Here I am sitting down to write an article. If I allow myself to worry about whether the editors will like my work, I’m likely to do a worse job than if I concentrate on how fascinated I am by the subject matter. That’s because people experiencing a positive emotion are more open-minded and creative, at least in the moment, than people experiencing a negative emotion or no emotion.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith; ©2008 Endeavors.

Losing myself in fascination can benefit me in the long run as well, according to Barbara Fredrickson. For twenty years, Fredrickson has been asking the question, “What good are positive emotions?” Her work is illuminating the pathways by which positive emotions lead to a wide range of life outcomes such as health and satisfaction.

When Fredrickson first began her research, other psychologists were already studying negative emotions, which offer clear advantages to survival. Negative emotions narrow attention and rev up the body to meet an immediate threat. For example, fear causes the urge to flee; anger causes the urge to attack. They also produce measurable physiological changes, such as increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which ready the body for action.

Positive emotions, on the other hand, don’t produce such clear physical changes, nor do they invoke urges to perform specific behaviors. This piqued Fredrickson’s interest, as did the fact that no other scientists had begun looking for the evolutionary advantages of positive emotions. “What appealed to me was the uncharted territory,” she says. “I wanted to study something that no one had ever studied.”

Robert Levenson, Fredrickson’s mentor at Berkeley, had proposed that positive emotions might undo the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions. Fredrickson decided to test the idea. She measured heart rate and blood pressure of volunteers, then told them they would have to give a speech that would be videotaped and evaluated. As expected, the heart rate and blood pressure of the volunteers went up. After a few minutes, she told them they didn’t have to give a speech after all. All the subjects immediately watched a short film. Those who watched films designed to elicit amusement or contentment returned more quickly to their baseline physiological measures than those who watched a neutral film. Those who watched a sad film recovered slowest of all.

Too much time spent with a racing heart and elevated blood pressure can contribute to heart disease, so as a recovery tool positive emotions may contribute to health. But Fredrickson wasn’t satisfied that she had uncovered the full story.

“Is this the evolved purpose of positive emotions — that they are a reset button?” she asks. “That would suggest that most of our positive emotions would occur in the context of negative emotions.” Obviously, though, people experience positive emotions in many situations, not just those involving negative emotions. So Fredrickson kept looking.

Some research shows that people feeling positive emotions perform better on tests designed to measure creativity, flexibility, and open-mindedness, although these benefits are just as transitory as the emotions that produce them. But Fredrickson suspected that these transitory states must produce long-term survival advantages — otherwise, why would positive emotions have evolved in the first place? And why would they have remained such a central part of the human experience?

To answer her own questions, Fredrickson describes a chain reaction that she calls “broaden and build.” Step one: Positive emotions cause people to think more broadly in the moment. Step two: Broadened thinking leads to the development of long-lasting personal resources, including physical health, social support networks, psychological resilience, and problem-solving skills. Step three: These personal resources allow people to thrive and flourish over time. While anger spurs people to attack, joy may spur people to learn something new, make new friends, or go for a walk outside. When the joy wanes, the resources remain.

The effects of positive emotions grow over time, Fredrickson says. As personal resources accumulate, she says, “they change you as a person, equipping you to better handle threats to life and limb.”

Nice idea. But how do you prove it?

Fredrickson started with the “broaden” part of her theory. Working with graduate students in her previous lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she found that positive emotions increase what she calls a person’s thought-action repertoire, which is essentially the answer to the question, “What do you feel like doing right now?” or “What actions are an appropriate response to this situation?” In one study, she showed different short films to volunteers to elicit amusement (penguins hopping, sliding, and swimming), contentment (sunny mountain scenery), anger or disgust (people taunting others), anxiety (a cliff-hanger), or no emotion (a video of colored sticks). Then when she asked them to write down all the different things they felt like doing, those who had seen the clip invoking positive emotions compiled longer lists than the others. They were also more likely than the others to see the big picture in a visual test designed to measure global thinking.

In another of Fredrickson’s studies, invoking positive emotions temporarily did away with the “own-race bias,” which is the fact that most people aren’t very good at recognizing individual faces of other races. Scientists speculate that we perceive faces holistically, unless the face is of another race, in which case we see it as a collection of attributes.

In Fredrickson’s study, white people who had just experienced positive emotions were able to differentiate between black people’s faces just as well as they differentiated white people’s faces. Volunteers feeling neutral or negative emotions exhibited the own-race bias. She believes positive emotions helped people think more holistically during the face-recognition experiment.

The way Fredrickson sees it, broadened thinking — that is, seeing the big picture — encourages people to learn, explore, play, connect with others, and try new things. These actions build knowledge, health, confidence, and social support.

This part of her theory is tricky to prove. She needs to be able to increase the intensity of positive emotions experienced by an experimental group of volunteers and then compare them to a control group for an extended period of time. “We need to create ways to change the emotional fabric of people’s days over months,” Fredrickson says. “It’s not so easy; changing people’s emotional habits is like moving a river.”

