The Science

The Science behind the Positive Detective (PD+) program

We experience more positive than negative situations during the day.

For most of us, our day-to-day life is made up of both negative and positive situations. We run late for work, our phone battery dies at the exact moment we need it, our kids feel nervous about a test or have a fight with someone. On the flip side, we get a funny text from a friend, we complete a project we’ve been working on, our kids enjoy their school lunch and get praised by their teacher. Life is made up of a myriad of such events.

Would you say your days typically have more negative events or more positive? Many people focus on the negatives but when researchers ask them to accurately record the ratio of negative to positive events at the end of their day, we find a different story. Professor Shelley Gable at the University of Rochester asked people to record the nature of their social interactions at the end of each day for one week. In their daily reflections people were asked rated how often the social interactions were positive such as “A friend, complimented me” or negative like “A friend insulted me”. When people reflected on their day they discovered that they had three times more positive social interactions than negative (Gable, 2000)[i].

In a second study, Professor Gable extended the topics and timeline by asking people to reflect on their social events and task-related events over a 14-day time frame. Positive social events included “Went out to eat with a friend” while negative social events were things such as “Had a disagreement with a close friend “. Positive task-related events included “Got caught up (or ahead) in work duties” and the negative included “Fell behind on my work”. This study, and two further studies like it, found the same pattern as Professor Gable’s first experiment – people report experiencing more positive than negative events in their typical daily experiences.[ii] The conclusion. Our lives are more positive then we think.

So why do we focus on the negative events?

If we have more positive situations than negative situations in a typical day, why it is that we tend to remember the negative ones more? You may have students who have had a day filled with positive events and yet what they’ll tell you about the one thing that went wrong for them. Why? Simply put, our brains have developed to make us notice what’s wrong more than what’s right[iii]The very architecture of the brain causes us to pay attention to the bad aspects of what’s going on around us because this is what helped our ancestors survive. Even in modern times, our propensity to select out negative information helps to keep us out of harm’s way. This positive-negative asymmetry happens a pre-conscious level which means that your students won’t even be aware that they’re working from a negatively biased perspective. Psychologists call this our ‘Negativity bias’ and even those students with the sunniest personalities still have this positive-negative asymmetry.

The negativity bias, while helpful for our survival, has downsides for your students’ wellbeing and learning. It compromises their ability to see situations accurately and limits their problem-solving abilities by only showing them a limited array of the information. Not surprisingly, positive psychologists have encouraged us to help ourselves and others see more of the positive things that we know are occurring in the day. This is the essence of the Positive Detective Campaign

Why should we focus more on the positive events?

You won’t be surprised to learn that taking notice of the positive things in our day boosts our positive emotions. But you might be interested to learn that positive emotions, in turn, bring a raft of benefits. In a clear example of the mind–body connection, scientists have shown that laughter really is good medicine. Professor Ronald Berk of Johns Hopkins University has found that laughter produces similar health benefits to aerobic exercise.[iv] A good chuckle exercises your skeletal muscles, circulates immune cells around your bloodstream and oxygenates your blood. Immediately after you laugh your blood pressure, muscle tension and respiratory system all decrease, resulting in physiological relaxation.[v]

Other health benefits of positive emotions include better sleep, less pain, lower levels of cortisol, reduced inflammatory responses to stress, lower blood pressure, and stronger immunity[vi]. For example, did you know that positive emotions influence your ability to fight off the common cold? In a series of studies conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, healthy people were infected with the rhinovirus or influenza virus using nose drops. Prior to being infected the researchers measured the emotions of each volunteer every day for a full week and scored people on their degree of positive emotions (lively, full of pep, happy, cheerful, calm and at ease) and negative emotions (sad, unhappy, on edge, tense, hostile, angry). The more positive emotions that people experienced the less likely they were to contract the cold.[vii]

According to Professor Barbara Fredrickson, University North Carolina at Chapel Hill, positive emotions do more than boosts our health, they also broaden our thinking – a big bonus of the Positive Detective Campaign in schools. The way a student feels influences the way they think. When they are feeling positive their thought processes are more open and expansive[viii]. Specifically, the science shows us that when people experience positive emotions they think more clearly, are better at problem solving, better at brainstorming, are more creative, and are better at seeing the larger picture[ix].

Seeing and sharing the positives through the Positive Detective Campaign

The Positive Detective Campaign aims to help students, teachers and parents to see and share the positive situations that occur in the first week of school. Seeing the positive encourages the health and thinking benefits that come with positive emotions. Sharing the positive adds a further benefit to the program because it builds relationships and helps others to feel good. Most of us want to share our good news. Professor Sara Algoe from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her colleague Professor Jonathon Haidt asked people to recall a time when they got something they had really wanted and describe what, if anything, they did. More than 80% of the time, people mentioned telling or wanting to tell other people about their good feelings[x]. Good news is infectious. We want to spread it around.

