Anyone that has followed Psychology Fanatic knows I occasionally criticize excessive positive thinking. One may incorrectly surmise that I discount positive psychology’s impact on wellness—I don’t. Wellness ceases to exist without a flow of positive experience. I, however, am skeptical of the absurd magical promises that evolved from reputable research. Original findings are distorted, creating unsupported exaggerations, spoiling the literature with reckless feel-good propaganda. Nevertheless, wellness is found in positive psychology—not pathology. The mission of positive psychology is to foster factors that invite flourishing both for the individual and society. Broaden and build theory focuses on how positive emotions achieve this aim.
An early pioneer in positive psychology is Barbara Fredrickson. Her work is often overlooked, which is a shame. Her broaden-and-build hypothesis captures perfectly the foundational benefits of positive affect. Fredrickson posits that positive emotions not only signal flourishing but also undo the effects of negative emotions, creating an upward spiral of wellness.
Emotions are Adaptive
We are plagued by “negative” emotions—such as anxiety, sadness, anger, and despair. Emotions are adaptive, however, when prolonged and magnified, they become destructive, interfering with growth. Overwhelming feeling affects stimulate protective behaviors—pulling back or defensively attacking. Obviously, protective behaviors are necessary when faced with legitimate threats. When emotional systems go haywire, the entire world appears threatening; our mind narrows, and we retreat.
Positive Affect and Approach Behaviors
Positive affect, according to science, promotes approach behaviors that continue action, prompting adaptive engagement with surrounding environments. Emotions typically viewed as positive—such as joy, interest, contentment, and security—stimulate a growth oriented mindset. Subjects experiencing positive affect approach, explore and play; and as a result, they gather resources and build skills.
John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux explain the broadening concept this way, “positive emotions broaden our thought and action skill sets, specifically the skills and behavior we regularly use. When we experience one of the main positive emotions, our minds tend to open up and we are able to think outside the box” (2021).
Listen to their podcast on Broaden and Build for a comprehensive examination of the theory.
Positive Emotions Build Coping Resources
Fredrickson’s theorizes that positive emotions broaden momentary thought-action repertoires and build enduring resources for coping. She views positive emotions as complimentary to the protective surges present during adverse circumstances.
“In contrast to negative emotions, which carry direct and immediate adaptive benefits in situations that threaten survival, the broadening though-action repertoires triggered by positive emotions are beneficial in other ways. Specifically, these broadening mindsets carry indirect and long-term adaptive benefits because broadening builds enduring personal resources, which function as reserves to be drawn upon later to manage future threats” (Fredrickson, 2001).
Functions of Negative and Positive Emotions
Negative and positive affects are incompatible. They have opposite functions. Historically, negative affect had greater survival value. Fear and anger protected against immediate threats better than love or joy. You can bond with your neighbor later but must run from the charging bear now. Negative affect narrows perceptions to essential stimuli, while positive affect broadens awareness, soaking insightful contextual information. Flourishing requires both narrowing and broadening of attention.
Environments and Emotions
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote that “the only path to finding out what life is about is a patient, slow attempt to make sense of the realities of the past and possibilities of the future as they can be understood in the present” (1998, p. 3). Insightful discoveries about life, the core of purpose, is found in the contextual surrounding of experience. When our minds are constantly harassed with fright, we live a narrow existence, missing a wealth of available riches. The loss of meaning contracts our souls, further limiting experience.
Environments flood senses with stimuli, more information than even the brightest minds could ever process. Humans evolved a highly selective attention, prioritizing and filtering information, limiting data to manageable portions for more complex processing. Negative affect narrows selected information to even smaller chunks, only focusing on threats.
People suffering from depression or anxiety have strong negative observational biases, limiting attention to only depressing and anxiety producing stimuli (or stimuli interpreted as depressing or threatening). Filtering observations to only those that match current mood, creating less demand on cognitions by eliminating dissonance by fitting the present into current narratives.
Positive Emotions are Self Fulfilling Through Broadening and Building
The self-fulfilling filtering prolongs negative affective states, limiting creative and broadening thought. We get stuck in a downward spiral that limit resources for future demands. We must interrupt the spiral and react against the current flow. Mindfulness practices combat limited filtering by directing attention to forgotten elements in our environment (which includes inner body states). We have natural attention styles. Our biology combines with past and present environments to create approach and withdrawal patterns.
Changing these patterns is a cognitive exercise, purposely seeking stimuli previously filtered.
Legitimately threatening elements must be addressed—sometimes immediately. We preserve life and wellness first. But often creative solutions serve us better, requiring purposeful slowing and pondering. Yet, finite cognitions evade when driven by fear.
We rely on habitual reactions that often perpetuate problems, borrowing protections now against future gains. Our anger and fear (when prolonged) work against long term improvement. Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions function as an antidote to “lingering effects of negative emotions” (Fredrickson, 2001), freeing us from habitual action that extract heavy costs on our futures.
