Positive affective processes underlie positive health behaviour change

Psychol Health. 2018 Jan;33(1):77-97. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2017.1320798. Epub 2017 May 12.


Positive health behaviours such as physical activity can prevent or reverse many chronic conditions, yet a majority of people fall short of leading a healthy lifestyle. Recent discoveries in affective science point to promising approaches to circumvent barriers to lifestyle change. Here, we present a new theoretical framework that integrates scientific knowledge about positive affect with that on implicit processes. The upward spiral theory of lifestyle change explains how positive affect can facilitate long-term adherence to positive health behaviours. The inner loop of this spiral model identifies nonconscious motives as a central mechanism of behavioural maintenance. Positive affect experienced during health behaviours increases incentive salience for cues associated with those behaviours, which in turn, implicitly guides attention and the everyday decisions to repeat those behaviours. The outer loop represents the evidence-backed claim, based on Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory, that positive affect builds a suite of endogenous resources, which may in turn amplify the positive affect experienced during positive health behaviours and strengthen the nonconscious motives. We offer published and preliminary evidence in favour of the theory, contrast it to other dominant theories of health behaviour change, and highlight attendant implications for interventions that merit testing.

Keywords: broaden-and-build; health behaviour change; nonconscious; positive affect; positive psychology; prioritising positivity.

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Cues
  • Exercise / psychology
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Life Style
  • Motivation
  • Psychological Theory