Broaden and Build Theory

Using Positive Emotions to Build Success

Happy Woman with Team

Help people to be happy and productive.

© iStockphoto/Squaredpixels

Think about the last time you went into work feeling negative.

Chances are, you had a difficult time coming up with creative ideas, your interactions with colleagues were uninspiring or strained, and your productivity was lower than usual.

When you go into work feeling positive, however, possibilities and opportunities seem to be everywhere.

You feel open and receptive to new ideas, your relationships are easy and supportive, and you get things done.

Most of us know intuitively that when we're in a positive frame of mind, we work better that day. However, we may not appreciate that, when we're happy, we also become more effective in the longer term. This forms the basis of the Broaden and Build Theory.

In this article, we'll explore this theory, and we'll look at how you can use the ideas behind it to help your people be happier and more effective.

About the Theory

The Broaden and Build Theory was developed by social psychologist and professor Barbara Fredrickson in 1998. Although the theory is now associated with the field of positive psychology, Frederickson originally created it as she explored how positive emotions can contribute to survival.

The theory says that the positive emotions we experience do much more than cause us happiness, joy, and contentment in the moments we experience them. They also broaden behaviors ("thought-action repertoires"), such as awareness, play, discovery, and curiosity. The more positive emotions we experience, the wider the range of thought-action repertoires we have – in other words, the happier we are, and the more flexible and creative we are in the way that we work.

(Think about it this way – if someone is being chased by a tiger, he'd better be very focused on survival: it could be disastrous to waste "energy" on play, discovery, or curiosity! By contrast, an industrial designer who's worried about her job is unlikely to come up with daring, innovative, award-winning designs – she's focused on safety and survival, and not much else.)

Over time, when we're happy, our broadened behaviors help us build rich work-related knowledge, skills and abilities (also called "personal, physical, intellectual, social, and psychological resources.")

These resources last much longer than the initial positive emotions that led to their creation, and contribute significantly to our long-term well-being and success. These broadened resources also help us cope with stress, and unhappy emotions or situations – essentially, we have stronger skills, and these help us deal better with difficult situations.

Applying the Theory

There are two steps to take to apply the Broaden and Build Theory with your people.

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