Positive Emotions & Health Behavior

  • Positive affect and behavior maintenance: With Barbara Fredrickson, we have developed a model that highlights the critical role that positive emotions play in helping us stick to our health behavior goals (e.g., exercising or meditating): the Upward Spiral Theory of Lifestyle Change. Excertp from paper abstract:”The upward spiral theory of lifestyle change explains how positive affect can facilitate long-term adherence to positive health behaviours. The inner loop of this spiral model identifies nonconscious motives as a central mechanism of behavioural maintenance. Positive affect experienced during health behaviours increases incentive salience for cues associated with those behaviours, which in turn, implicitly guides attention and the everyday decisions to repeat those behaviours. The outer loop represents the evidence-backed claim, based on Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory, that positive affect builds a suite of endogenous resources, which may in turn amplify the positive affect experienced during positive health behaviours and strengthen the nonconscious motives.”

For more information, see Van Cappellen, P., Rice, E., Catalino, L., & Fredrickson, B. L. & (2018). Positive affective processes underlie positive health behavior change. Psychology and Health, 1, 77-97. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2017.1320798 (Special Issue on “Emotion, Health Decision-making, and Health Behaviour”)

  • Increasing positive emotions associated with meditation:  Given the importance of experiencing positive emotions when meditating for the maintenance of this behavior, our other work has sought to 1) document the positive emotions associated with meditation and 2) understand and test ways to amplify this positive emotional response to meditation.
    • Loving-kindness, mindfulness, and informal meditation all increases positive emotions: Fredrickson, B. L., Boulton, A. J. , Firestine, A. M., Van Cappellen, P., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M. M., Loundon Kim, S., Brantley, J., & Salzberg, S. (in press). Positive emotion correlates of meditation practice:  A comparison of mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Mindfulness. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0735-9Fredrickson, B. L., Arizmendi, C., Van Cappellen, P., Firestine, A. M., Brantley, M. M., Kim, S. L., Brantley, J., & Salzberg, S. (2019). Do contemplative moments matter? Effects of informal meditation on emotions and perceived social integration. Mindfulness, 10, 1915-1925.
    • Biological amplifier: Administration of oxytocin amplifies the positive emotions experienced while meditating: Van Cappellen, P., Way, B., Isgett, S. F., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2016). Effects of oxytocin administration on spirituality and emotional responses to meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11, 1579-1587. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw078
    • Psychological amplifier: A short intervention explaining the benefits of setting aside time for pleasant events (e.g., “People who devote time each day to activities that generate positive emotions [e.g. interest, amusement] fare the best”) as well as the dangers of willing oneself to feel positive emotions (e.g., “Research also shows that if you simply ‘will’ or ‘wish’ yourself to feel positive emotions, it can backfire, ironically making you feel worse”) led to increased enjoyment of loving-kindness meditation specifically. In addition, enjoyment of any kind of meditation predicted future engagement in meditation practice: Van Cappellen*, P., Catalino*, L., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2019). A new micro-intervention to increase the enjoyment and continued practice of meditation. Emotion.
  • Positive emotions as one mechanism explaining the association between religious practice and health: Despite some exceptions (religious struggle, prejudice and ostracism of select groups) religion is known to provide a range of health benefits to its adherents. However, the mechanisms through which religion provides these benefits remain understudied. What are the basic psychological ingredients that explain why a set of beliefs and practices seems to provide the right recipe for health? The most common answer is that religion is a social structure whose community and collective rituals fulfill people’s social needs. However, collective religious practices, like any collective rituals, offer more than social connection. The fact that religion and spirituality, through different means (e.g. architecture, collective and synchronous practices, music) powerfully evoke positive emotions may not be inconsequential (Van Cappellen & Rimé, 2014). In my research, I explored the role of this forgotten mechanism in the promotion of well-being. In the studies described below, well-being was measured through self-report of satisfaction with life and optimism. In one study, I distributed questionnaires to churchgoers on a particular Sunday in 20 different parishes. I found that positive emotions felt during the traditional Christian ritual (Sunday mass) independently predicted the relation between religiosity and well-being beyond the effects of experienced social cohesion. In another study, within a sample of adults interested in meditation, I found that positive emotions also explained the relation between spirituality and well-being. Critically, in both studies, uplifting positive emotions such as awe and gratitude, but not other positive emotions such as amusement or pride, were the type of positive emotions that brought out the most benefits in term of well-being (Van Cappellen, Saroglou, Toth- Gauthier, & Fredrickson, 2016). What good is the social aspect of religious rituals, then? Using the same dataset of churchgoers, I also investigated another outcome that has been found to be related to religion, i.e. prosocial behavior. I found that the social aspect of religion (i.e., feeling part of a big family) and the social positive emotion of love explained the observed relation between religiosity and altruistic giving as indexed by a projective measure of prosociality (i.e. whether participants spontaneously report wanting to share a gain at the lottery; Van Cappellen, Saroglou, & Toth-Gauthier, 2016). In sum, positive emotions are not only pleasant correlates of a good experience, they build resources that benefit the self and the greater good. Religious and spiritual practices may provide a particularly potent context to elicit such emotions and reap their benefits. One limit of this research as well as most of the existing literature on the relation between religion/spirituality and health, is that its cross-sectional design does not allow researchers to derive causal explanations. Likely, religion/spirituality hold reciprocal and complex relations with health and well-being. Using experimental designs, the research described above on the role of positive emotions in predicting spirituality is among the first to test one causal direction: from feeling good to spirituality.

For more information, see Van Cappellen, P., Toth-Gauthier, M., Saroglou, V., & Fredrickson, B. (2016). Religion and well-being: The mediating role of positive emotions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17, 485-505.Van Cappellen, P., Saroglou, V., & Toth-Gauthier, M. (2016). Religiosity and prosocial behavior among churchgoers: Exploring underlying mechanisms. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26, 19-30

Media coverage

See research featured in 10 Steps to Lasting Success in 2016 and Beyond by Suna Senman, Huffington Post, December 28, 2015.

Read more about our research in religion and prosociality featured in:

        UK: The Psychologist: The Cognitive Science of Religion. April, 2011.

        Belgium: Le Soir: (read more here). 


Check out related articles on the effects of believing in the horoscope in:

       Pacific Standard (here) and Format Magazine (here). Also see this featured in Belgium             (Daily Science, here; UCL Science Today, here; RTBF, here; 7 sur 7, here; L’Avenir,                       here; and Bx1) and Spain (Proexpansion, here).

      Is Astrology Really Out of This World? by Alice Fleerackers. SAD Mag. 2017