subsequent events and experience additional positive emotions” (Fredrickson, 2000, p.16).
Taking into account all of the positive effects, I guess a more important question (now) could be How can we experience more positive emotions?
Let’s see if Barbara Fredrickson can answer that question for us:
Broaden-and-build theory in the workplace
While Broaden-and-build was developed to explain the role of positive emotions in general, the findings can conceivably be applied to organizational behavior in a very practical way.
Increasing Employee Engagement
Organizations spend a lot of time and effort on employee engagement surveys. These surveys aim to understand how employees assess their workplace with regards to various areas, allowing organizations to focus their efforts to improve employee experience, enhance productivity and increase loyalty to the organization.
Similarly, the Great Place to Work survey identifies key variables that employees rate as particularly important: trust in management, pride in their work, and enjoying the company of their colleagues.
Organizations looking to increase their engagement ratings would, therefore, be well-advised to review the list of 10 positive emotions identified by Fredrickson and find ways to create simple mechanisms for employees to experience these more frequently at work.
As mentioned above, frequent (authentic) positive feedback instills pride in employees.
Expressing gratitude and appreciation for a job done well benefits both the person saying thank you as well as the receiver. Hiring “inspirational” leaders who set an example that others aspire to triggers employees’ intrinsic motivation and the desire to learn.
Fostering A Continuous Learning Culture
Most organizations have a strong interest in ensuring their employees continue to learn and develop their skill sets, becoming more productive, and enabling them to deal with greater complexity.
Some companies, such as Amazon, have integrated this thinking into their leadership principles. From Amazon.com,
“Learn and Be Curious: Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.”
Broaden-and-build provides a useful framework for organizations looking to create meaningful learning experiences for their employees. By creating a safe environment and company culture in which employees are encouraged to experiment without fear of negative repercussions for failure, and frequently giving employees the opportunity to work on new and challenging projects, organizations can cultivate the positive emotion of “interest” with its action-urge of exploring and resulting skill-building.
Building Positive Leadership Skills
Positive Leadership as a management philosophy becoming more and more widely spread . In terms of broaden-and-build, there are several elements that have great relevance for today’s leaders.
Assuming a leader’s purpose is to inspire and motivate teams of employees to excel at achieving an organization’s goals, broaden-and-build can provide a framework for leaders to provide guidance on how to build the emotional environment to achieve this goal successfully.
A leader plays a vital role in making the company culture stick – it is they who need to find mechanisms to increase employee engagement and continuous learning in their teams.
Some additional thoughts in addition to those already described above: “Gratitude” – appreciative leaders who foster a culture of gratitude can create a positive climate in their teams.
Leading by example and encouraging team members to give each other positive feedback for tasks well done and support provided can improve a team’s overall communication patterns. It has also been found that expressing gratitude can also improve wellbeing in the “sender” – a welcome side effect!
Finding opportunities to have fun even during a stressful day will impact the employee experience in a positive way, and via the emotions of amusement and joy can motivate individuals to get more involved and be creative.
Enhancing the Customer Connection
Last but not least, an organization applying broaden-and-build tenets to their culture will most likely find that their customers will also benefit.
In an interview with Gallup, Fredrickson stresses the importance of building human connections with customers, providing a service that customers are grateful for, and will remain loyal to. In essence, the aim should be to provide a customer experience that feels positive to the customer, and that the customer will, therefore, strive to repeat.
Organizations have much to gain from taking note of broaden-and-build findings and applying these in their management practices and organizational culture. Creative thinkers will identify many more ways in which the 10 positive emotions researched by Fredrickson can be fostered and nurtured in organizations around the world.
Below you will find a list of positive emotions resources that might be of help to the interested. Going through the articles and videos set out below will provide you a thorough understanding of positive emotions and Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden-and-Build‘ theory.
Download the foundational piece of research on the broaden-and build theory here in PDF-format.
Research has shown that individuals who increase the amount of positive emotions that they experience are better able to find positive meaning in their negative circumstances.
Interestingly, negative emotions serve a purpose as well. The following article discusses this purpose and will provide you with three practical tips that you can immediately start to apply in your daily life.
Wikipedia gives us an interesting example of what the broaden-and-build mindset can lead to:
“Curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise and physical excellence.”
Kristen Truempy takes us on a journey through the woods and shows us what happens when a brain is soaked in negative emotions, after we get attacked by a bear for instance. She also discusses the physical effects of both positive and negative emotions and explains how we can cultivate the positive ones in an authentic way.
Paul Wierzbicki discusses the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ and clearly explains how it can be that you are no more happy a millionaire than you are a quadriplegic. Want to find out more? Give his article a read!
Nhu Tran explains the concept of ‘affective forecasting’ in her article and shows why we aren’t always the best judge on our own (future) emotions.
Reza Zolfagharifard has listed al the theories of positive emotions, starting with these 4 basic theories:
- the dynamic theory
- the psychophysiological theory
- the neurological theory
- the evolutionary theory
According to Nhu “to savor is to maintain, and sometimes to build up our positive experiences. If we know what savoring tactics are and how to apply them, we will be able to fully enjoy the happiness that life has to offer us.”
This article has been written by Sarah Battey and Catarina Lino.
Cameron, Kim S. (2013): Practicing Positive Leadership. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Ekman, P. (1999). Basic Emotions. In Dalgleish, T. & Power, M. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Cognition and Emotion (pp. 45-60). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Fredrickson, B. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Fredrickson, B. (2000). Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and wellbeing. Prevention and Treatment, 3.
Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in Positive Psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions.American Psychologist. 56(3): 218–226.
Fredrickson, B. (2004). The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society B.359, 1367–1377
Fredrickson, B. (2013): Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. In: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 47, Elsevier
Fredrickson, B and Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.
Great Place to Work: http://www.greatplacetowork.com
Isen, AM. (2001). An Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making in Complex Situations: Theoretical Issues With Practical Implications. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 11(2), 75–85
Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological Science, 6, 10-19.
Seligmann, M. (2011): Flourish. New York: Free Press
Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., & Keltner, D. (2003). The faces of positive emotion: Prototype displays of awe, amusement, and pride. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1000, 296-299.