The Relevance of the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions to Real Life

The Relevance of the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions to Real Life

The broaden and build theoretical model developed by Barbara Fredrickson can be applied to literally every environment, industry or workplace from home to education to welfare to businesses, to help create positive outcomes, such as the many benefits highlighted in my previous article, in how it contributes to the positive psychology goals of wellbeing, flourishing and achieving a good life.

In this article, I briefly discuss how the Broaden and Build theory is relevant to real-world settings and evaluate to what extent it sits within recent conceptions of positive psychology. I also compare this theory to other Positive Psychology theories: Flow and Hope Theory.

We live at a time where stress levels are pandemic, the broaden and build theory is more than ever, relevant today in dealing with stress, because as Fredrickson points out (2008), traditional coping theories focus on management of negative emotions at the expense of coping processes associated with positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2008).

Towards this end, the theory provides a “conceptual framework for understanding the coping process by illuminating how positive emotions can help restore and build on depleted personal resources” (Fredrickson, 2008 p148). Of the many studies in this area, one is Folkman and Moskowitz (2000) who offer three types of coping related to the occurrence and maintenance of positive affect, positive reappraisal, problem focused coping efforts and infusing ordinary events with positive meaning (e.g., appreciation).

‘Positive emotions can help restore and build on depleted personal resources’ (Fredrickson, 2008)

The broaden and build theory VS recent conceptions of positive psychology

In exploring to what extent does the broaden and build theory sit within more recent conceptions of positive psychology, I begin with a brief overview highlighting recent conceptions of positive psychology.

The initial motivation for the development of the field of positive psychology was the disenchantment with the disorder and dysfunction focus of traditional psychology, however a ‘polarising rhetoric’ seemed at play, with negative states conceptualised as undesirable and positive states as beneficial and to be pursued (Lomas, 2016). Moreover, under certain situations this could be counterproductive (Weinstein et al. 2005).

What emerged as a result, was a ‘second wave’ of positive psychology (SWPP), which began investigating the “philosophical and conceptual complexities” of the idea of ‘positive’ (Lomas, 2016, p1753). Lomas (2016) explains that SWPP arose from critics in the field observing problems in using the classifications of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. Positive qualities such as optimism for example, can sometimes be harmful to wellbeing it was observed (for example, if linked to an under-appreciation of risk) and negative states such as anger (could motivate someone to take action and create positive change) can sometimes be conducive to flourishing and wellbeing (Tavris, 1989).

The SWPP hence marks a more refined understanding of the nature of flourishing in the context of positive and negative experiences. Lomas (2016) points out however that the critical arguments that were put forth along these lines, actually helped positive psychology to enter a new stage in its development.

A key issue addressed by SWPP, revolved around the hypothesis that ‘meaning’ and ‘happiness’ represent two different visions of the ‘good life’. This led to a model to ‘integrate the complex interactions between negative and positive concepts to optimise positive outcomes. Hence, SWPP, was characterised by a more “balanced, interactive, meaning centred and cross-cultural perspective”. (Wong, 2011, p69) than its first wave of positive psychology from where the broaden and build theory stemmed.

Connecting the above issues to broaden and build theory further, as stated with my previous discussion on the nature of the theory, we can observe that it served a foundation role that would have contributed positively to recent conceptions of positive psychology. For example, just as the launch of the positive psychology movement was the imbalance in mainstream psychology, broaden and build theory by emphasising what was good about positive emotions, backed by new research as well as applied psychological research and studies of emotions, served a foundational and fruitful purpose in the mission of positive psychology, contributing to the answering of its fundamental question of what makes life worth living and how to improve life for people and communities.

The Broaden and Build Theory compared to other Positive Psychology theories: Flow and Hope Theory

I will now turn to comparing and contrasting features of the broaden and build theory to flow theory and hope theory. I begin with a description of flow theory.

According to APA Dictionary of Psychology, flow is “a state of optimal experience arising from intense involvement in an activity that is enjoyable” (VandenBos, 2007). It occurs when a person’s skills are fully used, equal to the task demands and intrinsic motivation is at its height, self-consciousness and time seem to be lost, a feeling of being in control, with ease, and full concentration all arise, marking the experience called ‘flow’ (APA Dictionary of Psychology). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, recognized and named the psychological concept of flow. It was developed in studies seeking to understand “optimal experiences,” or life moments where individuals “claim to have been feeling at their best” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2016, p.100).

In relation to the broaden and build theory, flow theory complements the broaden and build theory, which is about exploring the impact of positive emotions. Flow theory shows and provides support to broaden and build theory in action, in other words, by virtue of flow showing how positive emotions such as oneness, motivation, control, interest, engagement etc create both enjoyment and enhance performance – all of which are markers of optimal wellbeing. Moreover, because flow is a major element of well-being, “a good life is one that is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”(Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009), it complements the same ‘good life’ and wellbeing mission of the broaden and build theory .

Shifting now to an overview of the second theory to compare and contrast with broaden and build theory, is hope theory. ‘Hope’ stems from ‘stable personality traits that reflect belief in positive future expectancies and can be experienced as a momentary state’ (Alarcon, Bowling, & Khazon, 2013; Gallagher & Lopez, 2009). In its psychological usage, ‘hope’ has been defined as the “perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways” (Snyder, 2002, p249). Being a positive motivational state at its core, instantly highlights the connection to the work of broaden and build theory, which seeks to explore the effects of positive emotions and states.

With hope being positioned as a ‘dynamic motivation system’, proven to broaden thinking, fuel persistence, unlock one’s potential and predict one’s resilience ability, (Goodman et al., & Snyder, 2002), all of these illustrate a connection with the role of broaden and build theory, providing evidence in how positive emotions broaden thinking, create long term resources, such as persistence and resiliency.

Hope being a ‘positive trait, state and domain’ (Cheavens, et al., 2005; Weis & Speridakos, 2011), leads to many more benefits that complement the work of the broaden and build theory, again because, it is about the impact of positive emotions and hope theory does just that, highlight the impacts of this positive emotion. For example, according to Gallagher & Lopez (2009), Snyder (2002) and others, adults who are high in hope, achieve higher levels of psychological wellbeing and goal achievement, experience: less stress, stronger relationships, better physical health and more. Being a human strength, hope lifts one’s spirits, makes one think and feel positively about what is possible, all concepts that match the spirit and elements of the broaden and build theory.

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)