An Overview of Broaden and Build Theory

Woman smiling

Emma Kim / Getty Images

Have you ever experienced a negative emotional reaction to an emergency situation? In that moment, was your instinct to carefully consider all possible courses of action or was it to react instinctively in a fight-or-flight response?

The difference between these two reactions highlights how positive versus negative emotions can direct your life experiences.

Broaden and Build theory helps to explain how we can move away from a survival mode way of responding to situations into a more expansive and thoughtful approach to life. This usefulness of positive emotions is highlighted through this new theory in the field of positive psychology.

What Is Broaden and Build Theory?

Broaden and Build theory was first proposed by Barbara Frederickson as a way to address the lack of research on positive emotions and the greater emphasis on negative ones.

Broaden and Build Theory

A theory associated with the field of positive psychology that explores the function of positive emotions in building resiliency. This theory is based on the notion that positive emotions can have the effect of broadening awareness and response to events as well as building resiliency and coping skills.

Broaden and Build theory was introduced to expand on the work that had been done in psychology on negative emotions and psychological maladjustment.

Rather than arguing that positive emotions should replace negative emotions, the premise of the Broaden and Build theory is that both types of emotions must co-exist and that positive emotions build resources to cope with negative emotions.

In this way, positive psychology and more specifically, Broaden and Build theory, are complementary to the study of negative emotions and how to fix them.

Types of Positive Emotions

Below is a list of positive emotions that you might recognize from your own day-to-day life. How many of these do you experience on a daily basis? Are there others that you can think of that are not on this list?

Remember that positive emotions are both those that you experience in reaction to something and also feelings that you can call up at will.

  • Enjoyment: feeling joy in the moment while doing something
  • Happiness: a feeling of contentment in the moment
  • Joy: a stronger feeling of happiness
  • Interest: feeling drawn to do something or intrigued by something
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something
  • Gratitude: feeling grateful for something
  • Serenity: feeling peaceful, calm, relaxed
  • Love: feeling affection toward a spouse, child, friend, or even a stranger
  • Optimism: feeling hopeful about your future
  • Relief: feeling a sense of calm about some change that happened
  • Affection: having positive feelings toward someone
  • Cheerfulness: being optimistic or having a positive outlook on a situation
  • Hope: looking forward to the future, expecting the best to happen
  • Amusement: finding something humorous, enjoyable, or entertaining
  • Pride: feeling like you've done a good job
  • Awe: being amazed by something (e.g., taking the time to appreciate nature)
  • Inspiration: feeling like you have a reason to do something or a goal
  • Confidence: feeling proud of yourself, bold, optimistic, or in control
  • Surprise: in the positive sense, feeling happy about an unexpected outcome
  • Altruism: feeling joy in helping other people
  • Admiration: looking at someone and liking something about them
  • Enthusiasm: being excited or feeling a rush of positive emotion
  • Euphoria: a rush of positive feelings associated with a person, place, or thing

In addition to understanding the types of positive emotions, it is also important to look at the benefits of these positive emotions.

Benefits of Positive Emotion

Broaden and Build theory posits that positive emotions lead to a broadening of experience and the building of resources.

Try to be aware of how you are feeling in each moment and your reactions. Have a plan to deal with negative emotions so that they don't last as long and switch into a positive mindset when you are able.

Positive emotions are believed to do all of the following:

  • Enhance survival over the long-term by giving you greater coping resources
  • Increase creativity by allowing you to step out of survival mode to consider more options
  • Enable you to see the "big picture" by stepping out of survival mode and thinking more clearly
  • Improve psychological resilience by giving you more tools to manage negative emotions
  • Allow you to flourish rather than just survive (i.e., live the life of your dreams, rather than just avoid the life of your nightmares)
  • Increase your coping resources by building your toolbox of coping skills
  • Put negative emotions in a broader context helping you to see that the current situation is not your destiny; that things can change for the better in the future
  • Make it easier to see positivity in future situations by noticing that things change and that you can always find some positive in a negative situation
  • Increase feelings of well-being which improve in a positive upward cycle
  • Give greater meaning to life so that you can find the "good in the bad"
  • Improve the ability to bounce back in the face of obstacles giving you tools to manage difficult situations
  • Seeing yourself as "wise" and being able to operate from your "wise" mind rather than reacting out of negative emotion
  • Greater social integration again in an upward cycle
  • Greater distress tolerance aids in the ability to react calmly in the face of distress
  • Resistance to depression and the ability to move beyond negative emotions
  • Better emotion regulation aids the ability to manage your negative emotions
  • Increased job satisfaction especially if you experience positive emotions at work
  • Improved work performance in your job or career by giving you tools to improve your work and face obstacles with clarity

As you can see, there is a wide variety of potential benefits of positive emotions. However, it's also important to understand the role of negative emotions and how they relate to positive emotions.

