Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions: A Complete Guide

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broaden and build theory positive emotions

We know that sadness signals a perceived loss. Anger signals a violation of our rights. But what do positive emotions signal and what are they for?

The Broaden-and-Build Theory is a relatively recent model within positive psychology,  that explains the form and function of positive emotions like joy, interest, contentment, and love.

The author behind it is Barbara Fredrickson, a Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of  North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory.

Psychologists extensively studied emotions but mostly focused on negative emotions. Up until Fredrickson and her studies, we knew very little about the function of positive emotions.


Why Were Positive Emotions Neglected?

Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.broaden build delusional
– Roger Ebert

1. They’re fewer and it’s harder to differentiate between them.

Throughout the many components of the emotion process, the lack of differentiation of positive emotions is evident. Especially when contrasted with negative emotions.

If we take facial expression, for example,  negative emotions have very specific configurations that make them easily recognized.

I bet you can easily tell if someone is sad or angry by their face. But you can you tell if someone is either interested or content by their facial expression? Not so easy right?

According to Paul Ekman, one of the leading researchers in emotions, positive emotions lack specific signal value (the way fear signals a perceived threat). But all share the Duchenne smile:

duchenne smile broaden build


Duchenne smile: a smile with raised lips and contraction of the eye muscles.

Non-Duchenne smile: a smile with no contraction around the eyes.



Positive emotions, contrary to negative ones, do not have distinct autonomic responses.

In fact, many positive emotions are characterized exactly by this lack of autonomic response, except for the ones that evoke laughter and  are accompanied by changes in breathing.

The appraisal processes that trigger emotions are also less differentiated for positive emotions than for negative ones. 

Leading researchers to believe that, evolutionarily there’s a bias towards negative emotions. Because failing to react appropriately to a threat could lead to death, but failure to react to an opportunity is most likely harmless.


There are more negative than positive emotions because there are more different kinds of threats than opportunities.

– Nesse, 1990

2. Problems should be attended first.

People who are suffering should be attended first. Psychology as a field moves towards solving pressing problems that impact people’s life and ability to function in adaptive ways.

Negative emotions can lead to serious problems to our society. For example anger and anger management issues can lead to aggression and violence. Anger is also related to heart disease.

Fear and anxiety fuel phobias and other disorders. You get the picture, the list goes on and on.

Positive emotions, however, are associated with fewer problems. Therefore, for a long time,  researchers focused mainly on negative emotions.

3. Emotion models are built on prototypes.

Emotions like fear and anger are associated with specific thought-action tendencies, for example, fear is associated with an urge to escape and anger with the tendency to attack (whether or not someone acts out on these tendencies depends on many other factors).

So an important element of this theory is that action tendencies are more than just thoughts. Why? Because the action tendencies and the physiological changes go hand in hand, so they’re more like embodied thoughts.

The main function of emotions is an organization aimed at the optimal physiological milieu to support the particular behavior that is called forth.

– Levenson, 1994

Most of the research on emotions was designed to fit this prototypic model. But positive emotions are more diffuse in nature. And fitting them into the action-thought tendencies raises some problems:

  1. Positive emotions are not linked to threatening situations.
  2. Maybe consequently, they’re not associated with well-defined urges to act in certain ways.

So, What Are Positive Emotions For?

Barbara Fredrickson believes the thought action tendency model is suitable for negative emotions but not for all emotions. She argues that we need different models to understand different emotions and proposes that we ditch 2 assumptions:

1. Emotions are inevitably associated with action tendencies.

2. Emotions must necessarily spark tendencies for physical action.


Instead of action-tendencies, she proposes speaking of momentary thought-action repertoire.

Negative emotions have a survival value. The action-tendencies reflect the narrowing of possible reactions to very specific ones that allow us to act in self-preserving ways.

However, the case for positive emotions is quite different. The scope of possible actions is wider and not well-defined. Positive emotions don’t seem to narrow the choices for action.

On the contrary, Fredrickson found that positive emotions broaden the momentary thought-action repertoire and serve as tools to regulate negative emotions.

Fredrickson looked at 4 different positive emotions:

1. Joy – associated with the willingness to engage with the situation at hand,  it creates the urge to play and be playful (including social, physical, intellectual and artistic play).

