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Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my conception of positive emotions  in terms of promotion focus and negative emotions in terms of prevention focus. Today I will try to relate this to the specific action-tendency theory of negative emotions and broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (as proposed by Barbara Fredrickson).

First its instructive to distinguish between negative and positive emotions. Negative emotions, like Fear, Anger, Disgust, traditionally have been conceptualized as specific action tendencies that get triggered or activated by particular type of threatening situations/stimuli. I view them as sensory driven. A stimuli impinges and is either presumed to be attacking/trespassing (thus arousing anger) or dangerous and threatening survival (thus arousing fear) or intimidating and overbearing (thus arousing sadness and disengagement)  or sickening and to be avoided (thus arousing disgust) ; in all cases a stimuli or situation acts as an immediate trigger for a specific action tendency – that of defending, fighting or fleeing, disengaging and surrendering or vomiting and keeping away.

In contrast consider positive emotions like Joy, Interest, Contentment and Love. They all happen when the environment is safe and bodily needs are met- they are not need driven, but growth oriented. They are not based around survival, but around growth.  they are non -specific thought action repertoire that is a broadened set and is not narrowly focused- rather one of the prime effects of positive emotions is to broaden attention, thought/cognition,  actions and interactions. I consider them as motor driven. they are not a response to a stimulus. Rather they are specific patterns of spontaneous action tendencies and opportunities to practice giving outlet to ones spontaneous action tendencies in a safe environmental. That is why every sort of play- be it physical rough-and-tumble or intellectual play of creativity or social play of flirting – is associated with the positive emotions.

To make my analogy more clear consider the fact that actions can be classically conditioned (and thus response to US/CS stimulus) or operant conditioned (and thus not reactive or reflexive but intrinsically driven and proactive) and while former may be more or less determined by  the external stimulus and internal associations and is deterministic in nature, the latter has spontaneous behavioral variability and initiation as its premise and has room for free will.  What I claim today is that negative emotions are reactive and thus keep you stuck in deterministic rut, while positive emotions are expansive and provide opportunities for exercise of free will in safe and playful environments by encouraging spontaneous behavioral fluctuations and felkxibility.

It has been found time and again that positive emotions are associated with a broadening and resource-building effect. Consider Joy. It encourages one to engage in acts for acts sake or encourages rough and tumble play- it builds physical resources.  Consider Interest . It encourages one to engage in exploration of a domain- be it actual physical domain or conceptual domain – it builds cognitive maps and cognitive or intellectual resources. Consider contentment. It encourages one to engage in reflection and self assessment and self integration – it builds psychological resources. consider Love (care-giving variety not romantic which is pathological and more of a negative emotion). It encourages one to engage in reciprocal interactions and to explore, act on and reflect on the other- it builds social resources.

Thus it is evident that positive emotions do help to broaden and build. That much has been proved by Barbara’s research program .  My additional claim is that negative emotions are sensory oriented and reactive while positive emotions are motor oriented, spontaneous and proactive. By signalling safe environments in which behavioral flexibility can be played around with they push us to relate to life more intrinsically.

Perhaps another analogy will be relevant.  there is a sympathetic nervous system and there is parasympathetic system. the sympathetic system helps us respond to stressful situations and readies the body. the parasympathetic restores the body and helps in regeneration of the body. So do negative emotions help us react to outside threats and make the mental-illness dimension while positive emotions help match intrinsic activity to opportunities in the environment and makes the mental health dimension.

The former (mental illness continuum)  is a zero sum game– if I win someone looses. For eg if a dominance hierarchy is there and I am on top I may feel manic while the person at bottom may feel depressed..but as long as dominance and survival and predation and germs are there the negative emotions would be there …the latter (mental health continuum)  is a win-win game.  There are more opportunities for everyone to fare better if everyone is positioned high on mental health spectrum as then doors to creativity and productivity open right then and there for all concerned. thus, I have become an advocate of the positive psychology movement and would like more efforts devoted to study of positive emotions.

Fredrickson, B. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2 (3), 300-319 DOI: 10.1037//1089-2680.2.3.300

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