Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Broaden-and-Build": Positive Emotions are a Means to Many Useful Ends

Nothing is good or bad.
But thinking makes it so.

Shakespeare’s astute observations of the impact of how we think are as relevant today as four centuries ago. The “good” or “bad” show up as positive or negative emotions about an event. As thoughts determine our emotions and emotions drive motion, how we think matters. Good decisions depend on how we deal with the emotions associated with the issues at hand. Managers beware! You hold the emotional environment in your hands. Individuals beware! Your personal success depends on seeing the glass half full.

Environmentalists know this so well. Despite the proven reality of global warming and the detrimental impact of our throw-away society on the environment, our concerns far outstrip our actions to save the planet. The problem, according to branding experts, is that we don’t respond well to negative messages, especially those that seem beyond our reach. Futerra Sustainability Communications in its “Branding Biodiversity: The New Nature Message” offers these key messages to justify a positive approach to engaging people to act responsibly with respect to the environment:
  • Loss is all about extinction.
  • Love is all about awe and wonder at nature.
  • Need is the economic benefit of nature.
  • Action is messages that ask us to do something.

Futerra emphasizes that people have to be inspired and to see how they can act locally, within their own day-by-day realms.

Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory of positive emotions speaks to this. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher argues that “positive emotions… produce optimal functioning, not just within the present, pleasant moment, but over the long-term as well”. Positive emotions help people to engage and by association to produce more satisfactory, quality outcomes.

Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, who specializes in creativity (what it is, how it is squelched or nurtured), would agree. Her considerable research on how “affect” relates to creativity at work points over and over again to the same conclusions: “Creative activity appears to be an affectively charged event” influencing “task quality, productivity and efficiency”. Why? The positive feelings make us more open to exploring novelty.

While there is a role for negative emotions in our lives (for example, spurring us to quick action under sudden life-threatening situations), positive emotions build our personal resilience and resources. They literally widen our moment-by-moment array of thoughts-to-actions tool kit. Hence they increase the probability of achieving better results at whatever we are up to. Fredrickson calls this ability of positive emotions to open us up to more possibilities “the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions”.

What are the positive emotions that make up a “broaden-and-build” supply? Four primary ones stand out:
  1. Joy spurs us on to play (unscripted), to reach beyond what we know and to look for creative options. It promotes skill acquisition.
  2. Interest urges us to explore, be open to new experiences, possibilities and information. It spurs us on to investigate. Interest adds to our knowledge base.
  3. Contentment is related to tranquility and serenity, savouring current life circumstances and recent successes. We feel more "together". The result is often a new sense of self and a new world view.
  4. Love, which is a combination of many emotions sparked by safe, close relationships, generates the joy and interest precursors of action.
Fredrickson also mentions pride and gratitude as important catalysts of broadening and building enduring adaptability. The latter can be developed simply by writing down each day three to five reasons why we are grateful.

The impact of positive emotions are their greatest legacy: when life takes a turn for the worst, as it does on a regular basis, the personal resources accrued from practicing and creating positive emotions enable us to face any “threats” and “survive” well through the event.

Fredrickson sees this durability as evolutionary. When our ancestors faced threats to life and limb their greater individual resources improved their odds of survival and thus the opportunity to reproduce.

What is the key message for individuals? Work hard every day at seeing the silver lining in life’s encounters. The subsequent thought-to-emotion-to-motion chain reaction will build personal resilience and as a consequence a path of greater success and satisfaction than not.

Organizational survival is no different. Managers play a huge role in creating the context for positive emotions to take hold, multiply and feed innovation and well-being. One easy way is to support employees in making progress in their work every day. That feeling of progress produces “powerfully positive emotions”!