2. Interest – is associated with an urge to investigate, to be involved. to extend and expand the self by taking in new information and experiences.

Openness to new ideas, thoughts, and experiences is what characterizes this broadened mindset. The result of this exploration is increased knowledge that can be drawn upon later on.

3. Contentment – leads people to appreciate and savor their life, their successes and to experience a sense on “oneness” with the world, integrating events and perspectives into their self-concept and world view (de Rivera et al., 1989; Izard, 1977). It’s also the emotional experience that follows a state of flow.

4. Love – is not a single emotion and people experience different types of love (passionate, companionate, care-giver, etc.). So love experiences are comprised of different positive emotions, including interest, joy and contentment.

By triggering these emotions of interest, contentment, and joy, love broadens the momentary thought-action repertoire by fueling people to explore, savor and play with their loved ones.

And even though, this seems to have no other aim than enjoyment, the strengthening of social ties and attachments build a social support group than people can count on in times of distress.

Not only do the positive emotions of joy, interest, contentment, and love share the feature of broadening an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire, but they also appear to share the feature of building the individual’s personal resources, ranging from physical resources to intellectual resources to social resources.

– Barbara Fredrickson

The Effect of Positive Emotions on Attention broaden and build attention

Emotions like fear and anxiety narrow a person’s attentional focus (Easterbrook, 1959).

Derryberry and Tucker (1994) propose that positive emotions lead to an  expansion of attention.

In studies with manic people, like creative artists (not that all creative artists are manic, no siree!) they realized they tended to use more overinclusive categories.

Lab studies also sustain the idea that normal ranges of positive emotions are related to broadened attentional states.

One of the tasks asked participants to judge which of 2 figures is more similar to a standard one. One of the figures resembles the standard in general, global configuration and the other in detailed elements.

Negative emotional states predict a bias towards the detailed figure.

Whereas, positive states like well-being and optimism predict a bias towards the global figure, which is consistent with the broadened attentional focus.

But note that there is no neutral group to compare with, so further studies are needed. Especially because, previous studies show that normal people, under normal circumstances tend to favor global features, over detailed ones.

The Effect of Positive Emotions on Cognition

positive thinking broaden and build

One of the pioneers researching positive emotions was Alice Isen. Her work was groundbreaking for 2 reasons:

  1. She didn’t assume positive and negative emotions are opposites and because of it, consistently included neutral groups in her studies.
  2. She induced positive emotions in a variety of different ways throughout her studies (by giving out candy bags, reading cartoons, watching comedy films and many others).  This makes it easier to generalize the findings of the studies.

Her research leads to the idea that positive affect is followed by an “enlarged cognitive context”.

In one of the studies, people experiencing positive emotions made more unusual associations to neutral words, compared to people in a neutral emotional state.

Another study showed that people use more inclusive categories when experiencing positive emotions.

Researchers found people in positive emotional states to be more flexible categorizers than those in neutral or negative states. They formed fewer categories when asked to focus on similarities and formed more categories when asked to focus on differences.

These findings led Isen and colleagues to believe that positive emotions allow people to see relatedness and interconnectedness in their thoughts and ideas and to process things in a more integrated and flexible way.

Finally, other studies show that people experiencing positive emotions also perform better on creativity tests.

Positive Emotions Expand The Scope of Action

The studies that show that positive emotions broaden the scope of thinking are taken as indirect proof that they also broaden the scope of action.

Another study that accounts for this hypothesis is Duncker’s candle task:

  • Participants are given a box of tacks, a candle and a book of matches to attach the candle to the wall, without dripping wax on the table or floor.
  • To get to the solution participants have to broaden the perceptions of  each object’s function.
  • The solution is to empty the box, tack it to the wall as a platform for the candle.

Participants experiencing positive emotions solved the problem more frequently than those in the neutral control condition.

Positive Emotions Build Physical Abilities

The argument here is that joy and other high-energy positive emotions create the urge to play, and play builds personal resources.

Rough-and-tumble is a form of play that acts out chasing and fighting scenarios, often with role reversing. This form of play is frequently associated with smiling and laughter, indicating a connection between joy and this type of play.

