Feature

Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, has often been lonely in her quest to study how positive emotions such as joy and contentment influence people's cognitive and social development. Emotion researchers have been far more interested in the negative emotions, dismissing the positive emotions as trivial.

In recent years, however, Fredrickson's work has garnered attention not only from her colleagues for its innovation and rigor but also from funding agencies. And as the top, $100,000 winner of this year's Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, she is just one example of the kind of researchers Sir John Templeton hoped to promote when he helped create the largest-ever psychology prize.

This is the first year of the prizes, which Templeton's foundation funds and APA administers to foster research in the area of positive psychology. And both APA and Templeton are impressed with the distinction of the winners.

"The quality of their work was extraordinary, and the quality of the letters written on their behalf was amazing," says Richard McCarty, PhD, APA's executive director of science. "If you think of the prize applications as something like a promotion or tenure packet, these are the kind of letters that glow in the dark."

Fredrickson, of the University of Michigan, won the $100,000 prize for her work on the beneficial effects of positive emotions. The $50,000 second-place prize went to Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, of the University of Utah, for her work on optimism and forward-thinking behavior. Dacher Keltner, PhD, of the University of California at Berkeley, won the $30,000 third-place prize for his work on how positive emotions help people form and maintain relationships. And Vanderbilt University's David Lubinski, PhD, received the $20,000 fourth-place prize for his studies of intellectual precocity and ways to help people realize their exceptional potential.

The prizes recognize and encourage midcareer scientists--those under age 40 or no more than 12 years postdoctorate--to pursue research on such positive-psychology topics as goal-focused living, self-control, character-building, future-mindedness, optimism, persistence, wisdom, work ethic, thrift, courage and moral identity.

"These prizes are [designed] to encourage scientific investigation of the benefits produced by optimism, thanksgiving and the power of positive thinking," says Templeton, a philanthropist who made his fortune through international investing.

In addition, by establishing the winners as leaders in the field of positive psychology, the Foundation hopes they can serve as an inspiration to those doing research on the fringes of the field, says Arthur Schwartz, PhD, a Templeton Foundation director who helped coordinate the prize.

A selection committee culled the four prize winners from a pool of 22 applications. The competition was stiff, says selection committee member and positive psychology pioneer Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, who spearheaded the award during his tenure as APA president.

"Reviewing grant applications is usually a deadly process," says Seligman. "But we all found ourselves on the edge of our chairs reading these applications. In all my years of culling through applications, I've never had more fun reading about good science."

Exploring new frontiers

First-place winner Fredrickson's research focuses on how positive emotions such as joy, contentment and love help build people's character and personal resources. In laboratory-based studies, for example, she has found that positive emotions help undo the detrimental effects of negative emotions on the cardiovascular system.

She grew interested in positive emotions during graduate school at Stanford University largely because most other emotion researchers were studying negative emotions.

"I have always been attracted to the things no one studies," says Fredrickson, who received her PhD in 1990. "It's on the new frontiers where there's a lot to be learned."

But because it was an understudied area, it was also difficult to gain respect and support early in her career, she admits. That's beginning to change. Not only has she won the Templeton Prize, but she also secured her first large grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the broader psychology field has increasingly become interested in her findings and theories.

In fact, Fredrickson's theoretical work on the evolutionary significance of positive emotions has gained her as much recognition as her empirical findings--something uncommon for a researcher so early in her career. Her main theoretical model, called "broaden-and-build," posits that, unlike negative emotions, which narrow people's thoughts and actions, positive emotions broaden their thoughts and actions. For example, joy creates the urge to play, interest fosters the urge to explore and contentment spurs the desire to savor and integrate.

As a result, the theory states, positive emotions promote the discovery of novel actions, ideas and social bonds, which in turn build people's physical, intellectual and social resources. The outcome of this cycle is that people transform themselves through experiencing positive emotions to become more creative, resilient, socially integrated and healthy, the theory contends.

