Throughout history, psychologists have been concerned with negative human states, yet the critical question still unanswered, was undertaken by Fredrickson’s pioneering ‘Broaden and Build Theory’, a ground-breaking theory, seeking to provide evidence for what good are positive emotions.
This article will begin with an overview of the Broaden & Build Theory and how it contributes to our understanding of wellbeing. Briefly reviewing what are the two sides of wellbeing, what is psychological wellbeing and how well does the broaden and build theory measure up to the common features that make up a scientific theory will follow.
The Broaden and Build theoretical model was developed by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan in 1998, to advance and better understand the effects of positive emotions, during the early days of positive psychology. Positive psychology or ‘the science of well-being’, (Seligman, 2002) is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, discovering and promoting the factors that help individuals and communities to thrive.
The Broaden and Build Theory proposes six key benefits that positive emotions offer.
That positive emotions:
The Broaden and Build Theory states that certain distinct positive emotions such as love, contentment, joy and interest, are able to broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, which builds enduring resources and skills in an individual’s personal, physical, social, intellectual and psychological domains (Fredrickson, 2001).
For example, joy, leads to expanded social and physical behaviours such as creativity, the urge to play and go beyond limits, as well as broadening intellectual and artistic behaviour (Ellsworth & Smith, 1988, Frijda, 1986). Contentment leads to the desire to savour life circumstances (Izard, 1977), pride, develops the envisioning of more achievements (Lewis, 1993), interest leads to learning new knowledge, and love helps build social resources.
The Broaden and Build Theory also explains how personal resources learnt during positive emotional states are durable, outlasting the passing emotional state and highlighting the positive effect on one’s long term wellbeing (Fredrickson, 2001).
Certain distinct positive emotions such as love, contentment, joy and interest, broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires, which builds enduring resources and skills in an individual’s personal, physical, social, intellectual and psychological domains (Fredrickson, 2001).
There are many ways that the broaden and build theory contributes to our understanding of wellbeing.
First and foremost, the theory argues and provides evidence that positive emotions do not just indicate, but actually produce flourishing and the optimisation of well-being (Fredrickson, 2001).
Given that the broaden and build theory is about understanding and exploring the effects of positive emotions in life (from a scientific research based window) and that wellbeing is about growing positive emotions, we can immediately consider the supporting base the theory offers to the various arms of wellbeing theory.
Wellbeing is a broad umbrella term, so it is useful to clarify its scope and key aspects towards connecting it to the broaden and build theory. A well-established definition states that “wellbeing can be understood as how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and social level, and how they evaluate their lives as a whole, how well someone’s life is going for them”(Mental Health Commission of NSW, 2017, p9).
A key construct from research, adds that wellbeing consists of nurturing of positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (known as PERMA, developed by Seligman (2002). The methods, research and applications related to each of the five PERMA elements, such as nurturing positive emotion, would find a common ground and be empirically supported by the broaden and build theoretical findings, e.g., that positive emotions expand our thinking and quality of actions, lead to personal growth in skills and resources etc.
It is useful to briefly define the two sides to wellbeing. The first, eudemonic wellbeing, focuses on meaning and self-realisation, where wellbeing has to do with the degree to which an individual is fully functioning. Hedonic wellbeing, the other side, is about the happiness element, defining wellbeing in line with its pleasure attainment and pain avoidance (Ryan, 2001). The broaden and build theory addresses both of these sides of wellbeing, via its findings on how positive emotions build our personal, physical, social, intellectual and psychological resources and lead to flourishing.
Wellbeing can also be explained as subjective because it is about experiencing a high level of positive affect, low levels of negative affect, and a high degree of life satisfaction (Deci & Ryan, 2008). The broaden and build theory explains how this positive affect element, supports ‘approach behaviour’ (moving toward something) (Capioppo et al.,1999) and motivates people to engage with their environments, evidencing how the broaden and build theory adds to our appreciation of wellbeing (Fredrickson, 2001).
Turning now to psychological wellbeing in more detail, it is a state where someone realises their potential, copes well with normal life stress, works effectively and meaningfully and contributes to their community. However, more importantly, psychological wellbeing is both a condition and sign of positive feelings and functioning (Keys, 2002). This points to ways in which the broaden and build theory might aid in our understanding of the application and outcomes of psychological wellbeing, given that the theory explains how positive emotions serve as a means of achieving psychological growth and wellbeing via resources and skills.
According to positive psychology, to flourish in life, a person needs to be supported by high levels of emotional wellbeing and of positive functioning (Keys, 2002). Emotional wellbeing is concerned with the balance or ratio of positive to negative affect (underlying experience of feeling, emotion or mood), and how well someone can regulate and use their emotions to understand life (Mental Health Commission of NSW 2017, p21). The broaden and build theory which seeks to understand and explain the impacts of emotions, can support in expanding our understanding of these components of emotional wellbeing. Moreover, by building psychological resources as the broaden and build theory suggests, positive emotions can enhance people’s understanding and experience of emotional wellbeing.
