Positive Emotions Matter When Learning

Barbara Fredrickson has been one of the leading researchers on the power of positive emotions, and its impact on behavior, particularly on social and cognitive function. Building on the work of researchers before her, she developed a theory called Broaden And Build model of Positive Emotions which is described in her book Positivity.

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When someone feels negative emotions like fear and anger, these have an affect on the brain which narrows down what the conscious mind focuses upon and limit the range of options for action this person is able to see. When someone feels positive emotions this opens up attention and broadens the range of options for action this person is able to see. In a nutshell, regarding the broaden part of the theory,”joy appears to open us up to many new thoughts and behaviors, whereas negative emotions dampen our ideas and actions.” (Lopez et al. (2019), p. 141)

Regarding the building part of the theory, the behaviors then urged by a person’s positive emotions have a tendency to increase positive social connection to other people, to promote quicker problem-solving and creativity, ease the process of making changes, and bounce back from stressful experiences. If acted upon, these behaviors build up the person’s strength for connecting, for problem solving, for changing, for recovering after difficult moments.

In the context of teaching someone to swim for the first time, or before that, to simply help someone become at ease submerged in water, a coach can greatly improve the learning-efficiency of her services by cultivating an environment of safety, connection, and positive emotion. This not only makes the swimmer feel good, it actually increases the resources her brain and body have available for breaking out and learning more.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2009) Positivity: Groundbreaking Research To Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive. New York: Crown

Lopez S.J. , Pedrotti J.T., Snyder C.R. (2019) Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practice Explorations of Human Strengths. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

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