by Fredrike P. Bannink
Little attention has so far been paid to theories of positive emotions in psychology and mediation. This may well reflect the spirit of the age in which most disciplines have focused on problems and it may also reflect the nature of emotions themselves. The literature in psychology for the last 30 years has 46.000 papers about depression and only 400 papers about joy (Meyers, 2000).
Positive emotions are fewer in number than negative emotions, generally a ratio of 3 to 4 negative emotions to 1 positive emotion are identified. Positive emotions are less differentiated than negative emotions and this imbalance is also reflected in the number of words in most languages that describe emotions.
The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2003; 2009) suggests that positive emotions (interest, contentment, enjoyment, happiness, joy, pride, relief, affection, love) broaden one’s awareness and encourage novel, varied and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire build skills and resources. For example, curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise and physical excellence.
This is in contrast with negative emotions, which promote narrow, immediate survival-oriented behavior. Positive and negative emotions are different in their links to action. For example, the negative emotion of anxiety leads to the specific fight-or-flight response for immediate survival. To survive, we immediately focus our attention on a specific behavioral response such as running or fighting, and therefore we do not expand our thinking to other behavioral alternatives. Positive emotions, on the other hand, do not have any immediate survival value, because they take one’s mind off of immediate needs and stressors. However, over time, the skills and resources built by broadened behavior enhance survival.
Fredrickson believes that it is this narrowing effect on our thought-action repertories that distinguishes negative and positive emotions. When we are experiencing negative emotions that accompany problems or conflicts, our attention narrows and we limit our behavior repertoire that does not offer solutions: we feel ‘stuck’. The usual approach of trying to find solutions by delving further into the problem or conflict perpetuates the situation by creating more negative emotions that continue to narrow our attention and further the sense of stuckness.
Fredrickson proposes that in contrast to negative emotions that narrow our thought-action repertoires, positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoires and build enduring personal resources physically, intellectually, psychologically and socially. People who are feeling positive show patterns of thought that are more flexible, unusual, creative and inclusive. Their thinking tends to be more efficient and more open to information and options. It is suggested that positive emotions enlarge the cognitive context, an effect recently linked to increases in brain dopamine levels.
The broaden-and-build theory is an exploration of the evolved function of positive emotions and has substantial support. Fredrickson has conducted randomized controlled lab studies in which the participants were randomly assigned to watch films that induce positive emotions such as amusement and contentment, negative emotions such as fear and sadness, or no emotions. Compared to people in the other conditions, participants who experience positive emotions show heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness, and ‘big picture’ perceptual focus. Longitudinal intervention studies show that positive emotions play a role in the development of long-term resources such as psychological resilience and flourishing. Individuals who express or report higher levels of positive emotions show more constructive and flexible coping, more abstract and long-term thinking, and greater emotional distance following stressful negative events.
Fredrickson (2000; 2009) found that positive emotions also serve as particularly effective antidotes for the lingering effects of negative emotions, which narrow individuals’ thought-action repertoires. In other words, positive emotions have an undoing effect on negative emotions, since positive emotions are incompatible with negative emotions. In addition, to the extent that a negative emotion’s narrowed thought-action repertoire (i.e., specific action tendency) evokes physiological changes to support the indicated action, a counteracting positive emotion, with its broadened thought-action repertoire, should quell or undo this physiological preparation for specific action. By returning the body to baseline levels of physiological activation, positive emotions create physiological support for pursuing the wider array and actions called forth. Positive emotions have a unique ability to down-regulate the lingering cardiovascular aftereffects of negative emotions. Beyond speeding physiological recovery, the undoing effect implies that positive emotions should counteract any aspect of negative emotions that stems from a narrowed thought-action repertoire. For instance, negative emotions can entrain people toward narrowed lines of thinking consistent with the specific action tendencies they trigger. When angry, individuals may dwell on getting revenge or getting even; when anxious or afraid, they may dwell on escaping or avoiding harm; when sad or depressed, they may dwell on the repercussions of what has been lost.
For a long time is was believed that uncovering strong negative emotions was important to the overall process of psychotherapy or mediation. A discussion of past negative events was also encouraged, in order to achieve the objectives of the mediation. With this, there was a strong focus on negative emotions, which could also be seen in interventions like ‘catharsis’ in psychoanalytic therapies. Nowadays, these forms of psychotherapies are considered not to be evidence-based and therefore are more and more abandoned.
To build positive emotions, clients can be complimented for their commitment to sit at the mediator’s table, and the mediator can ask solution focused questions (Bannink 2006, 2008abcde, 2009ab): What are your best hopes? What difference would that make? What is already working in the right direction? What would be a next sign of progress? What would be your next small step? Allowing the clients one opportunity to say ‘what definitely needs to be said’ at the beginning of the mediation, as is recommended when working in a solution focused way, is different from uncovering strong negative emotions.
Focusing as soon as possible on developing a win-win situation, focusing on positive goals and their positive consequences and emotions (What would you like to have instead of the conflict? What would be the positive consequences? How would you feel?), and focusing on hope and optimism all help to create an atmosphere in which the conflict can be transformed into something positive: the preferred future of our clients.