Barbara L. Fredrickson

The Big Idea

Until approximately the beginning of the 21st Century, the field of psychology gave little attention to theories, hypotheses, or building models of the form and function of positive emotions (such as joy, interest, contentment, and love). Instead, most all the previous emotion studies have focused on negative emotions (such as fear, anger, or disgust). The big idea of this paper is that there are inherent differences between negative and positive emotions. Because of these differences, there is little sense in using a generalised model of emotion to explain positive emotions. What is needed is a model of positive emotions in particular in order to answer the question: What good are positive emotions?


  • Negative emotions are plentiful, easy to identify, and are associated with particular urges, such as anger creating the urge to attack.
  • Positive emotions are less plentiful, less obvious to recognise, and often have no resulting urges.
  • These differences call for another kind of exploratory model for the form and function of positive emotions.
  • Examples of positive emotions are joy, interest, contentment, and love.
  • Each of these emotions can be better understood by broadening the scope of our lives and building our on-going resources for living.
  • The upshot of giving more attention to why positive emotions are good is because they have the power to be antidotes to the consequences of negative emotion, and they have a helpful role in protecting our health.

The Research

This paper is one of the first to ask the question: What good are positive emotions? Fredrickson explains why positive emotions have been marginalised. One reason is that positive emotions are far fewer in number than negative emotions. There is only one positive emotion for every three or four negative ones. One possible explanation for this is simply that there are more kinds of threats than there are opportunities; and failing to respond to a threat has far greater impact than failing to respond to a life opportunity.

Another reason why positive emotions have been neglected is that psychologists prefer to concoct studies to solve problems. And negative emotions create far more problems than positive ones do. Just think how anger, aggression, violence, jealousy, sadness, and grief can lead to so many individual and social problems needing psychological and psycho-chemical interventions. Fredrickson wonders why there isn’t more attention given to the positive emotions since they may help prevent or solve many of the negative emotion-related crimes, manias, addictions, depressions, disorders, and diseases.

A third reason for the marginalising of the study of positive emotions is the issue of building models. There is a belief among many psychologists that a prototype model of the form and function of negative emotions and the urges which follow (from fear arises the urge to escape) is a sufficient model to explain positive emotions as well. But it turns out that it is much harder to find positive emotions producing well-defined urges.

Four Positive Emotions

Fredrickson believes we simply are not looking at the adaptive evolutionary value of positive emotions when we reduce them to a fight or flight adaptations. So she wants to broaden the impact of positive emotions on human living. She argues that positive emotions give us the motivations to “pursue novel, creative, and often unscripted paths of thought and action.” She uses descriptions of four positive emotions to make her case: joyinterest, contentment, and love.


The experience of joy is often interchangeable with exhilaration or mirth. It invites play of all kinds: physical, intellectual, social, artistic, and imaginative. By way of it, humans broaden their individual thought-action abilities. Joy also gradually helps build our physical, intellectual, and social skills.


Interest is also associated with wonder, curiosity, mystery, and excitement. Where there is interest there is also intrinsic possibility at work. And possibilities means exploration, whether exploring knowledge, skills, or agency. How else, Fredrickson asks, are personal growth, creative output, and physical and intellectual talents uncovered?


Also referred to commonly as serenity or tranquility, contentment is more than doing nothing. It is more akin to what is currently defined as mindfulness. It is also close to what Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow.”


Not unrelated to all three of the above positive emotions, love is of many kinds: for example, romantic, friendship, and agape. Love is a trigger for joy, interest, and contentment. It connotes relationships savored, explored, and enjoyed whether between people, places, or even things.

Broaden-and-Build Model of Positive Emotions

Fredrickson calls her suggested model of positive emotions “broaden-and-build.” By this she means that experiencing positive emotions will have a broadening effect on us; we fall away from momentary and automatic responses and look instead for creative, less predictable, and more flexible possibilities. She discusses three ways we broaden the scope of our lives and three ways we build our on-going, more durable resources for living more fully.

Fredrickson surveys a variety of empirical studies that give support to her model, a model that is significantly different than the negative emotion model. She argues that we broaden the scope of our attention, the scope of our cognition, and the scope of our action. In addition, we build physical resources, intellectual resources, and social resources.


Finally, Fredrickson believes there are two significant implications from her re-working the idea of how to model positive emotions. First, she suggests that if her idea is accurate, then positive emotions function as efficient antidotes to the lingering aftereffects of negative emotions. The positive may undo the narrowed thought-action responses. The positive emotion may also thereby restore flexible thinking when it is most needed.

The second possible effect of positive emotions is their role in protecting health. Given the commonness of negative emotions contributing to unhealthy outcomes—especially some heart diseases and cancers, there is reason to believe positive emotions may interrupt or cut short the progress of the unhealthy outcomes of negative emotions. This may be why relaxation therapies are sometimes used for treating cardiovascular disorders. Given the individual and social costs associated with poor health, this is justification enough for continuing to understand the form and function of positive emotions.

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