Applied Psychology OPUS

Positive Emotions and Academic Achievement

Caitlyn Corradino & Katie Fogarty

Seminal research on human behavior suggests that creating positive associations with the learning process is more effective than creating negative ones (Pavlov, 1928). Subsequent studies have indicated that one way to create these effective associations is through fostering positive emotions while learning. Positive emotions are marked by contentment, enthusiasm, and enjoyment in the present moment (Seligman, 2011). In academic settings, positive emotions have been linked to the acquisition of various skills that foster academic success. Cultivating happiness in the classroom has been suggested to help students sustain a sense of resilience, mindfulness, and even physical health (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008; Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006). Additionally, brain imaging has indicated that positive emotions are vital to effective learning; instructional styles that support positive emotions have been correlated with more effective cognitive processing (Hinton, Miyamoto, & Della-Chiesa, 2008). Empirical studies have specified that all of these outcomes may inspire a tendency to think critically and flexibly (Cohn, Fredrickson, Brown, Mikels, & Conway, 2009; Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson et al., 2008; Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006). With a positive classroom environment, students may encounter academic challenges with more acceptance and determination.

On the other hand, negative emotions, marked by anxiety, anger, or discontent in the present, have been shown to worsen memory processing and learning efficiency (Eysenck, 1979; Fincham, Hokoda, & Sanders, 1989; McLeod & Fettes, 2007). Although negative emotions can sometimes promote achievement, such as when disappointment or failure motivates a student to try harder (Aronson, 2002; Dweck, 2007; Kannan & Miller, 2009), learning experiences that are joyous and uplifting appear to be more effectual, especially for learning that takes place in classroom settings (Reschly, Huebner, Appleton, & Antaramian, 2008). While negative emotions may occasionally prompt a student to try harder, such discontent has shown to more frequently prompt avoidance and social isolation (Elliot & Thrash, 2002), both of which may lead to academic decline in children and adolescents (Parker & Asher, 1993). This paper will explore the process by which feeling good may translate into learning well for children and adolescents and present two interventions that may promote the positive emotions cited to improve academic achievement.

The Mechanisms of Positive Emotions

The major mechanism that may account for the influence of positive emotions in the classroom is explained by the “Broaden and Build Model” (Fredrickson, 2001). This model proposes that positive emotions broaden an individual’s awareness and encourage more exploratory thoughts and actions, while negative emotions have a narrowing effect. While negative emotions might occasionally drive a student to work harder, the Broaden and Build Model points out that this determination is caused by the fixating effect of negative emotions, while the work ethic produced by positive emotions has shown to be driven by an expanded outlook (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). In sum, positive emotions have been shown to broaden the mind and make an individual more likely to notice details of their surroundings, as well as generate solutions that require thinking beyond the immediate setting (Gable & Harmon-Jones, 2010). This finding may be particularly useful in the classroom. Broadening of the mind may advance a student’s skills and resources when a mindful awareness of the present environment translates into increased engagement. Over time, a student’s increased engagement may become a productive state of “flow,” defined by a state of concentration and optimal engagement in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

When a student’s outlook is augmented by positive emotions, they may be more likely to achieve flow. When developing this concept, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) found that when one works in a state of flow, even above his or her academic ability, they are able to continuously learn new skills and ideas. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) also outlined that the prime circumstances to produce flow are mindful attention, intrinsic motivation, serenity, immediate feedback, and a lack of attention to physical needs. A classroom that fosters positive emotions is likely to produce these conditions, according to research on the Broaden and Build Model (Cohn et al., 2009). Thus, the mechanisms of the Broaden and Build and Flow theories may work together to increase academic success.

Broadening and flow in the classroom. Research on positive emotions in the classroom suggest that the mechanisms behind Broaden and Build and flow work together to improve academic achievement. In school settings, increased positive emotions are correlated with higher levels of student engagement, while negative emotions are associated with lower levels of engagement (Reschly et al., 2008). Students who experience more positive emotions throughout the school day may demonstrate greater coping skills. Research reveals that experiencing positive emotions facilitates recovery from tasking experiences, such as test anxiety (Papousek et al. 2010). Studies also suggest that a higher level of positive emotions predicts higher grades and better math and reading skills two years later in adolescents (Suldo, 2013), as well as cognitive investment and level of satisfaction in elementary school students (Um, 2007). Such research supports the idea that inducing positive emotions in the classroom eliminates the fear of failure, self-consciousness, and other distractions in order to create the optimal conditions for flow.

The broadening effect of positive emotions can give students a sense of mindfulness, motivation, and gratification that prompts them to feel more comfortable in their environment and eliminates anxieties that may prevent them from being wholly engaged in a task (Kraemer-Naser, 2012). Experiencing positive emotions is associated with more achievement, not simply because individuals are left feeling better, but also because a broadened mindset helps them to develop the ability to achieve flow (Cohn et al., 2009). During flow, challenge is conquered by the intrigue and ability induced by positive emotions. Thus, educators may benefit from creating school cultures where students are primed to handle negative emotions by generating more positive ones. Such schools may help students broaden their mindset and increase their opportunities for peak engagement.