Another way that the broaden and build theory contributes to our understanding of wellbeing, is with its implications for the strategies people use to manage negative emotional experiences. With negative emotions narrowing the thought-action repertoire, and positive emotions doing the opposite, then positive emotions can function as antidotes, correcting or undoing the effects of negative emotions, Fredrickson concludes (Fredrickson, 2001). Evidence for this undoing effect highlights the connection to psychological wellbeing, by nurturing positive emotional experiences to use in coping with negative emotions in the moment (Fredrickson 2000).
Positive emotions help people during chronic stress has also been claimed by Folkman (1997) and other colleagues. Coping with adversity as a result of positive affect as well has also been evidenced by Aspinwall (2001) and others. On this same note, the broaden and build theory offers findings that the ability to be resilient, is stimulated by positive emotional experiences. (Fredrickson 2001). It is also interesting to note that the broaden and build theory findings explains an upward spiral of ongoing wellbeing, whereby people who experienced greater positive emotions than others became more resilient to adversity over time, which enhanced coping skills, i.e., the positive emotions increased the likelihood that people “will feel good in the future” (Fredrickson, 2001, p 224)
This next part of my article will explore how well broaden and build theory, measures up to the common features that make up a scientific theory. Dr Joshanloo (2021) defines scientific explanations as being:
In terms of the generally agreed-upon features of scientific thinking a useful list of features is explained by Smith (2021, p5). They are accuracy (the explanation and theory must match real-world observation), consistency (agreement with other theories), scope (wide ranging), simple and fruitful (useful in guiding new research). In addition, the notion of falsifiability (a claim can be demonstrated to be false).
To explore how well does broaden and build theory measure up to the common features that make up a scientific theory, we will take each aspect described above and comment.
Empirical support for the broaden and build theory stems from various disciplines within psychology (cognition, intrinsic motivation, animal behaviour etc) (Fredrickson, 2001). Fredrickson (1998) points out that two decades of scientific experiments were conducted by Isen (2000) and colleagues. They verified that people experiencing positive affect showed many positive wellbeing elements such as thought patterns that were creative, flexible, integrative, open to information, efficient, greater behavioural choices (see Fredrickson, 2001, 2002, 2004).
Fredrickson’s theory also explains and integrates past research on positive emotions which she states has “long been studied as markers of people’s overall well-being or happiness” (Diener & Seligman, 2004; Kahneman, Kreuger, & Schkade, 2004). Another of the many examples, is support for the hypothesis that positive emotional experiences broaden a person’s momentary thought-action repertoire, which can be sourced from studies that examined cognitive and behavioural effects of positive states. (See Fredrickson, 2008, for a list of other research works in the field).
As to the testability criteria, the broaden and build theory research relies on people and various contexts and circumstances all of which were able to be tested. Regarding the tentative criteria, (willing acceptance of a faulty explanation), there is no information available for this. In terms of whether the theory has been evaluated rigorously, all the experiments described in Fredrickson’s papers can be observed to allude to this as they state the possible cause and effects of positive emotions between interventions and outcomes.
The criteria of accuracy can also be observed in the broaden and build theory experiments that provide explanations and theories that match real-world phenomena. For example, in several experiments, they assessed broadened thinking by “measuring the degree to which people see the ‘big picture’ or focus on smaller details, using ‘global-local visual processing tasks”. (Fredrickson, 2004 p.1370).
In terms of scope, the theory acknowledges that there is a lot of work still to do to enable more wide ranging research. Following the theories emergence, many studies surfaced in different sub-disciplines of psychology, and which provided evidence for practical benefits of experiencing positive emotions (see Fredrickson, 2004 for a review).
The fruitfulness of the theory is evidenced in its usefulness in guiding new research in the field of positive psychology and wellbeing, (see my article on how the theory contributes to our understanding of wellbeing). Finally, in terms of the falsifiability criteria, the theory claims can be demonstrated to be false, as they are founded on the dynamics of human behaviour which is complex and offers a wide spectrum of results.
To conclude, Fredrickson’s pioneering ‘broaden and build theory’, provides evidence for what good are positive emotions in the various exploration studies of the function of positive emotions. Substantial support grounds the theory, evidencing that not only are positive emotions indicators of flourishing and life growth, but they help create flourishing not only in the present but in the future too, increasing human resources and contributing to a more positive, ‘good’ life.
The theory offers a foundation learning base to better understand how to grow positive emotions and therefore improve one’s wellbeing, because positive emotions are key signs of optimal wellbeing in all its dimensions (physical, emotional, social, psychological). The theory hence contributes significantly to our understanding of wellbeing and is of notable significance to real-world contexts.
Written by Aisha Meguid
Well-Being Teacher, Educator, Consultant & Coach
This article is an excerpt from an essay written during my Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology (Melbourne University)