Kevin Rathunde smartly suggests that creative solutions demand more than broadened or narrowed focus but “a complex, or dialectical one that broadens and narrows information depending on the task at hand and the specific point in time” (2000, p. 1). This flexible approach is invaluable, allowing efficient adjusting to situations.
Broaden and Build Theory and the Nervous System
Different approaches are strongly associated to the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Sometimes we burn energy, quickly responding to salient threats (sympathetic), other times, we relax, digest and store energy, preparing for futures by gathering information, testing hypothesis, and improving predictions. Using biological systems to flourish often requires core adjustments, building resources prior to dire need. Growth cannot depend on a “business as usual” attitude.
Positive Emotions Contributes to Wellbeing
The broadening of attention and stock piling of resources contribute to wellbeing by improving future problem solving. We gather wisdom, build skills, and actively recover from demands. One of the most relevant realms of human wellness is relationships. Complex human interaction demands constant cognitive effort to read relevant signs from words, voice inflections, body expressions, and surrounding context. Relationship interactions are a cognitive-affective-behavioral process (thinking, feeling, and acting).
We must integrate thinking, feeling and behavior for healthy attachment and the blessings of shared emotion and physical resources. Broadening observations translates into more effective navigating of problematic social situations. The more fearful or angry we are, the less adept we become at reading the medley of signals.
Kaidi Wu and Edward C. Chang of University of Michigan reminds that “positive affect broadens one’s attention and thinking and expands cognitive horizons” (2019, p. 114).
A 2006 study observed that positive affect priming encouraged a more global examination of photos. Lab subjects primed with positive affect later recalled more peripheral stimuli from viewed photos (Wadlinger and Isaacowitz, 2006). Promulgating fear is a powerful weapon to limit cognitive examination of contextual information. Many politicians shamefully use this to extreme.
Barbara Fredrickson and Thomas Joiner suggest that positive emotions don’t need to be extraordinary to successfully engage the broaden-and-build benefits. They explain that “momentary experiences of mild, everyday positive emotions broaden people’s awareness in ways that over time and with frequent reoccurrence, build consequential personal resources that contribute to their overall emotional and physical well being.” They continue, “Through incremental broaden and build processes, then, positive emotions both open the mind and nourish growth of resources” (2018, p. 194).
Broaden and Build with Positive Emotions: One Small Change at a Time
Positive effect isn’t some life time state. It is achieved in individual moment. Accordingly, we just need to improve a few additional moments. Basically, we improve our hectic lives a single moment at a time, transforming those moments into psychological capital.
The prospect of improving our lives often overwhelms, causing more depression than joy. We need broader views at these junctures. We need creative solutions to the reoccurring problems. Notably, we can’t achieve novel solutions with narrowed vision forced by the reign of fear. Escape may require temporarily detaching from anxiety producing news or political conversations.
We capitalize on the freed mental space by cultivating positive affect with pleasurable and meaningful activities. Eliminating bad and integrating good eventually reaches a tipping point where downward spirals flip, narratives change, and life begins to broaden and build, moving us to a new state—a flourishing life. We can still be happy with where we are, we just naturally progress from there. Positive psychology is powerful and the key to wellness, not in a magical unexplainable way but through our natural approach and avoid biology. We can broaden and build through positive affect, creating a better life.
Csikszentmihalyi, M (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books; 1st Edition.
Fredrickson, B., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive Emotions Trigger Upward Spirals Toward Emotional Well-Being. Psychological Science, 13(2), 172-175.
Fredrickson, B., & Joiner, T. (2018). Reflections on Positive Emotions and Upward Spirals. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 194-199.
Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive Psychology. The broaden-and build theory of positive emotions. The American psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.
Kim, J., Cordeaux, N (2021). Using Broaden-and-Build Theory In Your Coaching Practice. JRNI. Accessed 4-20-2021. Published 2-19-2021.
Lin, C., Kao, Y., Chen, Y., & Lu, S. (2015). Fostering Change-Oriented Behaviors: A Broaden-and-Build Model. Journal of Business and Psychology, 31(3), 399-414.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. (2020). Broaden-and-Build Effects of Contextually Boosting the Sense of Attachment Security in Adulthood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(1), 22-26.
Rathunde, K. (2000). Broadening and Narrowing in the Creative Process: A Commentary on Fredrickson’s “Broaden-and-Build” Model. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 3(1), 1.
Wadlinger, H., & Isaacowitz, D. (2006). Positive mood broadens visual attention to positive stimuli. Motivation and Emotion, 30(1), 87-99.
Wu, K., & Chang, E. (2019). Feeling Good—and Feeling Bad—Affect Social Problem Solving: A Test of the Broaden-and-Build Model in Asian Americans. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 10(2), 113-121.