Interventions to Induce Positive Emotions

Two interventions suggested to improve the learning experience by increasing positive emotions are Socio-Emotional Learning Programs and Mindfulness Meditation. These interventions aim to increase positive emotions by fostering students’ emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence has been defined as the skill of understanding and taking control of one’s own emotions (Salovey, Hsee & Mayer, 1993). Research suggests that those with higher emotional intelligence are more prone to both feel and express the positive emotions that allow broadening and flow to occur (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).

Socio-Emotional Learning programs. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs seek to develop socio-emotional intelligence in children by focusing on five major areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Payton et al., 2003). The curricula of these programs promote pro-social behaviors and emotional intelligence through classroom projects, mediation exercises, skill building, and positive attending. Through promoting positive social and emotional responses, SEL programs eliminate the negative emotions caused by aggression and peer violence and put positive emotions at the forefront. Socioemotional competency allows students to recognize and manage their emotions, establish healthy relationships, set positive goals, meet personal and social needs, and make responsible and ethical decisions (Durlak, et al. 2011; Elias et al. 1997; Payton et al. 2008).

These programs are inspired by the finding that students with higher levels of socio-emotional intelligence tend to have better grades (Caprara, Barbaranelli, Pastorelli, Bandura, & Zimbardo, 2000; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1994). It has been proposed that SEL programs are successful because self-awareness leads students to demonstrate greater effort and persistence in the face of challenges (Aronson, 2002) and that an increase in emotional intelligence can prepare youth for future stressors by giving them increased capacity for problem solving (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004). Moreover, research suggests that SEL programming enhances students’ connection to school and teachers and promotes better classroom behavior, which are both correlated with academic achievement (Zins et al., 2004). Research also suggests that SEL programs may build greater cognitive-affect regulation in prefrontal areas of the cortex affect (Elias et al., 1997). This is indicated by improvements in planning, inhibitory control—the ability to resist behavioral impulses, and set-shifting—the ability to disengage from an irrelevant task set and switch engagement to a relevant task set (Elias et al., 1997).

Mindfulness meditation. Another way to increase positive emotions and emotional intelligence is through mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is defined as learning to non-judgmentally attend to one’s internal present experience (Kabat-Zinn, 1994), simultaneously balancing a relaxed and a vigilant state of mind (Wallace, 2006). During mindfulness meditation, instructors direct students to concentrate on their senses, breath, internal thoughts, momentary experiences, and body. Meditation does not stop the mind’s thoughts, but gives individuals the skills to selectively attend to their thoughts (Wallace, 2006). The practice allows students to actively disengage from distractions like anxiety and stressors (Napoli, Krech, & Holley, 2005). It also fosters the ability to recognize one’s emotions (Waters, 2016). This is a promising intervention for increasing positive emotions in the classroom, as frequent meditators have empirically shown a more positive affect (Broderick & Metz, 2009).

Mindfulness has been associated with neurological and cognitive responses that reduce anxiety. Davidson and colleagues (2003) found a large left-anterior prefrontal activation asymmetry in meditators, suggesting that meditation is responsible for negative affect reduction and increases in positive affect. People who meditate regularly also have a more flexible orienting network, possibly as a result of repeatedly engaging in interrupting thoughts while maintaining focus on present sensations (Van den Hurk et al., 2010). This routine of constantly altering one’s focus creates a shift in operation of attention and builds the prefrontal cortex (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Posner & Gilbert, 1999; Van den Hurk, et al. 2010). Through building the prefrontal cortex, meditation increases visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning, even in brief practice (Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David, & Goolkasian, 2010). Each time a person meditates, his or her neural pathways strengthen, improving attentional efficiency and orientation (Van den Hurk et al. 2010). In the classroom, interventions have shown to increase self regulation, attentional control, and prosocial behavior (Schonert-Reichl et al. 2010), in addition to reducing anxiety (Napoli et al., 2005; Semple, 2005). Therefore, students are better able to excel academically and achieve their goals without negative emotions like anxiety or frustration. Thus, meditation may cultivate a greater capacity for students to achieve flow throughout the school day.

Conclusion

Research on SEL programs and mindfulness meditation shows that supporting emotional intelligence is useful in strengthening academic outcomes. However, these results are perhaps attributable to a side effect of emotional intelligence: positive emotions. Interventions focused on emotional intelligence inspire emotions that may subsequently have a broadening effect and prime students to achieve flow (Hintze et al. 2012; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2010). This process may foster learning, achievement, and self-efficacy (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Fredrickson, 2001; Reschly et al., 2008). With this self-efficacy, students may be motivated to embrace challenges and submit their optimal effort (Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992). In sum, inducing positive emotions is a crucial way for teachers to maximize the outcomes of learning experiences in the classroom.

Mindfulness and SEL programs are only two of the many interventions that have been shown to increase positive emotions and achievement. However, there is not a substantial amount of empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of the other interventions. Thus, this paper has been limited to exploring only two socioemotional interventions. Additionally, there is little research on how positive emotions influence academic achievement directly. This paper draws only on a theoretical framework for how positive emotions may impact the learning process.

The results of existing research support the need to utilize and empirically study more educational programs that increase positive emotions. Programs like mindfulness meditation and SEL have been empirically shown to be advantageous to both academic and emotional development. Future research should explore other interventions that increase positive emotions. Subsequently, studies should directly assess the correlation between positive emotions and academic achievement, in order to verify the application of the theoretical models of broadening and flow in the classroom setting.

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