Published: 2010-02-16

In two extensive meta-analyses it was concluded from both experimental and longitudinal studies that positive emotions not only derive from, but also precede enhanced success and physical and mental health (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005; Pressman & Cohen, 2005).

Further to this evidence, neuropsychological research suggests that according to plasticity in the brain the pathways of emotions can be shaped to increase positive emotions (Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000). Thus the newfound interest in positive emotions provides promising support that suggests a wide range of beneficial effects mediated by positive emotions.

It might be easy to believe that the more positive emotions, the better the outcome or situation; however, this article will call attention to the importance of looking at both the situation preceding and following a positive emotion. There will be a discussion on the necessity to define positive emotions effectively and coherently in order to learn about the mechanisms underlying the effects of positive emotions.

It will be argued that the term positive is difficult to apply with a unified approach and that a holistic and balanced view of emotions and their functionality is crucial. Furthermore, this article will emphasise the importance of considering the concepts of appropriate and sustainable emotions within a social context.

In relation to this, the broaden-and-built theory (Fredrickson, 1998) will be evaluated as it reflects a coherent view of positive emotions and how they might serve us beyond the subjective feeling. Finally, it is stressed how a coherent theoretical foundation and a nuanced view of positive and negative emotions are essential for future research.

The Definition of Positive Emotions

To define positive emotions is difficult for two reasons:

  1. there is no one agreed definition for emotion (Moors, 2009) and
  2. the value-laden term positive does not apply universally for all situations and contexts (Lazarus, 2003).

Within emotion theories there is, however, some agreement that emotions involve several components e.g., a feeling component (the subjective experience), a cognitive component, a somatic component (changes in the nervous system), and a behavioural component (Moors, 2009).

Nevertheless, positive emotions are often simplistically described as solely a brief subjective feeling (rather than clearly defined) with a list of emotions such as joy, happiness, interest and contentment (Strumpfer, 2006).

Implicitly, it is presupposed that the reader should know, from their own subjective experience, what is meant by positive emotions. However, this simplistic view fails to account for the various aspects of emotions and the involved components. Moreover, it gives the impression that solely measure subjective experiences through self-report methods are sufficient enough, despite limitations such as subjectivity and social desirability bias.

The shortcomings of inadequate emotional theorising are therefore crucial to acknowledge. However, Fredrickson (1998) advocates for the use of a working definition of emotions to improve communication and bring research forward. She acknowledges the channels that emotions act in, by defining them as:

‘short-lived experiences that produce coordinated changes in people’s thoughts, actions, and physiological responses’ (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005, p. 313).

In addition to this working definition, Fredrickson (2001) distinguishes emotions from affect. She argues that emotions stem from personally meaningful events, appraised consciously or unconsciously, and are experienced over a brief time involving the various components discussed above.

Meanwhile, affect is seen as a more general concept that is objectless, longer lasting and rather than involving several components; it is ‘salient only at the subjective experience’ (Fredrickson, 2001, p. 218). Affect exists in emotions as the consciously subjective experience but further to emotions it is also seen to exist in attitudes, physical sensations and moods.

Moreover, emotions are conceptually seen to belong to emotional groups such as anger and joy, whilst affect is seen to vary only in positive and negative activation. Emotions are seen to form a dynamic multi-component system where the different components influence each other in due course.

However, there is a tendency to use the terms interchangeably (Pressman & Cohen, 2005; Strumpfer, 2006) rather than differentiate them; even Fredrickson and Losada (2005) ambiguously use the term affect in regards to a multi-component system. This is probably to find a common ground with Losada’s (2004) previous research. Nevertheless, this demonstrates the lack of conceptual clarity and coherence in the research.

The Effects of Positive Emotions

This terminology is important with regards to theorising the underlying processes and pathways of the effects of positive experiences. For example, if positive experiences lead to improved physical health ultimately theories should explain if this is mediated via positive attitudes endorsing healthier lifestyles, or a more direct impact of a physiological component, or both.

Research on negative emotions have developed different physiological markers such as cortisol in stress research (Clow, 2004) which is often studied in response to a standardised stimuli such as Trier’s Social Stress Test (Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993). Something analogous has not yet been developed and established to study positive emotions.

According to a review on positive affect and health outcomes by Pressman and Cohen (2005, p. 957) most studies ‘have generally been atheoretical in approach’. Consequently, some research fails both to explain the reasons for the use of different measures and to learn about the underlying pathways behind improved health.

Moreover, Lazarus (2003, p. 99) argues that grouping emotions into positive and negative:

‘ignores or undervalues the distinctive adaptational import of each discrete emotion’.

The concept of affect is less specific compared to emotions and fails to acknowledge the possibility that different discrete emotions might possess qualitative differences regarding their effects.

