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A reprint from

American Scientist the magazine of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society

This reprint is provided for personal and noncommercial use. For any other use, please send a request to Permissions, American Scientist, P.O. Box 13975, Research Triangle Park, NC, 27709, U.S.A., or by electronic mail to perms@amsci.org. ©Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society and other rightsholders

Back in the 1930s some young Catholic nuns were asked to write

short, personal essays about their lives. They described edifying events in their childhood, the schools they attended, their religious experiences and the in- fluences that led them to the convent. Although the essays may have been ini- tially used to assess each nun’s career path, the documents were eventually archived and largely forgotten. More than 60 years later the nuns’ writings surfaced again when three psycholo- gists at the University of Kentucky re- viewed the essays as part of a larger study on aging and Alzheimer’s dis- ease. Deborah Danner, David Snowdon and Wallace Friesen read the nun’s bio- graphical sketches and scored them for positive emotional content, recording instances of happiness, interest, love and hope. What they found was re- markable: The nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived up to 10 years longer than those who expressed the fewest. This gain in life expectancy is considerably larger than the gain achieved by those who quit smoking.

The nun study is not an isolated case. Several other scientists have found that people who feel good live longer. But why would this be so? Some answers are emerging from the new field of pos- itive psychology. This branch of psy- chological science surfaced about five years ago, as the brainchild of Martin E. P. Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association

(APA). Like many psychologists, Selig- man had devoted much of his research career to studying mental illness. He coined the phrase learned helplessness to describe how hopelessness and other negative thoughts can spiral down into clinical depression.

At the start of his term as APA pres- ident, Seligman took stock of the field of psychology, noting its significant ad- vances in curing ills. In 1947, none of the major mental illnesses were treat- able, whereas today 16 are treatable by psychotherapy, psychopharmacology or both. Although psychology had be- come proficient at rescuing people from various mental illnesses, it had virtually no scientifically sound tools for helping people to reach their higher ground, to thrive and flourish. Selig- man aimed to correct this imbalance when he called for a “positive psychol- ogy.” With the help of psychologist Mi- haly Csikszentmihalyi—who originat- ed the concept of “flow” to describe peak motivational experiences—Selig- man culled the field for scientists whose work might be described as in- vestigating “that which makes life worth living.”

This is how many research psychol- ogists, myself included, were drawn to positive psychology. My own back- ground is in the study of emotions. For more than a dozen years, I’ve been studying the positive emotions—joy, contentment, gratitude and love—to shed light on their evolved adaptive significance. Among scientists who study emotions, this is a rare specialty. Far more emotion researchers have de- voted their careers to studying nega- tive emotions, such as anger, anxiety and sadness. The study of optimism and positive emotions was seen by some as a frivolous pursuit. But the

positive psychology movement is changing that. Many psychologists have now begun to explore the largely uncharted terrain of human strengths and the sources of happiness.

The new discoveries generated by positive psychology hold the promise of improving individual and collective functioning, psychological well-being and physical health. But to harness the power of positive psychology, we need to understand how and why “goodness” matters. Although the discovery that people who think positively and feel good actually live longer is remarkable, it raises more questions than it answers. Exactly how do positive thinking and pleasant feelings help people live longer? Do pleasant thoughts and feelings help people live better as well? And why are positive emotions a universal part of hu- man nature? My research traces the pos- sible pathways for the life-enhancing ef- fects of positive emotions and attempts to understand why human beings evolved to experience them.

Why So Negative? There are probably a number of reasons why the positive emotions received little attention in the past. There is, of course, the natural tendency to study something that afflicts the well-being of humanity— and the expression and experience of negative emotions are responsible for much of what ails this world. But it may also be that the positive emotions are a little harder to study. They are compara- tively few and relatively undifferentiat- ed—joy, amusement and serenity are not easily distinguished from one another. Anger, fear and sadness, on the other hand, are distinctly different experiences.

This lack of differentiation is evident in how we think about the emotions. Consider that scientific taxonomies of

330 American Scientist, Volume 91

The Value of Positive Emotions

The emerging science of positive psychology is coming to understand why it’s good to feel good

Barbara L. Fredrickson

Barbara L. Fredrickson is the director of the Posi- tive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Michigan. In 2000 she won the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology. Address: 3006 East Hall, 525 East University Avenue, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109–1109. Internet: blf@umich.edu

© 2003 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.

basic emotions typically identify one positive emotion for every three or four negative emotions and that this imbalance is also reflected in the rela- tive numbers of emotion words in the English language.

Various physical components of emo- tional expression similarly reveal a lack of differentiation for the positive emo- tions. The negative emotions have spe- cific facial configurations that imbue them with universally recognized sig- nal value. We can readily identify an-

gry, sad or fearful faces. In contrast, fa- cial expressions for positive emotions have no unique signal value: All share the Duchenne smile—in which the cor- ners of the lips are raised and the mus- cles are contracted around the eyes, which raises the cheeks. A similar dis- tinction is evident in the response of the autonomic nervous system to the ex- pression of emotions. About 20 years ago, psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen at the University of Cal- ifornia, San Francisco, and Robert Lev-

enson at Indiana University showed that anger, fear and sadness each elicit distinct responses in the autonomic ner- vous system. In contrast, the positive emotions appeared to have no distin- guishable autonomic responses.

