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«Positive Emotions Speed Recovery from the Cardiovascular Sequelae of Negative Emotions BarbaraL. Fredrickson University of Michigan, USA RobertW. ...»

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COGNITION AND EMOTION, 1998, 12 (2), 191± 220

Positive Emotions Speed Recovery from the

Cardiovascular Sequelae of Negative Emotions

BarbaraL. Fredrickson

University of Michigan, USA

RobertW. Levenson

University of California, Berkeley, USA

Two studies tested the hypothesis that certain positive emotions speed

recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. In Study

1, 60 subjects (Ss) viewed an initial fear-eliciting ® lm, and were randomly

assigned to view a secondary ® lm that elicited: (a) contentment; (b) amuse- ment; (c) neutrality; or (d) sadness. Compared to Ss who viewed the neutral and sad secondary ® lms, those who viewed the positive ® lms exhibited more rapid returns to pre-® lm levels of cardiovascular activation. In Study 2, 72 Ss viewed a ® lm known to elicit sadness. Fifty Ss spontaneously smiled at least once while viewing this ® lm. Compared to Ss who did not smile, those who smiled exhibited more rapid returns to pre-® lm levels of cardiovascular activation. We discuss these ® ndings in terms of emotion theory and possi- ble health-promoting functions of positive emotions.


Despite the currently burgeoning state of research on emotions, a review of this literature reveals an overwhelming focus on negative emotions and a relative neglect of positive emotions. Why is this?

Requests for reprints should be sent to Barbara L. Fredrickson, at the Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 E. University, 3217 East Hall, Ann Arbor, MI 48109± 1109, USA e-mail: blf@umich.edu; or to Robert W. Levenson, at the Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA.

This research was supported by a post-doctoral fellowship (NIMH 18931) awarded to the ® rst author, NIA grant AG07476 and NIMH grant MH50841 awarded to the second author, as well as NIA grant AG08816 awarded to Laura L. Carstensen of Stanford University. We wish to thank Phoebe Ellsworth and Randy Larsen for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

Ó 1998 Psychology Press Ltd


The Problem of Positive Emotions Perhaps one reason empirical research on positive emotions has been slow to accumulate is that, by and large, positive emotions have been a thorn for most emotion theorists. Take, for instance, the frequent assertion that emotions areÐ by de® nitionÐ associated with speci® c action tendencies (Frijda, 1986; Frijda, Kuipers, & Schure, 1989; Lazarus, 1991; Leven- son, 1988, 1994; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990); anger calls to mind the urge to attack, fear the urge to escape, disgust the urge to expel, and so on. Key to this assertion is that speci® c action tendencies and organised physiolo- gical change go hand in handÐ emotions not only prepare the mind to act in speci® c ways, but they prepare the body as well. As Lazarus (1991, p.

285) put it, ``an action tendency is what makes an emotion embodied’’. An evolutionary note is often sounded among these theorists, with emotions seen as promoting speci® c adaptive actions in life-threatening situations that have been ancestrally recurrent.

Linking speci® c emotions with speci® c action tendencies seems easy enough when working within the subset of negative emotions. Positive emotions, however, pose theoretical stumbling blocks. Frijda’ s (1986) descriptions of action tendencies, for instance, grow vague when emotions are positive: He pairs contentment with inactivity, and joy with (p. 89), ``free activation’’, which he describes as an ``aimless, unasked-for readiness to engage in whatever interaction presents itself’’. Likewise, Lazarus (1991) concedes that the action tendency for happiness/joy is ``hard to pin down’’, and that for pride ``is dif® cult to specify with con® dence’ ’. And although affection is linked with approach (Frijda, 1986) and relief with ceasing to be vigilant (Lazarus, 1991), one question to ask is approach and do what?Ð cease vigilance and do what? It appears that the speci® c action tendencies named for positive emotions are not nearly as speci® c as those named for negative emotions. At best they resemble generic orientations toward action or inaction, rather than urges to do something quite speci® c, like attack, ¯ ee, or spit. Moreover, in research on autonomic responding associated with discrete emotions, except for situations where extreme respiratory or somatic activity is involved (e.g. outright laughter or yawning), positive emotions seem to be characterised by a relative lack of autonomic activation (e.g. Levenson, Carstensen, Friesen, & Ekman, 1991; Levenson, Ekman, & Friesen, 1990).

