Cultivating Positivity for Personal and Organisational Wellbeing

Positive emotions are more than fleeting feel-good moments. Indeed, they have long-term consequences for us because it is in these moments of positivity that our hearts and minds are opened to try new things, think more creatively, hear new ideas and meet new people. According to Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, positive emotions broaden our awareness, and the resulting openness to new experiences builds our social and personal resources. In her 2009 book, Positivity, Fredrickson calls these research findings Broaden-and-Build Theory. She contends that brief moments of positivity provide the building blocks for our learning and relationships. From an evolutionary perspective, positive emotions assist the survival of humans, not immediately in the same way as anger and fear do by preparing us for fight or flight, but through strengthening connections with other humans.

Positive emotions

Fredrickson (2009) identifies ten positive emotions that have been the subject of research by psychologists. She notes that the circumstances which lead individuals to experience each differ from person to person, so that the journey to flourishing is a unique one, requiring self-study. When we tune into our own emotions, moments of positivity add up to change the very course of our lives. Positivity may be experienced as:

  1. Joy – the light, bright feeling that makes us smile, glow and be playful. It is evidenced by the Duchenne smile involving the muscles around the mouth and eyes.
  2. Gratitude – the sense of appreciation that opens our heart and makes us want to give back.
  3. Serenity – the feeling that things are just right that beckons us to savour this moment, and commit to having this experience more often in our life.
  4. Interest – the feeling of fascination and attention that urges us to explore and learn.
  5. Hope – the feeling that, although circumstances are uncertain or even desperate at present, possibilities exist for things to change.
  6. Pride – when tempered with appropriate humility, pride is the deep sense of satisfaction we feel in the wake of socially-valued achievement.
  7. Amusement – the desire to laugh and share our joviality with others when something surprising happens.
  8. Inspiration – the uplifting feeling in response to witnessing exceptional human behaviour.
  9. Awe – the humbling feeling of being transfixed and overwhelmed in the presence of greatness.
  10. Love – the recurrent surges of positivity we feel in response to any of the other positive emotions, when these feelings are transformed in the context of a safe, close relationship.

(In her 2013 book, Love 2.0, Fredrickson offers a radical perspective on intimate relationships by defining love as micro-moments of connection. In so doing, she points the way to how we can increase our experience of love by consciously cultivating positive emotions.)

The benefits of positivity

1. Positivity is associated with increased longevity

Research evidence suggests that people who feel good are likely to live longer. Most famous is the 'nun study' by psychologists from the University of Kentucky (Danner, Snowden, & Friesen, 2001). These researchers analysed essays written by a group of young Catholic nuns in the 1930's describing their childhoods and the influences that led them to want to join the convent. Coding these writings for instances of happiness, interest, love and hope as part of a wider study on ageing and Alzheimer's disease, the researchers were amazed to find that the nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived for up to ten years longer than those nuns who expressed the least.

2. Positivity broadens our thinking

Many studies have shown that positive emotions enable us to see the 'big picture' more clearly, and be more flexible, integrative and open-minded in our thinking. Options and opportunities appear greater when we feel good, and creative solutions to complex problems are more likely to be found. In one study, for example, Alice Isen and her colleagues of Cornell University examined how doctors made medical diagnoses by having them think aloud while they solved the case of a patient with liver disease. They found that those doctors to whom they presented a small bag of chocolates performed better clinical reasoning by integrating case information more effectively and resisting jumping to early conclusions (Isen, Rosenzweig, & Young, 1991).

3. Positivity builds resilience

Positivity has emerged in the research literature as a key factor in people's ability to bounce back from life's inevitable hardships and crises. In early 2001, Fredrickson interviewed over 100 college students in a study of resilience and optimism. By coincidence in September that year, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre provided an opportunity to re-visit these students. Whilst almost all expressed feelings of anger, fear and sadness, and 70% were depressed, those who were originally identified as resilient and optimistic were found to be only half as likely to be depressed and expressed a lot of positive emotion as well. In particular, they expressed gratitude for the goodness in people they had experienced since. They were inspired and awed by the groundswell of unity and compassion in their own community and internationally. Their positivity buffered them against depression, broadened their thinking so they were able to find something good to take out of the bad, and cultivating optimism for the future (Fredrickson, 2009, p. 100-103).

4. Positive emotions undo negative emotions

Numerous experiments have shown that inducing positive emotion can undo the lingering physiological effects caused by negative emotions such as anger and fear. In one such experiment, Barbara Fredrickson and Robert Levenson (1998) measured the pulse and blood pressure of participants in a relaxed state, then induced anxiety by telling participants they had one minute to prepare a speech to be videotaped and judged by their peers. Their heightened pulse and blood pressure were measured and participants randomly assigned to view one of four films, eliciting either amusement, contentment, no emotion, or sadness. When the time was measured from the start of the movie to the time of recovery to the baseline measure, the quickest recovery times were consistently by those participants experiencing positive emotions. The participants watching the sad movie were slowest to recover.