Fredrickson plans to use her NIMH grant to test the "broaden" portion of her theory and the money from the Templeton Prize to test the "build" component. Through the Templeton funding--$30,000 to use any way she wants and $70,000 to support her research--she hopes to conduct daring field studies for which she might not have gained funding through traditional channels. In particular, she plans to design a longitudinal intervention to cultivate positive emotions such as joy and contentment to see if they do indeed build people's optimism, wisdom, creativity and emotional resilience.

"I've been eager to do this kind of study," she says. "But it's a direction I haven't gone because it's riskier and if I was trying for funding from someplace like NIMH, I'd likely have to do three or four preliminary studies to show the idea has promise. With the award funds, I will still do my own preliminary studies, but be able to proceed at a faster pace."

Redefining optimism

Second-place winner Aspinwall has been interested in exploring how optimism promotes forward-thinking behavior since she worked with Shelley Taylor, PhD, in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she graduated in 1987.

Aspinwall's interest in optimism sprung from her grandmother, who, she'd been told, averted a stroke by heeding early warning signs and heading to the hospital before it hit.

"Knowing she was an optimist, I began to wonder what psychological processes were involved in responding to negative but useful information," says Aspinwall, who moved to Utah from the University of Maryland this summer.

In fact, her research has suggested that optimists are better able than other people to use negative information to plan for the future. This finding breaks with traditional theories of optimism indicating that it blinds people to risks.

Aspinwall, who also holds a grant from the National Science Foundation, is considering a number of ways to spend the Templeton money--a $15,000 prize and $35,000 for her research. "It's nice to see an award focused on the idea that you can do solid empirical research on something pleasant or fun," she says.

Understanding positive emotions

And it's equally good to know that there is an award that rewards researchers for looking at positive rather than negative emotions, says Berkeley's Keltner, who received his PhD at Stanford University in 1989. His work focuses on how the positive emotions of love, awe and elevation facilitate and coordinate social interactions and maintain relationships. One of his most provocative findings to date is that if people can laugh about a trauma--such as the death of a spouse--six months after the experience, they fare better than those who can't laugh two and four years later.

Keltner has three priorities for his $10,000 prize and $20,000 grant:

  • Investigate the experiences of awe and elevation people feel when seeing natural beauty or a noble gesture.

  • Extend his work on how positive emotions such as laughter, love and commitment can help interpersonal relationships.

  • Continue his work with George Bononno, PhD, on laughter's role in dealing with trauma--whether there are mechanisms within a "positive" trauma, such as childbirth, that predict emotional adjustment after the experience.

Facilitating human development

Unlike the other three Templeton prize winners, Vanderbilt's Lubinski hasn't focused specifically on an issue people would consider positive psychology, says Templeton's Schwartz. Indeed, his work studying intellectual precocity demonstrates the range of research rewarded by the prize, he says.

Lubinski, who received his PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1987, thinks of his work as using psychological concepts to actualize exceptional human potential. In particular, he has identified different types of intellectually precocious children and the conditions that enhance their educational and vocational development. He considers these children "special needs." In the same way children with developmental disabilities need an adjusted educational environment to help them achieve their potential, so do precocious children, he says.

One of Lubinski's major contributions to the study of gifted students has been his ongoing work, along with Camilla Benbow, EdD, on the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth--a planned 50-year study now in its third decade.

He plans to use his award money to help fund two follow-up studies of promising students. One is a 10-year follow-up of 750 top math and science graduate students to identify factors that facilitated or hindered their vocational development during and after graduate school. The other is a 20-year follow-up of profoundly gifted adolescents, focusing on their career development and creative accomplishments.

Next year's awards

The Foundation is committed to funding the Templeton award for three years. After that, it will review the program and decide whether to continue funding it. The deadline for the next round of applications is Oct. 1. And Schwartz hopes to see more applications from a broader range of research areas, such as cognitive neuroscience.

"We'd like to extend our reach to those sectors of the field that might not see themselves in the domain of positive psychology," says Schwartz.

Further Reading

For more information about the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, contact APA's Science Directorate at (202) 336-6000 or science@apa.org or visit the Templeton Prize Web page and Seligman's Web page at www.psych.upenn.edu/seligman.