Measuring positive emotions (Lucas, Diener & Larsen, 2003)

Lucas, R.E., Diener, E., Larsen, R.J., 2006. Measuring positive emotions. In Lopez, S.J., & Snyder, C.R., 2003. Positive Psychological Assessment – A handbook of models and measures. Washington, USA: American Psychological Association

This chapter presents a review on some of the most relevant theoretical debates and issues related to the assessment of positive emotions. At the same time, it presents information about the different assessment methods used in positive psychology research, along with the pros and cons of each of them in different studies. It is a helpful chapter for researchers who are trying to get a hold of “what’s out there” in terms of positive emotions’ assessment, especially since it leaves it to the reader to choose what fits the aims of the study best.

The authors start by defining positive emotions within the range of the most prevalent stand-points: (a) basic emotions (positive vs. negative); (b) dimensional approaches of emotions, based on emotional valence and arousal levels; (c) hierarchical structure of emotions. Regardless of the theoretical background, the assessment of positive emotions should encompass its different components, such as the affective experience, cognitive changes, action tendencies and physiological changes, to comprehend fully how positive emotions converge. These different components of the positive emotional experience are not always correlated, and that is part of the problem of assessing positive emotions. As Barbara Fredrickson has shown in her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, positive and negative emotions present distinct characteristics, specially in the action tendencies they elicit. While basic negative emotions serve the purpose of eliciting fight-and-flight reactions; positive emotions increase approach and affiliate behaviors. In fact, results from neuropsychology show that positive and negative emotions are associated with different areas of the anterior brain. This further supports theories which agree that although related, they are independent from each other: the absence of positive emotions does not necessarily lead to heighten negative emotions, and vice versa.

The chapter goes on describing positive emotions’ assessment methods, as categorized by self-reports and non-self-reports. Self-reports have the advantage of offering an intimate and close look at the individual’s subjective experience. However, there are limitations to this methods, such as social desirability, or extreme responding. Self-reports usually focus on intensity and/or frequency of positive emotions, and these can be assessed in different ways. One item answers usually provides a global estimate of a discrete emotion that is the focus of the study. Although it might be good to assess specific emotions, it has low reliability. Using multiple items to assess a positive emotion dimension has greater reliability, and can assess a greater spectrum of the emotion. However, because different positive emotions are highly correlated, some different aspects of positive emotions might be diluted into a single scale when performing a factor analysis to derive this(these) scale(s).

The researcher must also pay attention to other specificities of the assessment that can greatly influence what is being measured, such as the scale of answer (yes/no; checklist; likert-type scale), or the time frame. For example, greater time frames (e.g., month, last few months) can show a general personality predisposition towards positive emotions, while a more limited time frame (e.g., now, yesterday) can reveal the emotional reaction to specific stimuli, such as events, people, or contexts. Also, the choice between retrospective or online methodologies can meet different purposes. Online methods are particularly helpful to studies aimed at understanding the emotional variation to specific events, or to daily life. Retrospective methods can be less reliable when their assessment is done within a limited time frame, because they are greatly influenced by proximal events and emotions; but they might also present valuable information on personality traits that can complement online reports, giving an option to the researcher to investigate whether some personality traits can influence daily reactivity and emotional variability.

Regardless of the choice of self-report, the use of non-self report methods can greatly increase the analysis’ reliability. Choices go from observer reports, to facial measures, emotional tasks, or physiological assessment. Observer reports can be taken by friends, family, or trained neutral individuals, and have shown good correlations with self-reports. Facial measures are helpful to assess pleasantness, since they offer data on slight facial muscular changes that are not always identified by others. Emotional eliciting tasks have proven to differentiate between different personality characteristics, however, they are limited to laboratory settings. Finally, physiological measures can give information on how our body is reacting to our emotional experience. Although some measures have to be taken in laboratory settings, others, such as heart rate, blood pressure, or salivary cortisol can be assessed in the context of everyday life, without extensive training. Some of these measures have already shown that our physiological functioning is different according to the valence of the emotions we are experiencing at the moment.

Finally, this chapter offers a broad view on issues and methods relevant to the measurement of positive emotions. While some methods might reflect momentary changes in affective experience, others are better suited to assess personality characteristics and tendencies. This is a helpful resource to researchers who are yet determining the best way to assess positive emotions according to their study’s focus and population.


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