The study of positive emotions has also been hindered because scientists at- tempted to understand them with mod- els that worked best for negative emo- tions. Central to many theories of emotion is that they are, by definition, associated with urges to act in particular

2003 July–August 331www.americanscientist.org

Figure 1. Feeling joy in the pleasures of life, as depict- ed in Marc Chagall’s Fes- tival in the Village, offers rewards beyond those of simply experiencing the moment. There are bene- fits to personal health, de- velopment and longevity, as well as evolutionary reasons why human be- ings experience positive emotions. C

or bi


© 2003 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Reproduction with permission only. Contact perms@amsci.org.

ways. Anger creates the urge to attack, fear the urge to escape and disgust the urge to expectorate (Figure 2). Of course, no theorist argues that people invari- ably act out these urges; rather, people’s ideas about possible courses of action narrow in on these specific urges. And these urges are not simply thoughts ex- isting in the mind. They embody spe- cific physiological changes that enable the actions called forth. In the case of fear, for example, a greater amount of blood flows to the large muscle groups to facilitate running.

The models that emphasize the role of these specific action tendencies typi- cally cast the emotions as evolved adaptations. The negative emotions have an intuitively obvious adaptive value: In an instant, they narrow our thought-action repertoires to those that best promoted our ancestors’ survival in life-threatening situations. In this view, negative emotions are efficient solutions to recurrent problems that our ancestors faced.

Positive emotions, on the other hand, aren’t so easily explained. From this evolutionary perspective, joy, serenity and gratitude don’t seem as useful as fear, anger or disgust. The bodily changes, urges to act and the fa- cial expressions produced by positive emotions aren’t as specific or as obvi- ously relevant to survival as those sparked by negative emotions. If posi- tive emotions didn’t promote our an- cestors’ survival in life-threatening sit- uations, then what good were they? Did they have any adaptive value at all? Perhaps they merely signaled the absence of threats.

The Broaden-and-Build Theory We gain some insight into the adaptive role of positive emotions if we aban- don the framework used to under- stand the negative emotions. Instead of solving problems of immediate sur- vival, positive emotions solve prob- lems concerning personal growth and development. Experiencing a positive emotion leads to states of mind and to modes of behavior that indirectly pre- pare an individual for later hard times. In my broaden-and-build theory, I pro- pose that the positive emotions broad- en an individual’s momentary mind- set, and by doing so help to build enduring personal resources. We can test these ideas by exploring the ways that positive emotions change how people think and how they behave.

My students and I conducted experi- ments in which we induced certain emotions in people by having them watch short, emotionally evocative film clips. We elicited joy by showing a herd of playful penguins waddling and slid- ing on the ice, we elicited serenity with clips of peaceful nature scenes, we elicited fear with films of people at pre- carious heights, and we elicited sadness with scenes of deaths and funerals. We also used a neutral “control” film of an old computer screen saver that elicited no emotion at all.

We then assessed the participant’s ability to think broadly. Using global- local visual processing tasks, we mea- sured whether they saw the “big pic- ture” or focused on smaller details (Figure 3, left). The participant’s task is to judge which of two comparison fig- ures is more similar to a “standard”

figure. Neither choice is right or wrong, but one comparison figure re- sembles the standard in global config- uration, and the other in local, detailed elements. Using this and similar mea- sures, we found that, compared to those in negative or neutral states, people who experience positive emo- tions (as assessed by self-report or electromyographic signals from the face) tend to choose the global config- uration, suggesting a broadened pat- tern of thinking.

This tendency to promote a broader thought-action repertoire is linked to a variety of downstream effects of posi- tive emotions on thinking. Two decades of experiments by Alice Isen of Cornell University and her colleagues have shown that people experiencing posi- tive affect (feelings) think differently. One series of experiments tested cre- ative thinking using such tests as Med- nick’s Remote Associates Test, which asks people to think of a word that re- lates to each of three other words. So, for example, given the words mower, atomic and foreign, the correct answer is power (Figure 3, right). Although this test was originally designed to assess indi- vidual differences in the presumably stable trait of creativity, Isen and col- leagues showed that people experienc- ing positive affect perform better on this test than people in neutral states.

In other experiments, Isen and col- leagues tested the clinical reasoning of practicing physicians. They made some of the physicians feel good by giving them a small bag of candy, then asked all of them to think aloud while they solved a case of a patient with liver dis-

332 American Scientist, Volume 91

Figure 2. Negative emotions—like anger, fear and disgust—can be understood as evolutionary adaptations to threats our ancestors faced. Anger (left) elicits the urge to attack, fear (middle) the urge to escape and disgust (right) the urge to expel. In this view, the negative emotions nar- row our thoughts and actions to those that promoted survival in life-threatening situations. Because the positive emotions—joy, serenity, grat- itude and the like—were not so readily understood from this perspective, psychological science had not come up with with a satisfying expla- nation for their evolutionary significance until recently.


Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is an approach to psychology that focuses on the positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, well-being, and flourishing. Positive psychology aims to understand and promote the conditions that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Some key concepts in positive psychology include subjective well-being, resilience, positive emotions, character strengths, and engagement. Positive psychology interventions, such as gratitude journaling and mindfulness, have been shown to improve mood and well-being.

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