In short, action-oriented explanatory models, which have served the negative emotions well, may not do as well for describing the functions of positive emotions. Although we are not the ® rst to note problems that positive emotions pose for emotion theorists (e.g. Ekman, 1992; Lazarus, 1991), seldom has this acknowledgment spurred revision of, or qualifications to, purportedly general models of emotion.



An ``Undoing’’ Effect of Positive Emotions The question remains: How might models of emotion better accommodate the positive emotions? We propose that one major obstacle to understanding positive emotions is the predilection toward adopting a single general purpose model of emotion. Why not, as Ekman (1994) has suggested, allow different theories for distinct emotions (e.g. a theory of anger, a theory of sadness)? Still another multiple-model landscape would allow one model to describe a subset of distinct negative emotions (e.g. anger, fear, disgust, sadness), and a separate model to describe a subset of distinct positive emotions (e.g. contentment, amusement). Traditional action-oriented models, then, could be maintained as suitable descriptions for these negative emotions, whereas alternative models could be developed for positive emotions.

In building a more suitable model for this subset of positive emotions, we suggest leaving behind the presumption that all emotions must necessarily yield speci® c action tendencies. In its place, we offer an alternative prediction regarding the effects of these positive emotions on physiological change and provide two empirical tests of its viability. This work expands on the speculation offered by Levenson (1988, p. 25) in a discussion of

psychophysiological research on emotion:

... the evolutionary meaning of positive emotions such as happiness might be to function as ef® cient ``undoers’ ’ of states of ANS [autonomic nervous system] arousal produced by certain negative emotions. To test this hypothesis a reasonable baseline condition for the investigation of ANS concomitants of happiness would be one that produces a prior state of fear, anger or sadness.

Extrapolating from these ideas, we suggest that perhaps one function of certain positive emotions may not be to spark speci® c action (as do many negative emotions), but instead may be to loosen the hold that these negative emotions gain on an individual’ s mind and body by dismantling, or undoing this psychological and physiological preparation for speci® c action. In particular, it may be that the positive emotions of contentment and amusement act in the service of homeostasis, restoring quiescence; as such, a switch from a negative emotion to one of these positive emotions may in effect rid individuals of the psychological and physiological sequelae of action readiness, allowing them to pursue a wider variety of actions or experiences. Although this ``undoing’’ hypothesis builds clear linkages between certain positive and negative emotions, the tie is more one of complementarity than of isomorphism.

Physiologically, the undoing hypothesis does not propose that these positive emotions lead to an inert bodily state, one characterised by 194 FREDRICKSON AND LEVENSON extremely low levels of autonomic activation. Rather, it suggests that certain positive emotions serve to restore autonomic activity to more mid range levels.

It bears underscoring that this undoing hypothesis is intended to describe one particular psychophysiological effect of certain positive emotions, and does not claim that this is their sole function. Additionally, just as all discrete negative emotions are not necessarily associated with high-action motor programmes (e.g. boredom and envy may be exceptions), we do not hold that all discrete positive emotions should necessarily show the undoing effect (e.g. pride may be an exception). Also, the undoing hypothesis is limited to those contexts in which certain positive emotions follow certain negative emotions in close temporal sequence; it does not speak to the effects these positive emotions may have when experienced by themselves. Moreover, our hypothesis and the experiments we describe here focus on cardiovascular concomitants of emotions (which are tightly linked to the metabolic demands produced by somatic action; Obrist, 1981) and not on other physiological systems.