Ethologists observe this behavior, both in humans and non-human mammals, they believe that this role playing  allows for muscle growth and fitness and cardiovascular fitness. It’s a good workout basically.

But more than that, they propose that rough-and-tumble play is a way of practicing important physical skills such as hunting, avoiding predators, chasing and fighting.

There’s not a lot of empirical evidence for the connection between play and hunting skills, however, the evidence linking this type of play and predator avoidance and fighting is compelling.

A study of elephant seals found that male pups play in a manner resembling the fighting seen in adult males of the species. Whereas, female pups play in a manner resembling the adult fighting seen in adult females.

– Rasa (1971, as cited in Boulton & Smith, 1992).

But let’s hear it from Barbara herself, shall we?

Positive Emotions Open our Mind, Barbara Fredrickson



Positive Emotions Build Intellectual and Social Resources

The attachment theory is one of the most established psychology theories. The idea is that the children whose needs for attachment are met, develop a sense of security that allows them to explore the world around them (Bowlby).

The bond between infant and caregiver provides a foundation from which the child can feel secure enough to play and explore the environment around  her, this exploration, in turn, results in increased cognitive and intellectual resources.

Children with a secure attachment (whose needs were met) are:

  • More persistent
  • Enthusiastic
  • Effective in problem-solving
  • More flexible and resourceful

So that spark of interest is a fragile thing that can dim in children who don’t see their innate attachment needs met.

Other studies show that positive emotions build intellectual performance because they facilitate enhanced learning and performance.

In one study, 4-year-old children were asked to recall an emotional or non-emotional experience. The study comprised 3 different conditions: positive, neutral and negative affect. Children in the positive emotion condition performed faster and better than the children in the neutral and negative emotion conditions.

Numerous studies in positive psychology show social relationships contribute the most to well-being and happiness.

Sharing positive emotions is a great way of enjoying the moment but it also allows the development of bonds, alliances and friendships.

These social ties are important resources that can influence how we cope and deal with challenges and times of difficulty.

Research in social psychology also shows that people in positive states are more likely to help others in need and, this gesture, can trigger gratitude in the person receiving the help.

Can Positive Emotions Help Cope With the Consequences of Negative Emotions?

We’ve seen how positive emotions open our minds and allow us to build important resources that we rely on throughout our life.

But can they undo the effects of negative emotions?

Barbara Fredrickson and Levenson brought participants to an experiment in which they induced negative emotions by having them watch a film that triggered fear and heightened cardiovascular activity.

Then participants were randomly distributed into 1 of 4 conditions and watched different films that elicited:

  1. Contentment (positive emotion condition)
  2. Mild amusement (positive emotion condition)
  3. Sadness (negative emotion condition)
  4. Neutral (neutral condition)

Participants in the positive emotion conditions (both contentment and mild amusement) showed the fastest recovery from negative emotions. It took them 20 seconds to return to their baseline cardiovascular activity, whereas those in the negative and neutral condition took between 40 to 60 seconds to return to baseline.

Fredrickson calls this the undoing effect of positive emotions.

Positive Emotions Resources

For those of you who want to dig deeper on this topic, I made a list of the best resources on positive emotions.



Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300–319. 

Fredrickson B.L., Levenson R.W.  (1998)Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion. 12:191–220. 

Fredrickson B.L., Mancuso R.A., (1998) Branigan C, Tugade M. The undoing effect of positive emotions. Manuscript in preparation. 

Isen A.M. (1987) Positive affect, cognitive processes, and social behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 20:203–253.

Isen A.M., Daubman K.A., Nowicki G.P. (1987). Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 52:1122–1131

Kahn B.E., Isen A.M. (1993). The influence of positive affect on variety seeking among safe, enjoyable products. Journal of Consumer Research. 20:257–270.


The Positive Effects of Positive Emotions by Jennifer Stellar.


Positive Emotions in the Midst of Stress by Judy Moskowitz.



The Practical Neuroscience of Positive Emotions by Rick Hansen


That’s it folks, I hope this was helpful. What was your biggest takeaway from all this? Please leave a comment below, like and share the psychology love.

Big hug,

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