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What good are positive emotions?

A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the US on Sept 11th 2001

Barbara L. Fredrickson
University of Michigan
Michele M. Tugade
Boston College
Christian E. Waugh & Gregory R. Larkin
University of Michigan

Published in 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology'. 84(2), 365-376, 2003
In line with Fredrickson's (1998, 2001) broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, the authors of this study proposed that positive emotions are active ingredients of trait resilience, which is a relatively stable personality trait.  The broaden-and-build theory suggests that recurrent experiences of positive emotions may help people to build this beneficial trait.  Participants were US college students who had originally taken part in a separate study on emotions at the beginning of 2001.  29 women and 18 men were contacted for this follow-up study in the weeks following the terrorist attacks in order to examine their reactions to the events.

The findings indicated that people scoring higher on trait resilience, experienced fewer symptoms of depression in the aftermath of the attacks.  The researchers suggested that this buffering effect is mediated by more frequent experiences of positive emotions.  Indeed, people scoring higher on trait resilience experienced more positive emotions than did their less resilient peers.  They were in better moods when being tested and reported that they had experienced positive emotions more frequently, and negative emotions somewhat less frequently, since the attacks.  The findings suggest that positive emotions are indeed critical, active ingredients that buffer resilient people from depression in the aftermath of crises.

It was also hypothesised that resilient people would thrive through positive emotions.  That is, where crises can be expected to deplete peoples? psychological resources, resilient people display an increase in psychological resources following crises, such as life satisfaction, optimism, and tranquillity.  The researchers suggested that such post-crisis growth is also mediated by resilient people's capacity to experience more frequent positive emotions after a crisis.  The findings indicated that trait resilience was positively associated with life satisfaction, optimism, and tranquillity, which are considered to be enduring resources that people can use time and again to respond to their ever-changing circumstances.  People scoring higher on trait resilience were more likely to find positive meaning within the problems they faced as a result of the September 11th attacks.  

According to Fredrickson's (1998, 2001) broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions broaden people?s thought-action repertoire, which over time allows them to build more enduring physical, social, intellectual, and psychological resources.  The findings of this study, according to the authors, further emphasise the importance of this theory.  They suggest that, because resilient individuals experience positive emotions more frequently, they broaden their thinking and attention, and this in turn, enables them to use more effective coping strategies that encourage thriving and buffer them against depression.


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