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The broaden-and build-theory is a model for explaining the mechanisms behind positive emotions in our minds and bodies.
What are its effects? What is the evolutionary reason is behind these emotions?
Studying emotions has always been a challenge, but it is important to understand and advance our well-being.
Researcher Barbara Fredrickson refers to emotions 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 exclude positive emotions? Fredrickson offers three theories:
- They are few and less differentiated than negative emotions. They have similar facial patterns, little or no autonomic response, and are difficult to recall. It can be hard for someone to remember if they felt joy, contentment, pride, etc., whereas negative emotions are recalled easily.
- As a field of study, psychology has centered around a problem-focused approach. Since positive emotions like joy don’t arise when there are problems, they’re not studied as much.
- Models of emotions are built on prototypes, and positive emotions do not exactly fit the model with a specific action tendency.
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Positive emotions are a key component in happiness or subjective well-being, as Myers and Diener explain. 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?
Fredrickson, in her 1998 article, began studying positive emotions. She realized that joy is an emotion often experienced while playing and that it leads to “approaching behavior” (Fredrickson 1998).
Through play, kids build physical, intellectual and social abilities, as well as grounds for clear communication. Play also encourages exploration, which is the base for knowledge and personal growth.
Feeling contentment allows people to expand their world view and the view of themselves, which later leads to better social relations and skills. Love could be defined as a combination of these three emotions; in close relationships, it promotes cycles where all of these can be experienced.
In her study, Fredrickson realized that the positive emotions she studied shared a pattern, and it was different from the one that was elicited by negative emotions. She established the following theory in 1998:
“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…
With her research, Fredrickson affirmed that negative emotions lead to specific action tendencies; thus, they narrow emotions to what Fredrickson calls the momentary thought-action repertoire.
This is why, for example, when we feel fear, we focus on either getting rid of the menace or fleeing the scene (commonly known as the fight-or-flight response). It’s an adaptive evolutionary response. Imagine a bear approaching you while hiking in the woods: your body would need to decide: will I fight this animal? Will I run away?
In contrast, positive emotions don’t emerge in menacing situations: they arise when we’re out of them.
This doesn’t mean that positive emotions don’t serve an evolutionary purpose. Fredrickson argues that instead, we had been looking at positive emotions through the wrong lens.
Because positive emotions affect our brain differently than negative emotions, they deserve more research.
Broadening and Building
Fredrickson hypothesized that positive emotions have a “broadening effect” on the momentary thought-action repertoire: They allow us to discard automatic responses and instead look for creative, flexible, and unpredictable new ways of thinking and acting (Fredrickson 2004).
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 may have contributed to our ancestors’ survival.
In Fredrickson’s 2001 and 2004 articles, there’s a review of different experiments that serve as empirical support for the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. They examine how positive emotions lead to a broadening effect on attention and a more global form of visual processing.
Additionally, positive emotions may allow for more creative cognitive processing, including making more connections and creating more inclusive categories.
One implication of the broaden-and-build theory is that positive emotions may help us process the residue of negative emotions.
For instance, when your heart rate rises after experiencing a negative emotion, you bounce back to a calmer pace if experiencing positive emotions. This could also mean that positive emotions aid in protecting personal health and well-being. As Fredricksen (2000) remarks:
“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” ( p.16).
Taking into account all of the positive effects raises an important question: how can we experience more positive emotions?
Let’s see if Barbara Fredrickson can answer that question for us in the video below:
Broaden-and-Build Theory in the Workplace
While the broaden-and-build theory was developed to explain the role of positive emotions in general, the findings can be applied to organizational behavior in a very practical way.
Workplaces that understand the power of positive emotions are more likely to have dedicated employees who cooperate with each other and complete the tasks at hand.
Increasing Employee Engagement
Organizations spend a lot of time and effort on employee engagement surveys. These surveys provide opportunities for employees to assess their workplace, allowing organizations to focus their efforts on improving employee experience, enhancing productivity, and increasing loyalty to the organization.
One example is the Great Place to Work survey, which identifies key variables that employees rate as particularly important: trust in management, pride in their work, and enjoying the company of their colleagues.
Even for productivity purposes, organizations are advised to review the list of 10 positive emotions identified by Fredrickson and create ways for employees to experience these more frequently at work. Not only will the workplace culture shift, but also the efficiency of which the team operates.
Fostering a Continuous Learning Culture
Most organizations want their employees to learn and develop their skill sets. This helps staff deal with greater complexity as they continue with a company.
Some companies, such as Amazon, have integrated this thinking into their leadership principles. As the Amazon website claims:
“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.”
Creating a safe environment and company culture, encouraging employees to experiment without fear of repercussions for failure, and giving employees the opportunity to work on new and challenging projects, allows organizations to cultivate the positive emotion of “interest.”
Additionally, hiring inspirational leaders who set an example triggers the employee’s intrinsic motivation and desire to learn.
Building Positive Leadership Skills
Positive Leadership as a management philosophy is becoming widespread. In terms of the broaden-and-build theory, there are several elements that are relevant to leaders using this management philosophy.
If a leader’s purpose is to inspire and motivate employees to excel with an organization’s goals, then the broaden-and-build theory can provide a framework for leaders to build the emotional environment.
A leader plays a vital role in shaping company culture stick. Thus, leaders interested in workplace efficiency and engagement need to create a learning environment that encourages growth and trust.
One positive emotion leaders can encourage is gratitude. Appreciative leaders who foster a culture of gratitude can create a positive climate in their teams.
One tangible way to encourage gratitude is by leading by example: encouraging team members to give each other support and positive feedback for tasks well-done can improve a team’s communication patterns.
It has also been found that expressing gratitude can improve wellbeing in the “sender” – a welcome side effect.
In addition, finding opportunities to have fun–even during a stressful day–will impact the employee experience in a positive way.
Who does not want to work on a team where amusement, joy, and creativity are expressed?
Enhancing the Customer Connection
Last but not least, an organization applying broaden-and-build tenets to their culture will find that their customers also benefit.
In an interview with Gallup, Fredrickson stressed the importance of building human connections with customers and providing a service for which customers are grateful. Customers are more likely to remain loyal when they sense appreciation from the business involved.
In essence, the aim should be to provide a positive-feeling customer experience that the customer will want to repeat.
Organizations that apply broaden-and-build findings to their management practices and culture are likely to find many positive impacts.
Creative thinkers can identify even more ways in which the 10 positive emotions (researched by Fredrickson) can be nurtured in organizations.
Below you will find a list of positive emotions resources that might be of help. Going through the articles and videos will provide you with 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 number of positive emotions that they experience are better able to find meaning in their negative circumstances.
Interestingly, negative emotions serve a purpose as well. The following article discusses this purpose. It will also 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 to the brain when, for instance, after we get attacked by a bear and experience a flood of negative emotions. 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 happier as 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 all the theories of positive emotions, starting with these 4 basic theories. These offer a more complete dive into why our brain needs positive emotions to survive:
- the dynamic theory
- the psychophysiological theory
- the neurological theory
- the evolutionary theory
Lastly, 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.