First she tried asking volunteers to write down the positive meaning in both positive and negative events every day for a month. “It worked well for some people but not others,” Fredrickson says. “People get bored; they think it’s hokey.”

Next she turned to meditation. Researchers who had conducted MRI studies found that people who meditate regularly had more activity in the left sides of their brains than those who don’t. Previous studies had shown that increased activity on the left side correlates strongly to positive emotion. Other studies clearly showed that meditation helped people avoid relapse into depression.

While still at the University of Michigan, Fredrickson teamed up with colleagues to carry out a large meditation study at a computer software corporation. People in the experimental group participated in weekly meditation classes and daily practice for seven weeks. Those in the control group were placed on a waitlist for the meditation class. Each day all one hundred forty-one participants kept track of their most intense positive and negative emotions.

Before and after the study, everyone completed a battery of tests designed to measure eighteen different personal resources, including symptoms of illness, pathway thinking (ability to think of multiple solutions to a problem), environmental mastery (feeling competent to meet life’s challenges), and social support (both given and received), and then filled out questionnaires designed to assess life satisfaction and depressive symptoms.

After the data were collected, Fredrickson accepted a position at UNC and moved her lab to Chapel Hill in January 2006. “One of the great things about moving here is that there’s a quantitative psychology doctoral program at UNC,” Fredrickson says. Students in that program worked with Fredrickson to perform statistical analyses on the meditation data. They found that the meditators did experience a significant increase in positive emotions over the nine-week study. “In fact,” Fredrickson says, “the number of minutes they meditate is the best predictor of positive emotions.” This finding allowed the team to compare self-reported changes in personal resources between the experimental and control groups.

The bottom line, as summed up by Kimberly Coffey, fifth-year graduate student in Fredrickson’s lab and chief data-cruncher on the project: “Increases in positive emotions were associated with increases in resources, and increases in these were associated with increases in life satisfaction and decreases in depression.”

“We argue that the reason high positive emotions and life satisfaction go together is because positive emotions build resources that allow you to meet the challenges of life,” Fredrickson says. “It’s not that life satisfaction and positive emotions are the same thing.”

To reach this conclusion, the team tested a dizzying array of possible causal pathways to untangle the relationships between baseline positive emotions, increase in those positive emotions, change in resources (eighteen of them), and change in life satisfaction.

The data showed that positive emotions improved life satisfaction only to the extent that they increased personal resources. “By analogy, think of it this way,” Coffey says. “When UNC has a big athletic event on a weekend, I’m in a bad mood. However, the reason is not that UNC athletic events affect my mood one way or another by themselves. They affect my mood to the extent that they influence parking on campus — it gets vastly worse — and parking influences my mood.”

Could the increase in positive emotions have been caused by the placebo effect? “There’s a lot of research on placebo effect that shows they are very fast to occur and they dissipate readily,” Fredrickson says. “Our changes were very slow to appear and stayed on. But that doesn’t rule it out.” And the clear dose-response relationship (more minutes spent meditating equaled more intense positive emotions) argued against a placebo effect. In an ideal world, she’d like to conduct a double-blind study, but she hasn’t yet figured out how to give a control group something that looks like a meditation class but isn’t.

Fredrickson thinks that we should look for ways to increase positive emotion in our lives. “But you don’t have to be happy all the time,” she says. “That presumes that negative emotions are always dysfunctional and that’s just not true.” In fact, the participants in the meditation group had about the same number and intensity of negative emotions as the control group did.

Positive emotions aren’t the only way to build personal resources, Fredrickson says — they’re just the most efficient. Sure, an angry person can trudge to the gym, and a frightened person can use techniques from a self-help book to meet new people. But the joyful person who starts a pick-up basketball game and the amused person who shares a funny observation with a stranger achieve similar results with a lot less work.

In the years since Fredrickson first developed her broaden-and-build theory, other researchers have demonstrated in a number of ways that happy people live longer, achieve more professionally, and have more stable marriages than unhappy people. “These fleeting states add up to a huge impact on life outcomes,” she says.

In the fall of 2007 Fredrickson and her students replicated and expanded the meditation study using UNC faculty members and staff as subjects. The Michigan study relied solely on self reports, but Fredrickson’s new study incorporated physiological measurements and cognitive tests as well. She and her students are analyzing the data and hope to publish the results soon.

Meanwhile, Fredrickson is pursuing a new goal of reaching out to the public. She’s writing a book for a popular audience, to be published by Crown in 2009.

“Positive emotions aren’t trivial; they’re an essential state that you diminish or ignore at your own peril,” she says.

“I didn’t go into psychology to be in the helping profession. I was drawn to the puzzles of science. That’s not my sole motivation anymore.

“This is really about something that could help people and change the world. This is the contribution I want to make.”

Mary Russell Roberson was a freelance contributor to Endeavors.

Barbara Fredrickson is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at UNC. Other authors were graduate students Kimberly A. Coffey and Jolynn Pek of UNC, meditation instructor Sandra Finkel, and graduate student Michael A. Cohn of the University of Michigan.