For example certain emotions might be better than others in terms of the effectiveness of interventions. Thus, for these reasons, a sophisticated framework of working definitions is important and will further improve communication and interpretations of results.

Definition of Positive

The term positive in positive emotions has evoked more questions than it has answered due to conceptual issues; the distinction can be based on several different perspectives with different results.

Positive can, for example, be attributed in regards to the subjective feeling being pleasant or good, the function being adaptive or appropriateness according to a person’s belief system (Diener, 2003). It can also be divided according to the behaviour being to approach or avoid (Watson, Wiese, Vaidya, & Tellegen, 1999).

Hence, there are different approaches being applied in terms of what is positive versus negative. Considering that discrete emotions can change valence depending on approach and circumstances, it is arbitrary to label them. However, the distinction might initially be necessary as it makes up two powerful factors that subsequently can be further researched and understood.

Optimistically, Diener (2003, p. 116) argues for the possibility to find ‘principles that unite the various types of positive’. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that emotions should not be oversimplified with one static valence out of context.

Positive and Negative Emotions

There is an ongoing debate whether positive and negative emotions are bipolar or can be experienced simultaneously. This is important since if they are bipolar, the beneficial effects of positive emotions might be attributed to the absence of negative emotions. There are indeed studies that fail to control for negative emotions whilst attributing positive emotions beneficial health effect (e.g. Kawamoto & Doi, 2002).

However, when negative emotions are controlled for, the beneficial health effects tend to remain (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003). Further research, supporting independent existence and impact, states that positive and negative emotions are associated with different activation areas in the brain; i.e. left fontal cortex and right frontal cortex, respectively (Davidson, et al., 2000).

Accordingly, Hemenover and Schimmack (2007) showed in an experiment, involving disgusting humour, the co-occurrence and independent intensity of positive and negative emotions; amusement and disgust. Thus, evidence suggests that positive and negative emotions might have different impacts.

The eradication of negative emotions does not necessarily mean an influx of positive emotions; this stresses the importance in gaining an understanding of positive emotions and their associated pathways. However this is not to say that there is no interaction.

Fredrickson and Losada (2005) examined the interaction between positive and negative emotions in terms of flourishing by means of mathematical principles. They found that a ratio of 2.9 or more positive emotions to every 1 negative emotion for an individual is linked with flourishing mental health.

Interestingly enough, it is suggested that too many positive emotions, a ratio of 11.6 to 1, can be harmful. They therefore propose that some ‘appropriate negativity’ aides individuals to flourish (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005, p. 685). Moreover, too many positive emotions are associated with shorter survival in patients with renal disease (Devins et al., 1990).

Consequently, it is crucial to tease out and understand what constitutes ‘appropriate’ emotions and how they can be promoted. Only studying positive emotions, without considering negative emotions, or vice versa, fail to obtain meaningful and useful information that is applicable within a societal context.

According to Lazarus (2003, p. 98): ‘there is always a social context to emotions, which serves as an important aspect of the process of their generation’.

Illustratively, Kitayama, Mesquita and Karasawa (2006) compared a Japanese and a North American sample in terms of ‘socially engaging emotions’ (e.g., friendly emotions and guilt) and ‘socially disengaging emotions’ (e.g., pride and anger). The findings revealed that the Japanese sample reported stronger experiences of engaging emotions compared with disengaging emotions; meanwhile the American sample displayed the opposite pattern.

Furthermore, subjective well-being was to a higher degree associated with engaging positive emotions contrasted with disengaging emotions in the Japanese sample; meanwhile the opposite tendency were displayed in the American sample. For the current discussion this again shows that the division of positive and negative emotions is arbitrary and depends on cultural differences; pride in western societies is normally considered to be a positive emotion.

It could also be argued that the appropriateness of emotions also relate to positive emotions. Finally, it emphasises the importance of considering societal factors in the generation of emotions. It is evident that all emotions are not inherently positive with good consequences, there is therefore scope for promoting sustainability.

In much of the research on positive emotions, the subjective feeling is often measured without considering the actions that it is derived from or may lead to (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). This is a highly individualistic approach that can, in the long-term, prevent future positive emotions.

Put simply, someone’s happiness can lead to another’s unhappiness. Moreover, research on gambling has shown that initial positive affect in combination with winning increases the risk for reckless gambling (Cummins, Nadorff, & Kelly, 2009). Research on positive emotions should consider the sustainability of the actions that emotions might lead to, or vice versa.

However, this is not to say that research should dictate these values; rather, it should allow empowerment, i.e. the participation of all individuals in communities, to develop and design research. Subsequently, this will facilitate a discussion based on pragmatic methodological research accounting for the social implications of positive emotions.

