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Positive and Negative Emotions - Accent on Positive

This is an excerpt from Psychological Dynamics of Sport and Exercise, Fourth Edition by Diane Gill, Lavon Williams, and Erin Reifsteck.

Anxiety is an often-studied emotion, particularly in sport and exercise psychology. What are the other emotions? Take a minute and list as many emotions as you can. As with many questions in this text, there is no one correct answer. Reeve (2005) notes that various scholars have identified 2 to 10 primary emotions, along with a host of other emotions. Fear, joy, sadness, and anger are on nearly every list, including five of the emotions starring in the (2015) Disney-Pixar film, Inside Out (the film also casts disgust as its fifth emotion); but given that psychology scholars have not agreed upon a list, we do not specify one here. Regardless of the number of primary emotions, many emotions exist.


All lists of emotions, including those in the sport and exercise psychology literature, are heavy with negative emotions - anxiety, anger, depression, envy, and so on. Joy jumps in, but otherwise research and practice focus on negative emotions. Here we’ll give positive emotions time in the spotlight. The positive psychology movement reminds us that positive emotions deserve equal attention in research and professional practice. Positive emotions are especially relevant to sport and exercise psychology because physical activity is promoted as a path to positive health and personal growth.


Barbara Fredrickson, the leading psychology researcher on positive emotions (2001, 2013a), describes positive emotions as markers of optimal functioning and argues that cultivating positive emotions is a way to foster psychological growth and physical health. She suggests that positive emotions have been neglected in psychology because definitions and models of emotion were developed to fit the negative emotions. Positive emotions are different; they are more general and diffuse and less closely tied to specific action tendencies (e.g., fight or flight).


Fredrickson offers an alternative broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. That is, positive emotions broaden people’s momentary thought - action repertoires and build enduring personal resources. Negative emotions narrow options - to fight or flee. Positive emotions such as joy, interest, serenity, pride, gratitude, love, or contentment do not provoke a specific response; many actions are possible and appealing. The broadening tendency of positive emotions builds enduring resources. Of particular note to those of us in kinesiology, Fredrickson cites play as an example, noting that play builds physical resources, as we often argue in kinesiology, and also builds social resources (social bonds, attachments) and intellectual resources (creativity).


Fredrickson (2001, 2013a, 2013b), along with her colleagues and other positive psychology researchers, have amassed a considerable body of research confirming the benefits of positive emotions for physical and mental health. Research also suggests that interventions and simple strategies to increase positive emotions have benefits. Links to the research, along with more accessible summaries of the information and practical suggestions, can be found at the positivity ratio website or Fredrickson’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (PEP Lab) website. The positivity ratio refers to the 3:1 ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions that Fredrickson recommended for benefits. The mathematics behind the ratio have been criticized, and rightly so. Emotions are complex processes, and it is unlikely that any equation could capture the influence of emotions on our health and behavior. Still, as Fredrickson (2013b) rightly countered in an update, considerable evidence supports the key point that positive emotions are good for physical and mental health and relationships. Regardless of the specific ratio, the practical guideline is that we, as professionals working with others and for ourselves, should spend as much or more time fostering positive emotions as we do controlling negative emotions.


Positive Emotions in Sport and Exercise

To date, few sport and exercise psychology researchers have followed Fredrickson’s work, but positive emotions are gaining attention. To understand emotion in kinesiology, we must give equal attention to positive emotion. McCarthy (2011) argued that research on the benefits of positive emotions for self-efficacy, motivation, attention, problem solving, and coping is particularly promising. We could even argue that positive emotion is more important than anxiety and negative emotion. Most people do not participate in exercise and sport to reduce stress (although that is a valued benefit), but because they feel better and because physical activity is fun!


Just as joy is the one positive emotion typically cited in psychology, joy or enjoyment has received attention in sport and exercise psychology. Within sport and exercise psychology, the most notable lines of research on positive emotions are the work of Tara Scanlan on enjoyment in sport and Csikszentmihalyi’s long-term work on flow, which has inspired several sport and exercise psychology researchers. That research is reviewed in the following section.


Enjoyment in Sport

Tara Scanlan is one of the few sport and exercise scholars to give equal attention to positive and negative aspects of emotion. Scanlan’s work focuses on youth development and includes extensive research on stress and anxiety, as well as equally extensive and more current work on sport enjoyment (Scanlan, Babkes, & Scanlan, 2005) and commitment, as discussed in chapter 8. In line with the emotion theme of this chapter, Scanlan and Simons (1992, p. 202) defined enjoyment as a positive affective response to the sport experience that reflects generalized feelings such as pleasure, liking, and fun.


Kimiecik and Harris (1996) attempted to provide a framework for positive emotions in physical activity. They defined enjoyment with an adaptation of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow definition as "an optimal psychological state that leads to performing an activity primarily for its own sake and is associated with positive feeling states" (p. 256).