5. Positive emotions can transform organisations

Positive affect and broadened thinking have been found to mutually enhance each other, so that experiencing one produces the other, which in turn, encourages more of the first. Thus, individuals, according to Fredrickson and Joiner (2002), are lifted on an upward spiral of continued growth and thriving. Similarly, Fredrickson (2003) argues that positive emotions have the power to transform communities. For example, research shows that people who experience positive emotions are more helpful of others (Isen, 1987). Importantly, this helpfulness not only springs from positivity but produces positivity. Helpers might feel pride; people who receive help might feel grateful; and witnesses might feel inspired. For each person, this event holds the potential to produce further helpful behaviours, fostering, according to Fredrickson (2003, p. 335), 'a more cohesive, moral and harmonious' organisation.

However, positivity is fragile. Fredrickson (2009, p. 49) makes the crucial point that whether or not we experience positivity in any moment depends on how we think. Positive emotions - like all feelings – arise out of how we interpret events as they unfold. To a large extent, we construct our own reality. As the poet, John Milton, observed, 'The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven'. We have the power to choose to see the positive, and Fredrickson is a strong advocate of the importance of turning positivity on in ourselves more often. The more often that people in an organisation choose to resist finding fault in the actions or intentions of others and the more people seek to share positive emotion, the more an organisation can flourish. For a school, that means incredibly beneficial outcomes such as better teaching, better learning, better teamwork, better decision making, better health and lower absenteeism.

Negativity can be good too

In all things, balance is essential, and in any discussion of positivity, it is important to acknowledge there is certainly a time and place for negative emotions. Positive psychologists such as the United Kingdom's Ilona Boniwell, who founded the European Network of Positive Psychology, are quick to assert the importance of focussing on the whole person, and admit that dividing emotions into two categories – negative or positive – is an experimental convenience and not a human reality. Indeed, Boniwell (2012, p. 14) argues it is the context of an emotion that determines whether or not it is a positive or negative experience. For example, amusement is positive, but not at the expense of another person; love is positive, but not if it is unrequited; pride is positive when teamed with humility, but negative if overplayed; gratitude is positive, but not if it is motivated by fear and obligation; and inspiration is positive, but not if it breeds envy and resentment.

Furthermore, there is a recognition of the important role of so-called negative emotions in human growth. Wisdom, care and empathy are often gained from suffering and loss; and the trauma of a personal crisis can be the trigger for a fundamental shift in personality for the better (Boniwell, 2012, p. 14).

Defensive pessimism has also been found to be a positive tool for some people who use low expectations as a defence mechanism to manage their anxiety (Boniwell, 2012, p. 23).

An important contributor to the debate about the growing demand for optimistic thinking is Barbara Ehrenreich whose 2010 book, Smile or Die, exposes the harm that she experienced when personally confronted with the challenge of breast cancer. In the face of trauma, she found all the pink paraphernalia overwhelming and the proud cancer-defying slogans offensive; and she struggled especially with the strong social expectation that she exude optimism and not expose other patients to 'toxic negativity'.

Clearly, at times, humans need to feel and express anger, grief, sadness and despair as part of a normal cycle of healing, and sensitivity to the needs of others must extend beyond just the call to be positive.

Strategies to increase positivity

The distinguishing feature of research by applied psychologists identifying with the field of Positive Psychology is that the aim of their research is to develop positive interventions to help people thrive. A review of the literature reveals some well-proven and easy-to-implement strategies. These can readily find their way into the classrooms, staffrooms and homes of school community members.

1. Count your blessings

Fredrickson (2009) encourages us to recast aspects of our daily life that we may now take for granted as gifts to be cherished. These range from the mundane such as the train one might take on the daily commute, to kindnesses expressed towards us in our relationships.

Seligman (2011) promotes the Three Good Things exercise which asks us to set aside ten minutes a night for the next week to write down three things that went well that day, and to reflect on why these things went well. Timing is an important element of this exercise – it works best if done for a full week, or once a week for six weeks. Then give it a rest for a while so it doesn't become a chore. Enhanced wellbeing is experienced most by those who continue occasionally to count their blessings. Boniwell (2012, p. 132) goes so far as to label this strategy 'probably the most powerful of all positive psychology techniques'.

2. Perform random acts of kindness

Seligman (2011, p. 20) states that 'we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in wellbeing of any exercise we have tested.'

Doing something unexpected and good for another person, selflessly and at some cost to ourselves, not only makes the recipient feel better, but also makes us, as the giver, happier. London-based academics, Ruth MacConville and Tina Rae (2012, p. 39) explain that when we commit acts of kindness, we see ourselves as selfless and compassionate. This identity boosts our self-esteem and promotes our sense of confidence and usefulness. Our kindness adds meaning to our life, and highlights our strengths of resourcefulness and creativity that we applied in choosing the gift. For maximum effect, Sonja Lyubomirsky (2008), Professor of Psychology at the University of California, suggests we perform several random acts of kindness in the one day, then give it a rest for a few days, and vary our acts so they remain fresh and creative the following week. To deepen our sense of value, meaning and self worth, she recommends doing some kind deeds about which we tell no-one and expect nothing in return. Such kindnesses have a ripple effect, as receivers find they are motivated to be kind to others themselves (MacConville & Rae, 2012, p. 40).