Overview of Empirical Strategy The undoing hypothesis predicts that certain positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Representative of this class of positive emotions are contentment and amusement, neither of which is associated with a high-activity action tendency. Our strategy for testing this hypothesis is based on Levenson’ s (1988) suggestion of examining transitions between negative and positive emotions. In Study 1, we begin from a starting state of fear, and in Study 2 we begin from a starting state of sadness. In each study, we use emotionally evocative ® lm clips to generate these initial negative emotions. We then assess the effects of positive emotions that are either experimentally induced (Study 1) or that occur naturally (Study 2). Speci® cally, we examine the duration of cardiovascular reactivity as a function of the experience or expression of positive emotions. In Study 1, after exposing subjects to a fear-inducing ® lm, we experimentally manipulate the presence of positive emotions by showing subjects one of four different secondary ® lms designed to elicit either (a) contentment, (b) amusement, (c) neutrality, or (d) sadness [ a negative emotion that, like the two positive emotions, has no obvious association with a high-activity action tendency (Lazarus, 1991; Levenson, 1992)]. In Study 2, we make use of a naturally occurring temporal union of negative and positive affect, examining whether people who spontaneously smiled during a sad ® lm exhibited faster recovery from the cardiovascular activation occasioned by that ® lm than those who did not smile.



STUDY 1 Method Participants Sixty female undergraduate students enrolled in introductory psychology courses at the University of California, Berkeley served as voluntary participants in this study: 37% of these participants identi® ed themselves as Asian, 30% as Hispanic, 25% as Caucasian, and 8% as Black, which approximates the demographics of the student population at the university. Each received course credit in exchange for their participation.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions de® ned by the emotional content of the secondary ® lm stimulus (i.e.

contentment, amusement, neutral, or sadness) that followed the initial feareliciting ® lm stimulus.

Visual Materials Selection. Five short ® lm clips were used in this study (the initial feareliciting ® lm and the four secondary ® lms). Film selection was based in part on prior work in Levenson’ s laboratory to compile a library of emotion-eliciting ® lms that have been found in group screenings to elicit self-reports of relatively speci® c emotional states (e.g. Gross & Levenson, 1995). In these screening sessions, respondents viewed a ® lm, and then immediately rated it in terms of each of seven emotion terms (i.e. amusement, anger, contentment, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise) on 9-point Likert scales (0 = none, 8 = most in my life; adapted from Ekman, Friesen, & Ancoli, 1980). Figure 1 presents the emotional ratings for the ® ve ® lm clips used in Study 1 (along with the one sadness-eliciting ® lm clip used in Study 2). These ratings were obtained from independent samples in group viewings.

Film Content and Emotions Elicited. The ® lm clip used to induce the initial negative emotion [``Ledge’ ’, drawn from the feature ® lm Cat’ s Eye (DeLaurentiis, Schumacher, Subotsk, & Teague, 1985)]; shows a man inching along the ledge of a high-rise building, hugging the side of the building; at one point he loses his grip, dangles high above traf® c, and struggles to keep from dropping. We chose this clip because it seems a face valid elicitor of a (perhaps innate) fear of falling. Examination of Fig. 1a reveals that this ® lm primarily elicits self-reports of fear, with lesser reports of other emotions.

Reports of emotion elicited by the four secondary ® lms are displayed in Figs 1b± 1e: (b) ``Waves’ ’ shows waves breaking on a beach and primarily FIG. 1. Mean self-reports of emotion from independent samples who viewed stimulus ® lms used in Studies 1 and 2: (1a) displays self-reports of emotion in response to the Ledge ® lm (n = 75), used in Study 1; (1b± 1e) display self-reports of emotion in response to each of the secondary ® lms used in Study 1: The Puppy ® lm (n = 50); the Waves ® lm (n = 42); the Sticks ® lm (n = 32); and the Cry ® lm (n = 32); (1f ) displays self-reports of emotion in response to the Funeral ® lm (n = 46), used in Study 2. (AMUS, Amusement; CTEN, Contentment; ANGE, Anger; DISG, disgust; FEAR, Fear;

SADN, Sadness; SURP, Surprise.)


elicits self-reports of contentment; (c) ``Puppy’’ shows a small dog playing with a ¯ ower and primarily elicits self-reports of amusement;

(d) ``Sticks’’ shows an


dynamic display of coloured sticks piling up and produces minimal report of any of the seven rated emotions (modal reports were ``0’’ across all emotion terms); and (e) ``Cry’’ depicts a young boy crying as he watches his father die and primarily elicits self-reports of sadness [drawn from the feature ® lm The Champ (Lovell & Zef® relli, 1979)].

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