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Positive Emotions - More Than Fuzzy Feelings

Confident woman leader

For those in businesses you may be tired of hearing about 'wellness'. As improved ‘human capital’/‘psychological capital’ has been found to increase engagement and productivity at work there is good reason to be talking up wellbeing.

“Behavioural factors linked to positive Psychological WellBeing:

Less distraction from work tasks due to psychosomatic complaints etc …

Better memory (less bias to the negative)

Motivation and self-efficacy

Flexibility and originality

Better response to unfavorable feedback

More positive judgements about others

Higher levels of ‘Engagement’

More productive”

Ford et al, 2011, Lyubomirsky, King and Diener, 2005 cited by Cooper 2013.

In this article I will outline some of the evidence from positive psychology research about how and why positive emotions are not all fuzziness at work and offer some ways it can be applied across an organisation.

And as compelling as the science is, lets not overlook the simple fact that incorporating wellbeing principles through mindful leadership and a positive work and family culture is inherently a better way to live our working and non-working lives. The benefits ought to be felt by the individuals and the environment you are working in whether that be the home or the office.

To get a grip on the basics of wellbeing as I am talking about here, (rather than an idea that you kind of feel happy most of the time):

“Mental (or psychological) well-being is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, as well as being able to make a contribution to her or his community” (Carr, 2013).

A key leader in the field of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, in 2012 wrote his pivotal work Flourish which promotes a clear model to look at the building blocks of what makes up our sense of well-being and enables us to cope with stress and reach our potential. His PERMA model encompassed key psychological frameworks and research that affect psychological wellbeing and wraps them up in an acronym that makes it easy to remember and measure these different aspects of wellbeing in our lives, organisations and schools. Another key measure for wellbeing that often gets added is H for Health. When we meet these criteria in an upward facing way then life is going ok, if we lack in certain areas then we could undoubtedly look at ways to improve these areas for a greater sense of wellbeing (and enhance our performance in our lives).


Positive Emotions


Positive Realtionships

Meaning (and pupose)



The Debt Generated by Worry

In this article I'm just going to look at the first of Martin’s principles “Positive Emotions” and how it affects our performance individually and at work. Just in case you need some science based reminders of how our moods effect us, on the graph below research by the Heart Math Institute demonstrates clearly how emotions like frustration and worry negatively affect the heart’s coherence and produce impaired performance whilst positive emotions like appreciation and care produce optimally regulated performance in the individual.

Figure 1:

The impact of negative emotions on impaired work performance has of course been long understood with research actually dating back to 1932! (Hersey cited by Cropanzano 1996). However, “Workplace anxiety is a serious concern not only for employee health and well-being but also for an organization’s bottom line” John Trougakos of the Rotman School of Management is still saying nearly 100 years later. This old news surprisingly still needs attention. So, what can we do better to make a real impact on this area? The answer is manifold, but here we will take a look at how emotions across the domains, from personal to interpersonal, are being shown to be part of the solution.

Measuring The Power of Happy

Its 2005, enter, Mathematician Losada and Positive Psychology Researcher Fredrickson, who develop key scientific research on how emotions affect businesses by measuring positive to negative statements in work meetings.

The outcome showed clear evidence that high positive emotion correlated with successful business outcomes. High performing organisations demonstrating a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative affect whereas low performing businesses showed a 2:1 ratio (Fredrickson and Losada, 2005). (This research has also been performed on married couples by researcher Goleman with similar ratios for successful marriage.)

Barabara Fredrickson’s core ‘Broaden And Build’ theory of emotions could also be drawn on to get those who find themselves in a lower performance state over what Organisational Psychologist Lewis calls the ‘Abundance Bridge’ to where the ‘psychological capital’ of hope and resilience reigns.

To understand how positive emotions serve us, first lets look at how different emotions affect us.

