In my last blog entry, “Good Mood? Good Business” I talked about the importance of leaders striving to maintain positive moods because of their association with positive business outcomes. In that article, I touched briefly on the work of Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina. Her “Broaden and Build” theory and research provide excellent rationale for all of us to work to be as positive as possible. In today’s blog entry, I will talk a little more about her research.
Fredrickson explains that positive emotions allow us to be more creative, broaden our awareness, and improve our ability to solve problems. Negative emotions do the opposite. For example, imagine that you are taking your daily walk to the mailbox when all of a sudden, a bear jumps into your path. Immediately you are overtaken by fear, and your fight-or-flight response is activated. Your awareness becomes narrowed – you are in survival mode, entirely focused on the menacing animal in front of you. The blood rushes from your brain to your extremities, preparing you to run, hide, fight, or play dead.
While the narrowed attention associated with negative emotions is adaptive when being attacked by wild animals, in day-to-day life, it tends to work against us. For example, have you ever regretted anything you have done when you were angry? (Is there truly anyone who hasn’t?) You know, it might have seemed like a really great idea at the time to fire off that vicious email to your co-worker who offended you, but 30 minutes later, once you had calmed down, it didn’t seem quite so prudent. That’s because when your blood was boiling, your attention was narrowed and in a sense, you missed the forest for the trees. Later on, once you calmed down, your attention broadened and all of a sudden you thought about the consequences of your actions on your relationship with her, your reputation in the office, and your ability to succeed in your job in the future.
On the other hand, positive emotions like joy, curiosity, and interest encourage exploration, learning, play, and open-mindedness. Further, these emotions compound over time to build on themselves. So, for example, people who are curious tend to explore, which gives them more things to be curious about. Across time, this allows them to become better problem-solvers because they are exposed to more, learn more, and gain more knowledge and skills.
There is quite a bit of research that backs up the Broaden and Build theory. In one study, positive emotions were shown to contribute to greater resilience and life satisfaction (Cohn et. al, 2009). In another experiment, individuals were asked to regularly perform a “loving-kindness” meditation (a type of meditation in which people focus on compassionate thoughts about others). Meditating in this way increased the study participant’s positive emotions, which in turn, increased their resources in various areas (more feelings of life purposes, social support, and less illness symptoms). In turn, this reduced symptoms associated with depression (Fredrickson et. al., 2008). Positive emotions may also be related to decreased prejudice, as we are likely less inclined to perceive others as threats (Johnson and Fredrickson, 2005).
There are a lot of other studies that support this theory, and I encourage you to further explore Fredrickson’s work for further learning on this topic. Click here for the link to her website. Stay tuned for my next entry, in which I talk about the work of Dr. Eric Gentry, a psychologist who talks about how we can reduce the effects of stress by engaging in a simple physical exercise (hint: it’s not deep breathing).