Positive emotions let us think outside the box

Whenever we hear “think outside the box”, especially in times of real distress (Covid not withstanding), it is almost like fingernails on a chalkboard, and yet, admittedly, I have used it myself.

“Think outside the box” is an overused rally cry for fresh ideas. It gives permission for innovative thinking and creative solutions. However, in a workplace culture where “fitting in” and “not rocking the apple cart” are generally prized, and failure is not allowed, suddenly thinking outside that darn box can be a challenge. Especially in times when many are worried about holding on to their jobs. One solution is to call on your positive emotions.

Positive emotions can help you move from not upsetting the cart to thinking perhaps the cart isn’t even necessary. In her 1998 study, Barbara Fredrickson formulated the “broaden-and-build” theory. In it, she explained that negative emotions provide a useful evolutionary function to narrow our thoughts and action repertoire when we feel threatened. Likewise, positive emotions, she explained, also serve an evolutionary function by broadening our scope of attention, cognition, and action. In short, positive emotions provide choices in how we react to opportunities.

And we know self care is an important component of generating positive emotions, in ourselves and in others, check out this great NYT article from a week ago: www.nytimes.com/2020/10/07/health/laurie-santos-covid-happiness.html?referringSource=articleShare


Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General
Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.

Fredrickson, B.L. (2003). Positive emotions and upward spirals in organizational settings. In K. Cameron, J.

Dutton, & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline (pp. 163-175).

San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.