Positive vs. Negative Emotions

What is the difference between positive and negative emotions? Positive emotions such as joy, interest, and playfulness differ from fear, anxiety, and sadness in one important way: negative emotions relate to survival and make it hard for us to think beyond the immediate situation.

Positive emotions, on the other hand, promote expansiveness and an opening up of resources in our lives.

Positive emotions also help us to process negative emotions and to bounce back from negative situations. They also make us more open to positive experiences in the future. They also help to find meaning in negative experiences.

Ways to Experience More Positive Emotions

Have you heard of the "hedonic treadmill"? What this refers to is the idea that if you have a positive experience or positive emotion in your life, it can be fleeting. And so, you might go about your life trying to chase those positive feelings.

However, positive emotions are better when they lead to the building up of resources so that you are no longer on the hedonic treadmill. It's kind of like the difference between working each day to earn money, or setting some aside to save for the future to protect yourself and not have to work every day.

The best thing you can do for your own negativity is to start adding small doses of positive energy into your day. Eventually, over time, you will develop a more positive mindset and outlook on life.

Below are some ways you can call in more positive emotions into your daily life that will lead to building up resiliency over time. See if you can practice more of these each day or add more positive events whenever possible:

  • Watch funny movies or television shows that you know will make you laugh
  • Practice meditation at the same time each day so that you get into a rhythm
  • Write about positive memories of things that happened in your past and reminisce about them to the point that they feel real and you experience the positive emotion all over again
  • Practice a religion or engage in a spiritual practice that aligns with your beliefs or values (helps to find meaning in bad events)
  • Practice gratitude by writing in a daily journal or thinking of five things to be thankful for each morning (e.g., by writing in a gratitude journal)
  • Build more social connections by talking to people at the grocery store, talking to your neighbors, or making more conversation with people you already know (face-to-face, voice-to-voice is preferable over email, texting, messaging, etc. to get the full effect of synchronicity and mirroring of body language between you and the other person)
  • Go for a walk in nature and listen to the birds or look up at the sky (be grateful for the present moment and mindfully aware; don't just walk through the forest on your smartphone or distracted by your thoughts)
  • Work with a therapist to move past emotional blocks and experience more positivity in your life
  • Identify and work to improve stressful life situations so that there are fewer triggers for your negative emotions
  • Look for a silver lining in situations even when it seems like everything is going wrong
  • Be altruistic and help others by giving them gifts, offering to help them with chores, or just calling up people who might be lonely
  • Practice self care by taking a long hot bath, doing some painting, or reading a fun romance novel

The strategies that you identify and choose yourself will probably work best as they will fit with what you are already doing and be easier to sustain.

It's also helpful to recognize that negative emotions will always be present, even as you are working to build your positive emotions. The goal is not to eliminate your negative emotions, but rather to develop a set of tools to better manage and cope with them when they arise.

It is through this long-term building of resources, rather than a short term search for happiness, that you will be able to experience greater joy and satisfaction in life.

A Word From Verywell

While it might be tempting to think that you can't use positive emotions if you are stuck in a negative cycle, just taking a small step each day might be helpful. The goal of the Broaden and Build theory is not to suggest that you never experience anything negative—the idea is that you can build up your resiliency through small positive acts each day.

It is also important to remember that if negative emotions have become a pattern, it may be helpful to speak to a mental health professional such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist to rule out depression or other causes.

In some cases, it may be necessary to treat an underlying mental health condition such as depression with therapy or medication before working on building your positive emotions.

While broaden and build theory is based on the notion of positive emotions building up over time to build resiliency, there is also value in changing the negative neural pathways that you have built up over time with more realistic ways of looking at the world. In other words, you can use these new thought patterns as a stepping stone toward positive emotions.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fredrickson BL. The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. Am Psychol. 2001;56(3):218-226.

  2. Peterson C. What Is Positive Psychology, and What Is it Not?

  3. Fredrickson BL, Branigan C. Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cogn Emot. 2005;19(3):313-332.

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.