The Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions is the brain-child of evolutionary psychologist Barbara Fredrickson 1,2 .The theory describes how the 10 positive emotions of joy, serenity, amusement, awe, pride, gratitude, interest, inspiration, hope, and love are like the “tiny engines of positive psychology” that drive personal growth and flourishing. Research3 has shown thatnexperiencing any or all of these positive emotions with sufficient frequency and authenticitybroadens our scope of attention, allowing us to become more open, flexible and accepting.

A rich metaphor Barbara uses to explain this idea is that of a water-lily. In daytime, water-lilies relax their outer leaves, expanding their petals outwards to drink-in more sunlight. Positive emotions drive our minds to broaden, and with our ‘blinders’ peeled back, we are open to take-in a broader variety of perceptual information from our environment. Whilst this broadening effect happens in the short-term, as we are experiencing positive emotions, Barbara’s work has also demonstrated that there are longer-term benefits of feeling greater genuine positivity in everyday life. Just as sunlight allows water-lilies to grow, so positive emotions nourish us and allow us to build ‘resources’. These can be:

  • psychological resources –the development of resilience and optimism and of a greater sense of identity
  • physical resources –improved strength, co-ordination and cardiovascular health
  • intellectual resources – enhanced problem-solving skills and a better ability to learn new information
  • social resources – strengthening of existing bonds and new connections made

These resources feed each other and as we put them into action, we generate yet more positive emotions (such as feeling gratitude when thanking a friend for a gift or kind gesture), which in turn build yet more resources. And so the positive upward spiral of broadening and building takes us towards flourishing, allowing us to become our “best version of ourselves”.

Since 2001, Barbara’s theory has inspired countless research studies, both in her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (PEPlab) at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at other universities around the world.

1 Fredrickson, B.L., (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226

2 Fredrickson, B.L., (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 47, 1-3

Schmitz, T.W., de Rosa, E., and Anderson, A.K. (2009). Opposing influences of affective state valence on visual cortical encoding. The Journal of Neuroscience. 29 (22), 7199-7207.


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

Nikki Ayles


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