The Undoing Hypothesis
Past research has shown that anger, fear and sadness each elicit distinct responses in the autonomic nervous system. In direct contrast, the positive emotions appeared to have no distinguishable autonomic responses. Positive emotions do not themselves generate cardiovascular reactivity, but instead quell any existing cardiovascular reactivity caused by negative emotions. Put differently, a prior state of negative emotional arousal may be a necessary backdrop to illuminate the cardiovascular impact of positive emotions. Assuming (as most emotion theorists do) that the cardiovascular reactivity sparked by certain negative emotions prepares the body for specific actions, the broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive emotions can speed recovery from—or undo—this cardiovascular reactivity and return the body to mid-range levels of activation suitable for pursuing a wider range of behavioral options. According to this view, positive emotions have a unique ability to down-regulate lingering negative emotions and the psychological and physiological states they generate.
In one of our studies, we gave participants an acute stressor – the possibility of giving a public speech. As participants prepare for this speech their bodies exhibit increased sympathetic nervous system activation (sweaty palms, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure). After a minute or so of this heightened state of arousal, participants learn that they don’t have to give the speech afterall and instead view a randomly assigned video clip that generates a positive or negative emotion, or a state of neutrality. We measured the amount of time it took each person to recover from the anxiety about the possible speech. Results indicated that positive emotions led to a quicker return to a resting state than neutral or negative emotions.
Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade (2000) Motivation and Emotion
Fredrickson & Levenson (1998) Cognition and Emotion
The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions
The Broaden Hypothesis
The Build Hypothesis