How Emotions Can Pack a Powerful Punch

How emotions can pack a powerful punch may sound like a post about anger. This post is actually about how emotions, and, in particular, positive emotions, can be amplified through connection and collaboration to produce all kinds of benefits.

In the United States, we tend to equate positive emotions with positive thinking. What’s more, we in the United States tend to poke fun of positive thinking. The quintessential example of this is the Saturday Night Live skit called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley” ( Stuart is a member of many self-help groups, some of them fictional, like Children of Rageaholic Parents Anonymous. Stuart also famously ends his show with the affirmation: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

However, the relationship between positive emotions and positive thinking is more complex than we might realize. For example, there are five different psychological theories that try to explain the relationship between thinking, emotion, and the body’s physiological reactions to events that trigger emotions ( Some of these theories say thinking comes before emotion, some say physiological reactions come before emotions, and some say physiological reaction and emotion happen simultaneously and then comes thinking. In other words, we really don’t understand the relationship between emotions and thinking. This post will look at the science of positivity, defined here as experiencing positive emotional states.

To define emotion, I turn to PANAS-x. PANAS was developed by Watson and Clark as a way to measure positive affect (PA) and negative affect (NA) using a 5-point scale (S). PANAS-x is an expanded version of this scale developed by the same authors. PANAS-x consists of the following dimensions (see “PANAS-t: A Psychometric Scale for Measuring Sentiments on Twitter” by Goncalves P. et al at

  • Negative affect: afraid, nervous, negative, jittery, irritable, hostile, guilty, shameful, upset, distressed
  • Positive affect: alert, active, attentive, determined, enthusiastic, excited, inspired, interested, proud, strong
  • Negative emotion scales: fear (afraid, scared, frightened, nervous, jittery, shaky), hostility (angry, hostile, irritable, scornful, disgusted, loathing), guilt (guilty, ashamed, blameworthy, angry at self, disgusted with self, dissatisfied with self), sadness (sad, blue, downhearted, alone, lonely)
  • Positive emotion scales: joviality (happy, joyful, delighted, cheerful, excited, enthusiastic, lively, energetic), self-assurance (proud, strong, confident, bold, daring, fearless), attentiveness (alert, concentrating, attentiveness, determined)
  • Other affective states: shyness (shy, bashful, sheepish, timid), fatigue (sleepy, tired, sluggish,drowsy), serenity (calm, relaxed, at ease), surprise (amazed, surprised, astonished)

For the purposes of this post, the experience of positive emotional states will equate to experiencing one or more of the emotions listed under the positive emotion scales in PANAS-x.

First, the science of positivity shows that emotional awareness is powerful. For example, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson performed experiments to show the impact of positive, negative, and neutral emotional states on the ability to generate options. Participants in the study were shown images to conjure a targeted emotional state. The participants were then asked to imagine a situation where the same feelings they just experienced would arise. Finally, participants were asked to write down what actions they would like to take by finishing the phrase “I would like to…” with as many things as come to mind. The participants who experienced the negative emotional states had the fewest number of responses while those who experienced the positive emotional states had significantly more responses even compared to the control group experiencing the neutral emotional state. In other words, positive emotional states led to the generation of more ideas or higher creativity. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson incorporates these findings and other studies into her “broaden and build” theory. The theory postulates that the experience of positive emotional states opens your mind up to more possibilities which, in turn, enables you to build new skills and competencies which can benefit other parts of your life ( Therefore, experiencing positive emotional states not only improves your creativity but can improve your contributions! That is powerful stuff!


Second, the science of positivity shows the role of positive emotions in collaboration. Recall from a previous post (see, that a key to effective collaboration is the “heartbeat” of creative problem solving (see The “heartbeat” is a dynamic balance between generating and focusing. In other words, effective collaboration is not just about seeing possibilities, it is also about focusing to inform action. From Dr. Frederickson’s work, we know that positive emotional states enhance openness and the ability to generate many ideas.

Positive emotions enable generative collaboration.

Valerie Patrick

On the other hand, negative emotions are known to focus thinking. Therefore, negative emotional states can be a barrier to generating. The science of positivity is telling us that one needs the right emotional state at the right time for effective collaboration. For example, a warm-up before generating or brainstorking might be a positive visioning exercise. The purpose of the positive visioning exercise would be to transport the collaborators to a place that frees their minds of all the stress, fear, worry, disappointment, guilt, sadness, or anger they may be feeling. One group facilitation method based on positivity is Appreciative Inquiry which was developed by Professor David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve Univeristy. Dr. Cooperrider gives plenty of examples of how Appreciative Inquiry used in large groups can be used to tackle big and complex challenges. For example, the use of Appreciative Inquiry at the second United Nations Global Compact Summit gave Jeffrey Sax an idea that led to the concept of Millenium Development Villages which could eradicate extreme poverty in the world. ( Of course a dose of realism and judgment is needed to go from the idea to a successful development and implementation of the idea. This is the focusing part of the “heartbeat” and collaboration.

A focusing frame-of-mind is a judger’s frame-of-mind.

Valerie Patrick

Third, the science of positivity tells us that investing in the emotional side of connection leads to well-being. According to Dr. Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory, experiencing positive emotional states delivers the benefits of developing new skills that can add value to other parts of your life. However, Dr. Frederickson has also discovered a phenomenon known as “positivity resonance.” “Positivity resonance” occurs when two people “click” and share a positive emotional experience. Dr. Fredrickson has discovered that increases in the number of “positivity resonance” moments for a person correlates to an improvement in cardiac vagal tone. A high cardial vagal tone has both physical and psychological benefits. The physical benefits of a high cardiac vagal tone include reduced likelihood to have a heart attack, improved ability to regulate glucose, and better management of inflammation. The psychological benefits of high cardiac vagal tone include better management of emotions and improved social skills. Dr. Fredrickson reports that there is an upward spiral effect. The more positive emotional experiences, the more positivity resonance experiences, which lead to a higher cardial vagal tone which, in turn, leads to improved health and social engagement skills and the cycle repeats (

In summary, positive thinking is not the same thing as positivity which is experiencing positive emotion. Positive thinking that is not genuine will not lead to the experience of positive emotion! The science of positivity provides evidence for the “broaden and build” theory. The “broaden and build” theory explains that positive emotions lead to a broadening of the mind in terms of possibilities which, in turn, leads to the building of new skills. The sciene of positivity also shows that positive emotions enable generative collaboration which is one-half of the “heartbeat” that is the hallmark of effective collaboration. Finally, the science of positivity shows the link between experiencing positive emotions, connecting with others to experience positive resonance, and well-being. Dr. Frederickson also explains two ways to increase the experience of positive emotions: loving kindness motivation and savoring positivity resonance (see

Fulcrum Connection LLC offers tools for the skillful expression of social intelligence in the workplace. These tools are based on Fulcrum’s understanding of practicing social intelligence in a way that increases both your micro-moments of positivity resonance and your career success. The more micro-moments of positivity resonance, the more improved your physical and psychological health. If you would like to learn more about how Fulcrum can help put social intelligence to work for you, then please contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or Also ask about our first-time client offer.

Social intelligence done right increases your micro-moments of positivity resonance for well-being and success in life.

Valerie Patrick