Positive Affect

Positive Affect Definition

Positive affect is the pleasant state that can be induced by small things that happen in everyday life. It is one of the most exciting topics currently under investigation in the psychological research literature. The findings suggest that there is the potential for a large impact of positive affect on social behavior and interpersonal processes, as well as on thinking, problem solving, and decision making. In addition, the topic has been studied in naturalistic ways and in a diverse range of realistic settings, and results of these studies suggest that positive affect may be important in many contexts of everyday life, from classrooms to boardrooms to physicians’ offices. The field itself is still young enough that there remain some controversies about how to understand what the processes are that are fostered by positive affect, which should be inviting to researchers not already in the field.

Positive AffectThe noun affect, as used in psychology, refers to feelings or emotions, and differs from the noun effect, which refers to the result of some action or circumstance. Positive affect, then, refers to pleasant feelings or emotions. From one perspective, positive affect is the most general term for pleasant feeling states, encompassing all the different types of positive feelings and all of their effects—neurophysiological, cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and interpersonal (however, in medical and related fields, the term is reserved for only the conscious feeling state). It can include good moods, pleasant emotions (e.g., joy, calmness, love), mild happy feelings, and their consequences.

Further Distinctions in Positive Affect

As affect is studied in the psychology research literature, however, some finer distinctions are often made. Thus, positive affect usually refers to a mild happy or pleasant general feeling state, induced in some simple way that people may readily experience in daily life. Sometimes specific positive emotions, such as elation, joy, or love, are included under the general heading, “positive affect,” but some researchers make a distinction between positive emotions such as love, on the one hand, and positive affect, a more general state, on the other. Some people working on the topic use the term mood to refer to this general state. However, some researchers avoid using the term mood because that term can carry unwanted connotations such as moodiness, which are not what the researchers in this field study.

Some researchers who study positive affect intend to distinguish between positive affect or mood and positive emotions. A distinction has been proposed between these terms, just for convenience, that suggests that affect or mood refers to a general state, perhaps a background feeling state, whereas specific emotions refer to more focused feelings. In addition, emotions also seem to be feelings that are targeted at a particular referent person, group, or thing, perhaps the source of the emotion, and they may have specific behaviors associated with them. For example, if someone makes you angry, you become angry at that person and you may interrupt what you are doing to say something to that person (or worse). Or if something like a big, barking dog frightens you, you feel afraid of the dog and run away from it, interrupting your walk down the lane. Notice that these examples are easier to find in the negative domain than in the positive, but perhaps there are focused positive emotions as well, such as love. Affect, in contrast, has been proposed to be less focused and a more generalized feeling state that can occur as a background state even while the person experiencing it can continue to work on some task or play some game or interact with other people. Affect may influence the way the task is done, but the task can be completed.

However, this distinction between affect and emotions is difficult to maintain, and may just come down to degree, or context, because one can think of emotions that are mild and do not interrupt ongoing behavior, or instances where one suppresses the impetus to react to the emotion and goes on with the task one is doing. One can work on a problem while loving someone (positive emotion) or while angry at someone (negative emotion). The usefulness of the distinction is only a practical one, in that it defines not a fundamental difference between affect and emotion, but a situation in which the influence of feeling states on other tasks or processes can be observed.

Positive affect has been defined in this entry as the pleasant state that can be induced by small things that happen in everyday life, so it may be helpful to mention some of the ways in which it can be induced, to understand the state more fully. In research studies, positive affect has been induced by events such as having research participants receive a useful, inexpensive free sample (worth under $1.00), find a dime or quarter in the coin-return of a public telephone that they happened to use in a shopping mall, be offered a cookie while studying in a library, be told that they succeeded (outperformed the average) on a simple, perceptual-motor task, view 5 minutes of a non-aggressive, nonsexual comedy film, or view a few pleasant slides, to mention only a few of the techniques that have been used successfully.

