For many Americans, the healing process after the attacks of September 11, 2001, began with the publication of a special issue of the satirical newspaper The Onion. Headlines like those in the illustration below meant we could finally start to laugh about the tragedy:
But some have suggested that positive emotions such as happiness and optimism are inappropriate at times of crisis, especially when so many innocent lives have been destroyed. Sure, they might provide temporary relief, but does appealing to the lighter side actually help us deal with the crisis at hand?
A team led by Barbara L. Fredrickson conducted a study shortly after the tragedy to try to answer that question. They had run an extensive study of emotion in 133 volunteers in March through June of 2001. On September 20, they began emailing those participants to see how their emotional state during the months leading up to the attacks helped or hindered their ability to handle the emotional strain of those events. Almost half of those contacted agreed to participate in a follow-up study. You may recall that nationwide surveys following the attacks indicated that over 70 percent of Americans showed signs of clinical depression. These results were confirmed by Fredrickson et al.’s more controlled study, where 72 percent of participants had significant symptoms of depression.
But during their initial study, Fredrickson’s team also evaluated trait resiliance, a measure of “the capacity of the individual to effectively modulate and monitor an every changing complex of desires and reality constraints,” determined by asking respondents to rate their agreement with statements like “I quickly get over and recover from being startled.” As with earlier studies on the effects of September 11, they found that respondents with high resilience also experienced negative emotions less often and had more positive emotions than people with low resilience. Perhaps most importantly, people with high resilience had significantly lower rates of depressive symptoms than people with low resilience.
In this new study, the team wanted to go further, to identify a mechanism for the action of resilience on symptoms of depression. Could positive emotions be the key? Resilience was correlated with correlated with positive emotions experienced after 9/11 (β=.59), and positive emotions were negatively correlated with depressive symptoms (β=-.45). What’s more, after controlling for positive emotions, there was no correlation between resilience and depressive symptoms. Two other models might explain the data: perhaps resilience inhibits negative emotions, thereby causing a reduction in depressive symptoms. Or possibly the depressive symptoms themselves inhibit positive emotions in low-resilience individuals. Neither of these models were supported by the data, so Fredrickson et al. argue that positive emotions are the key to preventing depressive symptoms.
Using a similar line of reasoning, along with a correlation between positive emotions and increases in psychological resources for dealing with crises (β=.48), the researchers argue that positive emotions are also implicated in increasing psychological resources.
Positive emotions have been associated with increased lifespan, improved cardiovascular health, and even improved visual attention. Now it appears that they may be one way to help withstand and recover from crisis.
Fredrickson, B.L., Tugade, M.M., Waugh, C.E, & Larkin, G.R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises? A prospective study of resiliance and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365-376.