Although current models of affect and emotion include positive dimensions, we do not have measures of positive emotions to match the carefully developed and validated (and often sport-specific) measures of anxiety. Several studies of enjoyment have used open-ended measures in a more qualitative approach (e.g., Scanlan, Stein, & Ravizza, 1989). Others have used simple measures developed for specific studies. Kendzierski and DeCarlo (1991) developed the 18-item Physical Activity Enjoyment Scale (PACES) and provided initial evidence for its reliability and validity with college students. Crocker, Bouffard, and Gessaroli (1995) subsequently failed to support its unidimensional structure, but PACES is still one of the most widely used measures of enjoyment in our research. Mullen and colleagues (2011) validated the PACES with older adults and found that a revised, shortened eight-item version was psychometrically strong and recommended for use.


In reviewing the literature on sport enjoyment, Scanlan and colleagues (2005) classified the sources of enjoyment as intrapersonal, situational, and significant others. Intrapersonal sources include perceived ability, mastery, motivational goal orientation, personal movement experiences, and personal coping and emotional release through sport. Specifically, research indicates that enjoyment is associated with perceived high ability, mastery experiences, higher task orientation, movement sensations, and emotional release.


Situational sources include competitive outcomes, achievement process, recognition, and opportunities. Not surprisingly, winning is associated with enjoyment, but the relationship is not as strong or absolute as one might assume. Several studies cited in Scanlan and colleagues’ review showed that postgame stress was related to enjoyment regardless of win - loss outcomes. Being engaged in competition (playing) was associated with enjoyment, as were social recognition and opportunities to travel.


Finally, significant-other sources of enjoyment involve positive perceptions of interactions and feedback from coaches, parents, and peers. Many sources of enjoyment have parallel sources of stress, and those are classified into the same three categories in Scanlan and colleagues’ (2005) review. As the authors conclude, the diverse sources of enjoyment make it easy to tap a number of them to maintain motivation and activity. Notably, the researchers emphasized enjoyment rather than stress in their conclusions. In line with positive psychology, we might emphasize positive emotion in professional practice to promote physical activity and health for all participants.


Any discussion of positive emotion in sport and exercise must be about fun. Enjoyment is a proxy term for fun, but fun can mean many things. As noted in chapter 8, when youth are asked why they participate in sport, fun is the top answer. But what is fun? Visek and colleagues (2015) addressed that question with physical activity participants and developed the multidimensional Fun Integration Theory (FIT). Using hierarchical cluster analyses of 81 specific fun determinants, they developed the pictorial "FUN MAPS" with four overarching fundamental tenets over 11 fun dimensions: (a) context (e.g., games and practice), (b) internal (e.g., learning, improving), (c) social (e.g., team dynamics, friendship), and (d) external (e.g., positive coaching).


Flow in Sport

Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow has contributed a great deal to positive psychology and our understanding of intrinsic motivation, and several researchers have specifically explored flow states with sport and exercise participants. Flow occurs when the person is totally connected to the performance in an activity in which skills equal challenges (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi used innovative experience sampling and in-depth methods to develop his conceptualization of the optimal flow experience and its antecedents. In the original flow model, flow occurs when perceived challenges are in balance with perceived skills; when challenges are too high, anxiety results, and when they are too low, boredom results. The updated model (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005) expands to include a wider range of emotions. In the expanded model, we consider not only whether challenges and skills are equal or balanced, but also if they are high or low. More intense reactions occur as challenge and skill move farther from average levels, toward high or low ends. Flow is experienced when perceived challenges and perceived skills are both above average, and apathy is experienced when both are below average. High challenge and low skill leads to anxiety, whereas low challenge and high skill leads to relaxation. Flow is clearly a positive emotional state - perhaps the ultimate positive state.


Most participants at any level in any physical activity can relate to flow. Athletes may recall a peak experience - a time when everything came together and they were totally immersed in the activity. Sue Jackson started from Csikszentmihalyi’s model and used in-depth interviews along with more typical survey approaches to identify characteristics and antecedents of flow with athletes (Jackson, 1995), and Jackson and Marsh (1996) developed the Flow State Scale (FSS). The nine scales of the 36-item FSS represent the dimensions of flow identified by Csikszentmihalyi, and Jackson and Marsh provided good psychometric evidence for the scales and the FSS. These are the nine dimensions of flow:

  • Challenge - skill balance: The person perceives a balance between the challenges of a situation and his or her skills, with both at a high level.
  • Action - awareness merging: Involvement is so deep that it becomes spontaneous or automatic.
  • Clear goals: Clearly defined goals give the person a strong sense of knowing what to do.
  • Unambiguous feedback: The person receives immediate and clear feedback, usually from the activity itself.
  • Concentration on task at hand: Total concentration on the task occurs.
  • Sense of control: The person experiences a sense of exercising control but without actively trying to exert control.
  • Loss of self-consciousness: Concern for the self disappears as the person becomes one with the activity.
  • Transformation of time: Time alters perceptibly, either slowing down or speeding up.
  • Autotelic experience: An autotelic experience is intrinsically rewarding, done for its own sake.


Swann, Keegan, Piggott, and Crust (2012) reviewed the research on flow in sport and summarized the factors that facilitate flow as having appropriate focus, optimal preparation, and optimal situational conditions. The work of Scanlan, Jackson, and others provides direction and measures for the continuing exploration of flow and enjoyment, as well as highlighting positive emotions and fun in sport and exercise psychology.


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