With regard to defining and understanding positive affect, it is important to note that measures of stable personality characteristics thought to reflect people’s capacity for happiness or general, underlying tendency to be happy are not mentioned, nor are people’s reports of overall well-being, in response to direct questions about it. Positive affect refers to ongoing feelings rather than stable underlying positive dispositions or traits; sometimes, as one might expect, some stable dispositions may also reflect or produce ongoing positive feelings, but in actuality they may not relate to current feelings at any given time. Although it is possible that affective dispositions to be happy or optimistic, for example, may play a role similar to that of induced positive affect, it is important to remember that most of the research on positive affect involves induction of affect among individuals who are ran-domly assigned to the affect conditions. This means that, without considering the person’s underlying affective disposition (or their underlying tendencies to behave in a given way or engage in certain thought processes), the mild interventions such as those described previously have been found to produce the effects described next.

Effects of Positive Affect

The focus in the research on positive affect has been on the effects of current feelings on other processes such as brain activity, problem solving, social interaction, and so forth.

A large body of evidence indicates that positive affect fosters mental flexibility, such as the ability to switch among ideas and include a broader range of ideas in mind at any given time. Often, positive affect helps people see how distinct lines of thought can relate to one another or be brought to bear upon one another. This has been found to result in improved creative problem solving, the ability to come up with innovative solutions to difficult problems, and openness to new information, even information that doesn’t fit with one’s preconceptions or favorite, old ways of thinking about a given situation or problem. This particular finding—improved creative problem solving and innovation—is one that has also been obtained by researchers studying the effects of the relatively stable dispositions of optimism, and of positive affectivity (a tendency to be positive or upbeat). Induced positive affect has also been shown to result in improved judgment and decision making in some circumstances, especially dangerous or genuinely risky situations, and increased social responsibility, helpfulness to others, and concern with the welfare of others as well as oneself. Also observed to result from positive affect have been an increased tendency to see connections between one’s behavior, effort, and performance, on the one hand, and one’s outcomes, on the other, where those connections actually exist (but not where they do not exist, such as in chance situations). These effects produce increased motivation in achievement or work situations as well as an increased ability to show self-control in situations where self-control would be in the person’s long-term best interest. These findings have occurred in several applied contexts, including managerial situations, physicians’ diagnostic processes, and consumer decision situations. Many researchers have found these effects exciting, because they open a window to understanding ways of increasing problem-solving effectiveness and creativity and improving thought processes and social interaction, responsibility, and self-control (and a pleasant way, at that!).

However, some researchers believe that positive affect takes cognitive capacity and therefore leads people to be impaired in problem solving and to think sloppily rather than carefully and systematically. Others also see positive affect as interfering with careful thought, but because of an absence of motivation to think carefully, rather than because of capacity deficit. A recent view that is related to these has suggested, likewise, that people who are feeling happy are not careful thinkers, but for the reason that they tend to rely on stored information, schemata, and scripts, rather than taking in new knowledge. There are also a few other variants on these themes, but they are all related in that they result in the idea that positive affect leads to superficial and overly hasty, careless, thought processes, compared with those demonstrated by people in whom affect has not been induced. These researchers argue that the creative problem solving and innovation observed in the studies referred to earlier only results because the problem-solving task can be solved without systematic thought. This latter point, however, has never been demonstrated (and without positive affect or a give-away hint about the solution to the problem, the rate of solution to these problems that require innovative thought is very low—about 15%, for example—whereas it is quite substantial in the positive affect conditions—about 65%, for example).

Finally, this research literature indicates that positive and negative affect are neither the same, nor symmetrical opposites, in their effects on thought processes and behavior. One cannot generalize from what one learns about positive affect to assume that the opposite is true of negative affect, or that the two kinds of feeling states produce the same effects— assuming, for example, that all emotion generally produces the same effect on thinking and behavior. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this entry, but it is a point worth noting.

Future Research on Positive Affect

The research field on the topic of positive affect is currently a very active one, with scientists working to expand understanding of the range of problems and activities and contexts in which positive affect will have effects, and also working to understand exactly what the processes are that have given rise to the opposing views of its overall impact that still exist in the field. The topic is truly an exciting area for continued research, with many avenues for additional research still to be explored.


  1. Ashby, F. G., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106, 529-550.
  2. Isen, A. M. (1985). Asymmetry of happiness and sadness in effects on memory in normal college students. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114, 388-391.
  3. Isen, A. M., Nygren, T. E., & Ashby, F. G. (1988). The influence of positive affect on the perceived utility of gains and losses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 710-717.