From an evolutionary standpoint, negative emotion (negative affect) serves us with it’s specific-action tendencies of fight, freeze or flight, and critical, focussed thinking to survive threats. The brilliant research that Fredrickson has expanded on and continues to bring into the conversation of emotions is to look at positive emotions (positive affect) from an evolutionary perspective. She has found that positive emotions broaden our momentary action-repertoires. So they make more options available to us, have broader possibilities to tap into and create more creative solutions. We also see things in a more holistic light and differences between people become less pronounced, increasing relational capacities. Positive emotions, she contends, build resources for the future, including physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources. (Fredrickson, 2001)

Fig 2 The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions, Fredrickson, 2001. Image reference from Boniwell, Hefferon, 2011, p.25.

Why is this important? Because we ultimately need to develop our environments to reach the positivity that has been proven by Losada and Fredrickson if we are to rise to new challenges successfully and find ourselves saying - ‘yes I can I cope with this stress well and I actually feel like Im thriving’. Resilience Fredrickson posits is something we can develop with positive emotions and she has developed 10 key emotions which by amplifying these can support coping and confidence in yourself and the people around you. “Resilient people not only cultivate positive emotions in themselves to cope, but they are also skilled at eliciting positive emotions in others” (Demos 1989; Werner et al 1992; Kumpfer 1999) cited by Fredrickson, 2004).

Fig 3 - Fredrickson’s ten positive emotions, Boniwell et al 2011 citing Fredrickson 2005, p. 26.

“Building and sustaining momentum for change requires large amounts of positive affect (positive emotion) and social bonding – things like hope, excitement, inspiration, caring, camaraderie, sense of urgent purpose and sheer joy in creating something meaningful together” (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005).

Me and We - Scientific Tips for Applying Positive Emotions


Workplace culture begins with individuals. A known Broaden and Build intervention is the Gratitude Journal to increase the personal emotion of appreciation. (Lyubomirsky, Seligman, Cameron). This creates a positive feedback loop whereby it amplifies positive affect and takes us out of our negativity bias and negative rumination.

This personal positivity creates a flow on effect to team members and clients as Difabio notes: “gratitude is noteworthy because it increases positive relationships, social support, and workers’ well-being, and reduces negative emotions at the workplace” (Di Fabio, 2017).


We know that emotions are contagious, through large-scale research like the Framington Study where neighbours caught their neighbours emotions both for the better or worse (Seligman, 2012) as well as the strong scientific evidence of how our minds are open-loop limbic systems that connect to those around us. Mirror neurons work socially to create empathy and understanding which creates “a cohesive group who like one another and work well together” (Seligman, 2012).

We can use emotions to positively prime teams by looking at bright spots of what is going well or thanking others for good work (Gratitude), by focussing on the teams' strengths (Pride), their capacities to face challenges (Hope), and take people on the upward spiral of positive social engagement (Interest, Joy) to work on a group vision (Inspiration).

It has been found that upward spirals of positivity counteract downward spirals of negativity (Garland and Fredrickson 2001). Fredrickson’s research on the Undoing Hypothesis which showed how Positive Affect buffers the cardiovascular responses of Negative Affect (Fredrickson) is evidence that in assisting staff and clients to bounce back from daily strains and stressors by using positive emotion they can find greater resilience together.


Major emotional primers in your business are your leaders. Cooper says “Leaders are key agents in determining psychological wellbeing” whilst Robert Quinn states “the point of leadership is to help create coherence in the system” (Lewis). When managers vision a compelling future and exercise proper management skills they can buoy whole teams. Recognising the anxiety and resistance of staff to current circumstances and increasing positive emotions to buffer those concerns is critical to increasing their capacity to cope and adapt to change.

Organisational Development

Appreciative Inquiry is a deep Organisational Change strategy that employs the Broaden and Build theory. Organisations work on their ‘Positive Core’ through a grass-roots systemic review and re-imagining. Including positive narratives, emotional contagion, positive leadership, increasing hope, appreciation and inspiration, organisations develop ways to mobilise their staff to increase purpose and engagement with change whilst upward spiralling people with pride in their strengths. (Cooperrider Whitney 2005, Lewis 2011, Fry 2018)

How We can Spiral...