The Broaden-and-build-theory

The broaden-and-build theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson (1998) is the most extensive theory to date attempting to coherently outline the effect of positive emotions. She argues that positive emotions have adaptational values beyond feeling good.

Negative emotions are seen to narrow our range of responses in terms of both thoughts and actions, in order to prepare for self-protective fight or flight behaviours. She goes even further, to argue that positive emotions broaden our range of thoughts and actions responses. This momentary result of broadening facilitates for opportunities to build, as well as discover, enduring personal resources.

This is seen to offer the possibility for personal development and transformation, by generating upward spirals of positive emotions, cognitions and actions. This is an instinctively attractive theory that also holds explicit predictions; several aspects of this are supported by evidence from experiments.

Positive emotions induced by video clips have influenced participants to broaden their thoughts and actions in terms of i) pairing arbitrary symbols together based on global rather than local features and ii) giving more answers to a question about what they would like to do at that time, compared with a more neutral condition (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).

However, it is important to note that most of the supporting evidence for the broaden hypothesis comes from a laboratory setting. Hence, it is crucial to consider how these findings translate outside a laboratory setting. For example, theories within emotional intelligence hold that making use of both positive and negative emotions and understanding their different impact on thought processes is important, since different tasks require different abilities (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004).

Using regression analysis Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) put forward initial evidence to support the concept of an upward spiral where positive emotions predict an increase in a person’s future well-being. The build hypothesis, the acquiring of personal resources, is expected to be of importance for future well-being.

Until recently, much of the evidence was indirect; however, some preliminary support that attempts to directly test it derived from a ten-week longitudinal, randomised control study (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008). Using loving-kindness meditation (LKM) in the experiment condition, participants were self-generating more love and kindness emotions compared with the control group on a waiting list.

Subsequently, the increases in daily positive emotions lead to increases in personal resources, such as purpose in life, social support and increased mindfulness. Consecutively, increases in personal resources were associated with higher life satisfaction. This is an impressive field study in respect to the magnitude of its’ scope and its’ eventual result. However, there are several methodological limitations recognised in the article, such as a heavy reliance on self-report measures and not assessing the enduring changes after the end of the intervention.

It could be argued that the emotions being induced by LKM are of a sustainable nature within our society; however, the broaden-and-build theory currently holds that all positive emotions will broaden and build and does not incorporate the notion of sustainability.

Moreover, evidence suggests that less intense but more frequent positive emotions is stronger associated with subjective well-being compared with more intense but less frequent positive emotions (Diener, Larsen, Levine, & Emmons, 1985). This again shows that positive emotions should be placed in a context in order to be meaningful, which the broaden-and-build theory fails to do.

The broaden-and-build theory has contributed with a progressive perspective of positive emotions based on various methodological methods. However, it tends to overestimate the importance of positive emotions whilst failing to adequately incorporate ‘appropriate negativity’.

For example, Fredrickson (2001) sometimes implicitly refers to negative emotions in relation to primitive fight and flight responses; however, Sirgy and Wu (2009) embrace a more holistic view of emotions. They postulate that the highest subjective well-being requires an involvement of several life domains (e.g., family, work and leisure) to satisfy the full range of a person’s different developmental needs (e.g., safety, biological and, self-actualisation). They divide the needs into survival (involving safety and economical needs) and growth needs (involving self-actualisation and social needs).

Making use of the broaden-and-build theory they broadly hold that positive emotions facilitate satisfying the growth needs, meanwhile negative emotions are promoted to serve survival needs. To date there is no evidence to directly contest their view; however, as this article has illustrated, a more balanced perspective is needed and hopefully ideas like this will stimulate research to incorporate a more balanced perspective.


In conclusion, a lot of evidence has come forward embracing the beneficial effects derived from positive emotions. However, the research documenting these effects is often characterised with incoherent terminology and conceptual ambiguity. In order to fully understand and be able to promote the effects efficiently there is a need to describe the underlying mechanisms.

A working definition that integrates a dynamic multi-component system can hopefully facilitate this and improve a theoretical foundation promoting combination of various research methodologies. In order for the research to be meaningful and applicable it is important to realise that the emotions’ valence depends on context, which is partially generated by societal factors.

Hence, emotions are not intrinsically positive or negative; some emotions, conceptualised as negative, are actually beneficial for an individual, and vice versa. Similarly, research that is too individualistic can fail to develop strategies that are sustainable from a group perspective.

The broaden-and-build theory holds that positive emotions have beneficial effects beyond the subjective feeling but fails to fully incorporate the importance of ‘appropriate negativity’ as well as qualitatively differences within the spectra of positive emotions. A more sophisticated, nuanced view of emotions that breaks away from the ‘black and white’ conceptualisation will have to accounts for this in order to fully understand the effects of emotions.


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