There are many different types of positive events that can happen to a student at school. It could be that a student enjoys the tasks they’re doing, the environment they’re in, the resources they have access to, their friendship and/or the relationships with they have with their teacher(s). The Positive Detective Campaign helps students find ways to identify and share these positive moments in a systematic and intentional fashion.

One particular event type of positive event that deserves special mention is when we see another person act in good and virtuous ways – what psychologists call moral excellence. When a student sees someone act with courage, honesty, kindness and/or forgiveness, it inspires that student to also want to act on those ways themselves. When they then share news of this moral excellence with others it elevates others to also want to act more virtuously and it motivates others to be more pro-social and affiliative. The Positive Detective Campaign encourages students to look for the good in others.



[i] See Gable, S. L. (2000). Appetitive and aversive social motivation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.

[ii] See Gable, S., Reis, H.T.,& Elliot, A.(2000). Behavioral activation and inhibition in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 1135– 1149.

[iii] See Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. “Bad is stronger than good.” Review of general psychology 5.4 (2001): 323

[iv] See R. Berk (2001). “The active ingredients in humor: Psychophysiological benefits and risks for older adults,” Educational Gerontology 27 (2–3), 323–39. Also see W. Fry (1977). “Respiratory components of mirthful laughter,” Journal of Biological Psychology19 (3): 39–50.

[v] See W. Fry (1977). “Respiratory components of mirthful laughter,” Journal of Biological Psychology, 19 (3): 39–50; W. Fry (1994). “The biology of humor,” International Journal of Humor 7 (2): 111–126; D.L. Mahony, W.J. Burroughs & L.G. Lippman (2002). “Perceived attributes of health-promoting laughter: A cross-generational comparison,” Journal of Psychology 136 (2) 171–181.

[vi] Fredrickson, B. L. Unpacking positive emotions: Investigating the seeds of human flourishing. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1 (2006) 57-60; Frederickson, B. Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strengths of positive emotions, overcome negativity and thrive. New York: Crown Publishers (2009); Pressman, S. D., & Cohen, S. “Does positive affect influence health?” Psychological bulletin 131.6 (2005): 925; Futterman, A. D., Kemeny, M. E., Shapiro, D., & Fahey, J. L. “Immunological and physiological changes associated with induced positive and negative mood.” Psychosomatic Medicine 56.6 (1994): 499-511; Post, S. G. “Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good.” International journal of behavioral medicine 12.2 (2005): 66-77.

[vii] Pressman, S. D., & Cohen, S. “Does positive affect influence health?” Psychological bulletin 131.6 (2005): 925; Cohen, S., Alper, C. M., Doyle, W. J., Treanor, J. J., & Turner, R. B. “Positive emotional style predicts resistance to illness after experimental exposure to rhinovirus or influenza A virus.” Psychosomatic medicine 68.6 (2006): 809-815;

[viii] Fredrickson, B. L. “The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.” American psychologist 56.3 (2001): 218-226.

[ix] Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. “The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success?.” Psychological bulletin 131.6 (2005): 803; Fredrickson, B. L. “The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.” American psychologist 56.3 (2001): 218; Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. “Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being.” Psychological science 13.2 (2002): 172-175; Tugade, M. M. & Fredrickson, B. L. Positive emotions and emotional intelligence. In L. F. Barrett & P. Salovey (Eds.), The Wisdom in Feeling (pp. 319 – 340). New York, NY: Guilford Press (2002); Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., & Conway, A. M. “Happiness unpacked: positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience.” Emotion 9.3 (2009): 361; Estrada, C. A., Isen, A. M., & Young, M. J. “Positive affect improves creative problem solving and influences reported source of practice satisfaction in physicians.” Motivation and emotion 18.4 (1994): 285-299; Fredrickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. “Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought‐action repertoires.” Cognition & emotion 19.3 (2005): 313-332; Lin, W. L., Tsai, P. H., Lin, H. Y., & Chen, H. C. “How does emotion influence different creative performances? The mediating role of cognitive flexibility.” Cognition & emotion 28.5 (2014): 834-844; St-Louis, A. C., & Vallerand, R. J. “A Successful Creative Process: The Role of Passion and Emotions.” Creativity Research Journal 27.2 (2015): 175-187; Grawitch, M. J., Munz, D. C., Elliott, E. K., & Mathis, A. “Promoting creativity in temporary problem-solving groups: The effects of positive mood and autonomy in problem definition on idea-generating performance.” Group dynamics: Theory, research, and practice 7.3 (2003): 200; King, L. A., Hicks, J. A., Krull, J. L., & Del Gaiso, A. K. “Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life.” Journal of personality and social psychology 90.1 (2006): 179; Hicks, J. A., & King, L. A. “Meaning in life and seeing the big picture: Positive affect and global focus.” Cognition and Emotion 21.7 (2007): 1577-1584.

[x] Algoe, S. B., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: The “other-praising” emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(2). 105-127.