3. Savour life's joys

Savouring means deliberately noticing and appreciating positive sensations and experiences in one's life. According to Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff (2007), savouring might be experienced in any of four ways: basking (in praise or congratulations); marvelling (getting lost in the wonder of the moment); luxuriating (indulging in a pleasant sensation); or thanksgiving (expressing gratitude).

Savouring can increase wellbeing through simple activities such as eating more slowly and really tasting the food, or literally taking time to smell the roses or the coffee. Boniwell (2012) recommends positive reminiscence (for example, by recalling happy events while flicking through a photo album with a friend) as another worthwhile technique to enhance positivity.

4. Exercise

Whilst it is evident that exercise has significant physiological benefits for the participant, including the reduction of anxiety, improved muscle strength, and reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, Lyubomirsky (2008) claims that exercise is also the most reliable activity to boost one's happiness.

Not exercising has been likened to taking depressants. This claim comes from a famous study by Babyak et al. (2000, cited in Boniwell, 2012, p. 138) in which three groups of depressed patients were given different interventions. One group was administered antidepressants; another undertook aerobic exercise; and the third was prescribed a combination of exercise and medication. All patients improved within four months, but after six months, several had relapsed into depression. Interestingly, 38% of those in the first group on antidepressants relapsed, and 31% of those in group three relapsed. In contrast, only 9% of those in group two - the exercise-only group – became depressed again. Exercise, then, appears to be a buffer against depression.

5. Invest time and energy in family and friends

Positivity is generally a shared activity. We laugh and play together; we celebrate achievements together. Simply, as Seligman (2011, p. 20) states, 'Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.'

Gable et al. (2004) concluded that what distinguishes good relationships from poor ones is not how partners react to problems, but how they respond to good news in each other's lives. To strengthen our relationships, Gable and her colleagues suggest we practise active-constructive responding. This means being fully attentive, listening carefully, asking probing questions, and being enthusiastic and interested in the other person's statements. This responding contrasts sharply to ignoring, dismissing, minimising, or criticising which undermines the other person's successes. Sharing positive emotions by active-constructive responding builds closer and more trusting relationships.

6. Express gratitude

In her 2008 book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky contends that the regular expression of gratitude is a significant contributor to personal wellbeing. One simple strategy is to think of someone you feel grateful to and write them a Gratitude Letter. Send it, email it, or arrange to meet and read it to them. Personally, for my wedding anniversary, I put myself out there and wrote my wife a list of things I appreciated about her, beginning each line with the words, “I thank you for…”. I was surprised at how good that made me feel, and she also experienced a lot of 'warm fuzzies' as I slowly read my letter to her, allowing her time to savour each point.

On the strength of the success of this strategy, I stretched further to engage in a strategy recommended by Fredrickson that, at first glance, I resisted. In an exercise she calls Hunt and Gather, Fredrickson (2009, p. 214-215) encourages us to pull together mementos corresponding to one of the ten positive emotions, and keep them in a small scrapbook, curio box or digital portfolio for occasional revisiting. I chose Gratitude and gathered photos, objects and cards from around the house, placed them all in a makeshift light-box (a suitcase with a white sheet) and photographed the collection. It was a surprisingly heart-warming experience even though I did it fairly quickly despite Fredrickson's plea to savour this task over a week.

The take-away message here is that to cultivate positivity, you need to choose strategies that 'fit' your personality, whilst recognising that best results might be achieved by stretching yourself a little outside your comfort zone.


In conclusion, this article has identified the ten positive emotions as described by Fredrickson (2009), and provided examples of the research behind the claimed benefits of positivity. As well, it has distilled from the research literature six evidence-based strategies that can be readily applied to enhance positivity.

It is clear that the field of Positive Psychology offers a number of useful concepts and a common language for students, teachers and parents, as well as powerful insights into classroom practices that underpin productive teacher-student relations and optimal student learning. For a school community, Positive Psychology points the way to strengthen the upward spiral of wellbeing essential to effectively support continuous school improvement.


Boniwell, I. (2012). Positive Psychology in a nutshell: The science of happiness. Third edition. Maidenhead (UK): Open University Press.

Bryant, F., & Verhoff, J. (2007). Savoring: A new model of positive experiences. Malwah (NJ): Lawrence Erlbaum.

Danner, D. D., Snowdon, D. A., & Friesen, W. V. (2001). Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813.

Ehrenreich, B. (2010). Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world. New York (NY): Granta Books.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91(July-August), 330-335.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity. New York (NY): Three Rivers Press.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0. New York (NY): Hudson Street Press.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 191-220.

Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Asher, E. R., & Impett, E. A. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228-245.

Isen, A. M. (1987). Positive affect, cognitive processes and social behaviour. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 20, 203-253.

Isen, A. M., Rosenzweig, A. S., & Young, M. J. (1991). The influence of positive affect on clinical problem solving. Medical Decision Making, 11, 221-27.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of happiness. London: Sphere.

MacConville, R., & Rae, T. (2012). Building happiness, resilience and motivation in adolescents: A positive psychology curriculum for well-being. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and wellbeing and how to achieve them. New York: Free Press.