We’ve all had positive moments in our lives that you just won’t forget. It doesn’t matter if those moments were part of personal life or professional life, occurred during studies or other forms of education: Situations that are associated with fun, inspiration, hope, interest, admiration, and pride are etched into our memory and can be recalled in great detail and with great emotional depth many years later. This is in strong contrast to a large number of lectures, meetings, trainings, etc. whose content we are only able to memorize after multiple repetitions and great effort, for a short period at most.
The search for the effect of positive emotions is looking back on more than 15 years of research.
Which effect is behind positive emotions as a “learning booster” and how can we harness this effect deliberately in order to learn faster and more efficiently? The search for an answer to this and similar questions is part of a psychological research program (Fredrickson 2013) which has been going on for more than 15 years by now. In this article, we present the current state of the art, recent findings, and discuss which implications these will have on our way of learning and training in the future.
Positive and negative emotions proved to be essential survival mechanisms throughout the evolutionary history of mankind. Negative emotions such as fear and anger are able to switch our “fight or flight” mode on: We are confronted with dangerous or hostile situations and have to act quickly and decisively (Fredrickson 2001). Through this function, negative emotions saved many of our ancestor’s lives in their dangerous environments as hunters and gatherers. Positive emotions served a similar evolutionary purpose. However, in a completely different direction, as recent research finding are showing.
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Positive emotions expand our mental and action horizon.
In contrast to negative emotions, which limit our mental and action horizon, positive emotions expand our mental and action horizon. But that’s not all. Barbara Ferderickson of University North Carolina was able to show how this horizon expansion can be a powerful gate to further advancement and competence development. The most well-known examples for positive emotions such as fun, inspiration, hope, interest, admiration, and pride can enable us to suddenly solve problems with a holistic approach (Isen et al. 1987), to better cope with stress and be happier overall. This horizon expansion process and subsequent competence growth and development as well as the theory behind the positive emotion “learning booster” is also known as ”Broaden and Build” (Fredrickson 1998) How does this effect precisely impact learning and training in the future?
Learning in teams increases the positive emotions “learn booster” effect. Laughing makes other people laugh too. This is in particular the case for well-functioning teams whose members are working together in pursuit of a common goal. In addition, team work increases motivation. Other positive emotions such as pride, fun and interest are of great importance when team members inspire and support each other. In this manner, team work lays the foundations to additionally increase the “learning booster” effect.
Workshops & Action learning support positive emotions in general. As may be already guessed by the name, the workshops are about how to get results independently, as an example for an action learning approach. Here, participants are in the focus of the learning process and develop the solution approaches themselves. Positive emotions such as interest, pride, and inspiration are paramount and support the learning process. Trainer, teacher, or experts take a backseat and ensure ideal learning conditions.
Intermediate goals & spending time to celebrate achievements are source for positive emotions. Stress level usually rises with increasing work load and negative emotions start to dominate. This often affects result quality which in turn leads to subsequently necessary re-work and higher work load. A negative cycle of stress, frustration, and de-motivation starts. As a worst case, this can even lead to burn-out. The approach to prevent or break this cycle is known as agile work or agile learning. Here, large projects are split into many small tasks and realistic deadlines are set. Reaching these goals and to celebrate connected small achievements is source for positive emotions. In addition, agile learning has a stress-relieving effect as you have subjectively more control about projects. This increases autonomy and motivation.
We have presented in this blog post an explanation for the “learning booster” effect of positive emotions. A few simple approaches allow us to utilize this effect in order to learn faster and more efficiently. What are your experiences with positive emotions regarding a learning environment? Do positive emotions play the same role in your personal and professional daily life?
References and further reading
Fredrickson, Barbara L. (1998): What Good Are Positive Emotions? In Review of general psychology : journal of Division 1, of the American Psychological Association 2 (3), pp. 300–319. DOI: 10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.110.
Fredrickson, Barbara L. (2001): The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. In American Psychologist 56 (3), pp. 218–226. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.218.
Fredrickson, Barbara L. (2013): Positive Emotions Broaden and Build. In Patricia Devine, Ashby Plant (Eds.): Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 47. Burlington: Elsevier Science (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology), pp. 1–53.
Isen, Alice M.; Daubman, Kimberly A.; Nowicki, Gary P. (1987): Positive affect facilitates creative problem solving. In Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (6), pp. 1122–1131. DOI: 10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.1682.
Markus is one of the founders of CQ and leads trainings in the area of Management and Mechanical Engineering. He holds a Master and Doctoral Degree in Economics and Computer Science from the Technical University of Vienna and a MSc in Organisational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, University of London. Being a dedicated "Knowledge Worker", Markus has continued his career with various private sector assignments in the management consulting, automotive and mechanical engineering industry.