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Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory
As life coaches, it’s useful for us to have an empirical understanding of how the human mind works, along with an evidence-based set of tools to facilitate effective mindset shifts. Science helps us do our job better!
Positivity and optimism are significant contributors to our ability to stick with and do hard things when they get… well… hard. One of our favorite positive psychologists to look to for information on how and why optimism works is Barbara Fredrickson. She’s a giant in the field of positive psychology and runs a positive emotions lab at UNC Chapel Hill.
Fredrickson published a theory called Broaden and Build based on her research, which we teach here at Lumia Coaching. When put into practice, this theory is so impactful that we believe it should be foundational for all coaches.
Before we dive into the theory and how to apply it with clients, let’s start by taking a look at the role of our thoughts and emotions. This is a tremendous seat of power in our system, and can make or break our efforts toward achieving just about any goal in life.
First Up: Negativity Bias
Our mind naturally tends to give more weight to negative stimuli than the positive. It’s an evolutionary thing.
Think about it: our early human ancestors led a pretty challenging existence. Who do you think survived best - the guy noticing the enchanting way a beam of sun plays on the water, or the one whose ear is trained to the rustling of a bear in the woods behind them?
How this plays out in our modern context is a bit more problematic, though.
Negativity bias explains why even when five different coworkers compliment you on that kick-ass presentation you gave at the staff meeting last week, you can barely recall what they said because you’ve been running your boss’ one small piece of “constructive criticism” through your head on repeat ever since.
Inducing positive emotions has the capacity to change your brain chemistry from pessimist to optimist, and expand your evolutionary capacity. We aren’t kidding!
The main positive emotions include:
Enjoyment * Happiness * Joy * Interest * Anticipation * Gratitude * Serenity * Love * Optimism * Relief * Affection * Cheerfulness * Hope * Amusement * Pride * Awe * Inspiration
Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory helps make the connection between the role of emotions and associated positive outcomes. Let’s look at how.
Positive emotions broaden our thought and action skill sets, specifically the skills and behavior we regularly use. When we experience one of the main positive emotions, our minds tend to open up and we are able to think outside the box.
This is important because when we broaden our thinking patterns, we get a birds eye view of our situation. This allows us to generate alternative solutions and become more creative. In this state, our verbal creativity is especially enhanced.
A broadening of perspective then leads to our ability to build personal resources. Those resources are tangible, and include:
- Intellectual - problem solving, being open to learning
- Physical - cardiovascular, coordination
- Social - maintain relationships and create new ones
As we become better resourced, we also develop greater resilience. Which in turn leads to even better outcomes for us over time. It becomes a positive feedback loop.
Positive emotions also literally undo the cardiovascular effects of the "negativity response." When we experience anxiety, stress, or other negative moments, mindfully inducing a positive emotional experience helps our bodies return to normal physiological functioning with significant speed.
Broaden-and-build your life coaching practice!
So how might this theory apply to your work with coaching clients? Some broaden-and-build interventions might include:
- Mindset shifts
- Building positive experiences to replace negative ones
- Cultivating self-compassion
- Guided meditation & breathing exercises
- Gratitude practices
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