What are positive emotions? The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions.


Positive Emotions

Positive emotions is an emotional reaction to express a positive affect, such as happiness when one attains a goal, relief when one avoid a danger, or contentment when one feels the satisfaction with the present state of affairs.

Seligman (2002) classifies positive emotions into three categories: those associated with the past, the present and the future. Positive emotions associated with the future include optimism, hope, confidence, faith and trust.

Similarly, the main positive emotions associated with the past are Satisfaction, contentment, fulfilment, pride and serenity.

Whereas, there are two distinct classes of positive emotions concerned with the present: momentary pleasures and more enduring gratifications.

  • The pleasures include both bodily pleasures and higher pleasures. Bodily pleasures come through the senses. Feelings that come from sex, beautiful perfumes and delicious flavors fall into this category. In contrast higher pleasures come from more complex activities and include feelings such as bliss, glee, comfort, ecstasy and ebullience.
  • Gratifications differ from pleasures. It involves states of absorption or flow that come from engagement in activities which involve using our unique signature strengths. For example, Sailing, teaching and helping others. Signature strengths are personal traits associated with particular virtues defined in the Values in Action Classification of Strengths.

  • Professor Barbara Fredrickson (2002) at the University of Michigan has extended the idea that positive emotions lead to non-zero-sum games.
  • She developed the broaden- and-build theory of positive emotions to explain how positive affective experiences not only signal personal well-being but also contribute to personal growth and development.


  • Broaden-and-build theory describes how positive emotions open up our thinking and actions to new responsibilities. And how this expansion can help build physical, psychological, and social resources that promote well-being.
  • Many negative emotions such as anxiety or anger narrow people’s momentary thought action repertoires, so that they are ready to act in a particular self-protective way. Positive emotions, in contrast, broaden momentary thought-action repertoires.
  • This broadening of momentary thought-action repertoires offers opportunities for building enduring personal resources. This in turn offers the potential for personal growth and transformation by creating positive or adaptive spirals of emotion, cognition and action.
  • For example, joy creates the urge to play and create in social and intellectual or artistic ways.
  • Increased social support, artistic and scientific productions, and successful problem-solving experiences are all relatively enduring outcomes of joy and may contribute to personal transformation and development.
  • This, as a result, may lead to more positive emotions.
  • Contentment, another positive emotion, may create an urge to contemplate our life circumstances. This may lead to new and more positive ways of viewing ourselves and the world around us, and of carrying on our day-to-day lives.
  • Manic and hypomanic states are associated with over inclusive thinking and that bipolar patients treated successfully with lithium show diminished creativity.
  • The methods in order of effectiveness include asking participants to watch an arousing film and read an arousing story, receiving an unexpected gift (e.g. a bar of chocolate); reading positive self- statements; remembering a positive event; getting positive feedback; listening to music; and having positive social interaction with a cheerful person.
  • Thus, these mood induction methods have been used to show the positive effects of happiness on perception, cognition and social interaction.


  • In a follow-back study of 180 nuns, Danner (2001) found that the happiness expressed in essays that the nuns wrote as they entered the order was associated with their longevity. This was a carefully controlled study.
  • All of the participants had similar lifestyles. They were all unmarried nuns who worked as teachers, did not smoke or drink and ate a simple balanced diet throughout their adult life.
  • They gave a biographical sketch and stated their hopes for the future. But had no idea that these essays would be used in a study of happiness and longevity.

Related: The Nun study: Living longer with positive emotions.

  • Marutua et al. (2000) conducted a follow-back study of over 800 patients, 200 of whom had died. These patients had attended the Mayo Clinic forty years previously.
  • As part of their intake assessment they had answered questions to show whether their outlook was optimistic or pessimistic. Forty years later, of the 200 patients who had died, the optimists showed 19 percent greater longevity than pessimists.
  • Thus, patients who reported that they were optimistic when they first attended the clinic, lived considerably longer than those who did not.
  • Ostir et al. (2000) in a longitudinal study of more than 2000 Mexican Americans over 65 years of age.
  • He found that after two years, positive emotions at the start of the study predicted who lived or died, and who showed greater functional independence or disability.
  • After controlling for age, socioeconomic status, drug use and diseases, the happy participants were twice as likely to survive. And also to remain functionally independent compared with their unhappy counterparts. From the foregoing it is clear that happiness enhances creativity, productivity and longevity.

A person’s emotional life might predict longevity on the basis of:.

  1. First, prior research supports the connection between emotions and health. Negative emotions suppresses the immune system and other aspects of physiological functioning. Thereby, increase the risk of disease. Positive emotions seem to enhance these same processes and thus reduce the risk of disease.
  2. Emotional expressiveness, such as whether we have a positive and cheerful outlook or a negative. Also more guarded outlook, tends to be fairly consistent over a person’s lifetime, from childhood through adulthood.
  3. Finally. temperament is known to influence how well a person copes with the stress and challenges of life. People with cheerful temperaments and positive outlooks fare better than those with less cheerful and more negative outlooks.
  • Longevity may be related to a variety of factors including heredity, gender, socioeconomic status, nutrition, social support, medical care, and personality and behavioral characteristics.


  • Resilience is the ability to bounce back from the stressful events and regain composure and a sense of well-being.
  • Positive emotions may increase our resilience and ability to cope by offsetting the effects of negative emotions caused by stressful experiences.
  • Fredrickson and her colleagues examined the relationship between resilience and positive emotions by measuring students’ self-reported resilience using a scale that assesses how strong and confident people feel when facing challenge and stress.
  • However, Resilient individuals seem (knowingly or unknowingly) to use positive emotions to offset negative emotions.
  • Thus, their tendency to cultivate positive emotions in times of stress may be one source of their resilience and effective coping.


Positive Psychology. Baumgardner and Crothers. 2015. Pearson India Education.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing. William C. Compton , Edward L. Hoffman. 

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