The University Record, May 22, 2000

U researcher wins largest psychology prize for work on positive emotions

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

The pursuit of happiness and other positive emotions has benefits that the founding fathers may not have imagined, according to a U-M psychologist who has just been awarded $100,000—the largest psychology prize in history—by the Templeton Foundation.

“Cultivating positive emotions produces an upward spiral that not only counteracts negative emotions but also broadens habitual modes of thinking and acting and builds personal resources for coping,” says Barbara L. Fredrickson, a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research.

“But the possible benefits of positive emotions seem particularly undervalued in cultures like ours that endorse the Protestant ethic, which casts hard work and self-discipline as virtues and leisure and pleasures as sinful,” she writes in “Cultivating Positive Emotions to Optimize Health and Well-Being,” published in the current issue of Prevention & Treatment.

One of those benefits, Fredrickson has documented in a series of studies, is that positive emotions have a unique ability to counteract or undo accelerated pulse rates and other cardiovascular aftereffects of negative emotions such as anxiety and fear. Men and women who smiled during a sad film, she found in one study, experienced quicker cardiovascular recovery than those who didn’t. “Perhaps putting on a happy face can alleviate unhappiness, at least at the cardiovascular level,” she says.

Negative emotions narrow a person’s repertoire of thoughts and actions, Fredrickson explains. “This effect is clearly adaptive in life-threatening situations that require quick action to survive,” she says. Positive emotions broaden and expand this thought-action repertoire, Fredrickson suggests. Rather than preparing a person for quick action, they build enduring personal resources that also serve the ancestral function of promoting survival. “They also loosen the hold that negative emotions gain on an individual’s mind and body by undoing the narrowed psychological and physiological preparation for specific action,” she says. Over time, this broadening creates an “upward spiral” that builds personal strength, resilience and well-being.

Fredrickson describes how this broaden-and-build theory applies to three distinct positive emotions—joy, interest and contentment. “Joy creates the urge to play and be playful in the broadest sense of the word,” she writes, “encompassing not only physical and social play, but also intellectual and artistic play.” Even though it is often aimless, play has several reliable outcomes, including strengthening friendships and attachments, and developing physical and cognitive skills.

“Joy, then, not only broadens an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire through the urge to play,” Fredrickson proposes, “but also, over time and as a product of recurrent play, can have the incidental effect of building an individual’s physical, intellectual and social resources. Importantly, these new resources are durable, and can be drawn on later, long after the instigating experience of joy has subsided.”

In the article, Fredrickson also reviews a range of intervention and coping strategies, including relaxation therapies, behavioral therapies aimed at increasing rates of pleasant activities, cognitive therapies aimed at teaching optimism, and coping strategies marked by finding positive meaning. She analyzes how these therapies work in light of her broaden-and-build model of positive emotions.

For example, relaxation therapies, including imagery exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, are effective, she maintains, because they cultivate the positive emotion of contentment. “The changes contentment sparks are more cognitive than physical,” Fredrickson notes. “It carries the urge not only to savor the moment but also to integrate those momentary experiences into an enriched appreciation of one’s place in the world.”

Frederickson calls for additional research to confirm, modify or discard her theory, noting that while the scientific literature includes many studies on negative emotions, like fear, anger and sadness, work on positive emotions is much less common. “Positive emotions are more than the absence of negative emotions,” she maintains. “A clearer understanding of how to cultivate positive emotions could help people overcome negative emotions faster and build their resilience to future adversities.”