positive emotions let us think outside the box – especially in complex, messy times like these

October 15, 2020

Whenever we hear “think outside the box”, especially in times of real distress (Covid not withstanding), it is almost like fingernails on a chalkboard, and yet, admittedly, I have used it myself. “Think outside the box” is an overused rally cry for fresh ideas. It gives permission for innovative thinking and creative solutions. However, in a workplace culture where “fitting in” and “not rocking the apple cart” are generally prized, and failure is not allowed, suddenly thinking outside that darn box can be a challenge. Especially in times when many are worried about holding on to their jobs. One solution is to call on your positive emotions.

Positive emotions can help you move from not upsetting the cart to thinking perhaps the cart isn’t even necessary. In her 1998 study, Barbara Fredrickson formulated the “broaden-and-build” theory. In it, she explained that negative emotions provide a useful evolutionary function to narrow our thoughts and action repertoire when we feel threatened. Likewise, positive emotions, she explained, also serve an evolutionary function by broadening our scope of attention, cognition, and action. In short, positive emotions provide choices in how we react to opportunities.

When we speak of evolutionary functions, we tend to think about individuals, but Fredrickson (2003) suggests that positive emotions can transform organizations through what she called “upward spirals.” Upward spirals occur when positive emotions spur the broadening of how we habitually think and act. This helps build perpetual resources and, in turn, promotes more positive emotions. We feel good about feeling good. And feeling good allows us to be more flexible and creative in our thinking. And being more flexible and creative allows us to achieve innovative solutions. And so we spiral upwards.

Thinking outside the box cannot happen only on the individual level. Organizations that want “outside thinkers” must have an atmosphere that allows creative thinking to thrive. In part, this is achieved by fostering employee engagement; employee engagement generally elicits positive emotions. Another step is to have management lead by example. When employees see management upending traditional approaches to challenges, those employees know it is valued. And for it to be valued, outside thinking cannot be solicited only in times of crisis. Create a culture of flexibility and creativity that encourages broad thinking at all levels all the time.

Meanwhile, I propose we keep the intent, but get rid of the expression. Instead of thinking outside the box, why don’t we urge people to “Think openly.” Or “Solve differently.” Or “Use your positive emotions.”

And we know self care is an important component of generating positive emotions, in ourselves and in others, check out this great NYT article from a week ago: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/07/health/laurie-santos-covid-happiness.html?referringSource=articleShare


Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2003). Positive emotions and upward spirals in organizational settings. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline (pp. 163-175). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Based on a blog by North of Neutral coach Dr. Carolyn Mathews, positive psychologist and Board Certified Coach

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