Downward spiral

Unhappy customers/family

Low staff morale

Feeling hopeless/helpless/overwhelmed in the face of change -low psych. capital

Health issues and absenteeism rising

Anxiety and stress rising

Poor performance

Expected high ratio negative feelings

Expected financial or resource losses

Upward Spiral

Happy customers/family

High staff morale

Developing feelings of competence, possibility, hope in the face of change - high psych. capital

Buffering stress with positive emotions

Decreasing illness/absenteeism (and presenteeism - low work functioning)

Increasing physical and mental wellbeing

Optimal Performance

Expected high ratio of positive emotions

Expected increase in financial profits through revenue, savings, service & product improvement

(Evidence - Cooperrider Whitney, Fredrickson, Losada et al, Williams, McCarthy, Carr, Cameron, Lewis, Cooper, Ford et al, Lyuobomirsky et al)

The take home message is that positive emotions are worth cultivating not just as end states in themselves but also as a means to achieving psychological growth... and wellbeing” ~ Barbara Fredrickson

And the links to well-being and positive business/organisational outcomes is compelling.

To quote some business leaders on the success of their organisation’s positive psychology approach:

“((It’s) ...a process that gets you moving up the success spiral rather than down the failure one...” Rob Treeby, BP Amaco (Cooperrider Whitney, 2005).

And finally, Nurtimental states that although they garnered a 200% increase in revenue and a big decrease in absenteeism, that..

“in the final analysis (it is about) human happiness” (Cooperrider Whitney, 2005) .

So, let’s ask ourselves, ‘What could happiness do for us?’

NOTE: This article does not review mindfulness and the effect that its practice has on the emotions, however we do know that mindfulness practices have an impact on how we respond to our emotions and create a more self-reflective culture which can lead to a more positive emotional climate, again in the office and the home.


Boniwell, Hefferon, Positive Psychology: Theory Research and Applications, 2011

Cameron K, Positive Organisational Development with Kim Cameron, 2016 accessed at, 2018

Carr, A. Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013. P.12

Cooper L C, Management and Happiness, Elgar Research Reviews in Business, 2013

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. K., Leaders in positive organisational change, Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change, 2005

Cropanzano, Affective Events Theory: A Theoretical Discussion of The Structure, Cause and Consequences of Affective Experiences at Work, 1996, p 13-15

Di Fabio, A., Palazzeschi, L., & Bucci, O., Gratitude in Organizations: A Contribution for Healthy Organizational Contexts, Frontiers In Psychology, 2017, p.8

Fredrickson B.L, The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 2004

Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer, P. S., & Penn, D. L.

Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 2010

Lewis S, Positive Psychology and Change: How Leadership, Collaboration and Appreciative Inquiry Create Transformational Results, 2014

Lewis S, Positive Psychology at Work: How Positive Leadership and Appreciative Inquiry Create Inspiring Organisations, 2011 p.174-184

Lyubomirsky, King, Diener, The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? Psychological Bulletin, 2005, p 823

Rotman School of Management, Anxiety in the Workplace Can Lead to Lower Job Performance, 2015 citing research by Mc Carthy et al, accessed at:

Seligman M, Flourish, 2011

Stewart and Donaldson, Applied Positive Psychology; Chapter 3 Cultivating Positive Emotions to Enhance Human Flourishing, Fredrickson B and Kurtz L, p. 35-45

Williams et al, Exploring Selective Exposure and confirmation bias as processes underlying employee work happiness: an intervention study, Frontiers in psychology, p.1, 2016

Goleman, Boyatizis, Mc Neil, Primal Leadership: the hidden driver of great performance, Harvard Business Review, 2013, p. 44-50

McCraty, R. Heart Math, 2015, p. 24

McCarthy JM, Trougakos JP, Cheng BH, Are anxious workers less productive workers? It depends on the quality of social exchange, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2016, p. 279-91

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