The Cathartic Fallacy: Why Venting Anger May Actually Make You More Mad

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We vent about our jobs, our relationships, even ourselves. The immediate pleasure and release1 that we experience when we vent our anger leads us to a seemingly self-evident conclusion: venting provides an enduring cathartic dissipation of the vented angst. However, research suggests that this subjective relief is at best transitory, and at worst a Trojan horse for increased angst down the road.1–3 To untangle the cathartic fallacy, we must first understand that which is being vented, namely emotions.

Believe it or not, the scientific definition of an emotion is still a matter of academic debate.4 We have no illusions of resolving this debate within the constraints of the present article. Instead, we will utilize the models that have most informed our research with our bias thus disclosed.

In a recent article, the prominent emotion researcher, Professor Paul Ekman, PhD, surveyed almost 150 leading emotion researchers to generate an expert consensus as to which emotions constitute the “basic emotions” of the human affective experience. The results revealed high levels of agreement on five basic emotions: fear, disgust, anger, sadness, and happiness.5 Although, there is still debate about various other candidate emotions—most notably surprise, shame, and embarrassment—there exists enough evidence at this time to treat Professor Ekman’s basic emotional palette of five primary “colors” as a foundation on which to build our conceptualization of emotions.

The reader may at first object to what appears to be a reductionistic account of human emotion; however, it may help clarify our supposition if we explore the distinction between an emotion and a feeling state. Cognitive and physiological elaborations on the so-called basic emotions can give rise to an incredible diversity of “feeling states.”4 To further our understanding of emotion and feeling states let’s turn to a recent article in the journal Cell by California Institute of Technology Professors David J. Anderson, PhD and Ralph Adolphs, PhD.

Anderson and Adolphs4 argue that emotions are, “…central neural state[s] that are caused by sensory stimuli or memories and that, in turn, control a panoply of behavioral, cognitive, and somatic changes.” The authors differentiate emotion states from the subjective behavioral, cognitive, and somatic “feeling” states that they lead to. Let’s unpack this a little further.

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“Emotions are, ‘…central neural state[s] that are caused by sensory stimuli or memories…’”

Earlier theories of emotion argued that an external or internal stimulus (e.g. a sensory or memory stimulus, respectively) triggered, “…behavioral, cognitive, and somatic change[s],” that were experienced as an emotion. In other words, previous theories suggested that a stimulus led to physiological and psychological changes that were subjectively experienced as an emotion. Contrastingly, Anderson and Adolphs4 cited a growing body of research to argue that a stimulus first triggered a central emotion state, which in turn caused “…behavioral, cognitive, and somatic change[s],” (i.e. feeling state).

Far from a trivial semantic distinction, Anderson and Adolphs’s “emotion first” model contains important conceptual implications. The emotion first model helps us understand how emotions can exist in a preconscious or unconscious state, why emotions have such primal psychological power, and suggests a method by which researchers could break emotion states into their constituent parts.4 As we disclosed earlier in the article, we are empirically biased towards this model for all of the utility it provides. As such, we will utilize Anderson and Adolphs’s model for the remainder of this article, and we will refer to “emotion states” simply as “emotions.” Moreover, we will use the term “feelings” to describe the psychological and physiological totality of the subjective experience of said emotions.

No doubt we are all intimately familiar with the psychological and physiological correlates (i.e. feelings state) of emotions such as anger or happiness. And yet, as is often the case, our intimacy may actually obscure an accurate understanding of said feeling states. In an attempt to achieve greater clarity, we will take a brief detour to explore the psychological—or as Anderson and Adolphs called it, the “cognitive”—interpretations of emotions that combine with physiological changes to create feelings.

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When we think of cognition we likely thing of “private” language: thoughts, daydreams, etc. In his book ACT Made Simple, Dr. Russ Harris, MBBS describes language in the following way:

“Human language is a highly complex system of symbols that includes words, images, sounds, facial expressions, and physical gestures. Humans use language in two domains: public and private. The public use of language includes speaking, talking, miming, gesturing, writing, painting, sculpting, singing, dancing, acting, and so on. The private use of language includes thinking, imagining, daydreaming, planning, visualizing, analyzing, worrying, fantasizing, and so on. (A commonly used term for the private use of language is cognition.)”6

We will utilize Dr. Harris’s formulation of language and cognition to help us fill in our understanding of the psychological aspects of feeling states.

Cognition grants us the ability to describe and make sense of immediate and past experiences in a symbolic language of words, images, and concepts. Furthermore, the grammatical logic of language enhances our cognitive ability to theorize about causal relationships between events. But perhaps the greatest potential of cognition is the ability it grants to simulate events that we have not directly experienced.7 For instance, cognition and language allowed the ancestral human mind to plan for a hunt that hadn’t even happened yet.

As with any tool, cognition may be helpful or harmful depending on its implementation. We are driven to search for causal relationships in our environment, and most of the time this is an adaptive strategy. However, in our zeal for explanation and causal analysis we sometimes come to the wrong conclusions. In fact, so strong is our motivation to determine cause-and-effect that we frequently err and link events that are unrelated.

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For example, imagine that you are carpooling to work with a colleague when another car rudely cuts you off. The oblivious driver’s vehicular indiscretion (i.e. stimulus) may produce an emotional response (e.g. anger). But let’s imagine that you are distracted by an engrossing conversation with your colleague and do not attend to the emotion. Minutes pass and your conversation takes a seemingly innocent turn, but you find yourself disproportionately angered by a point that your colleague makes. You express your strong disagreement with perhaps a little too much gusto, and your colleague appears hurt. Registering the seemingly disproportionate hurt that your colleague exhibits, your cognitive causal engine whirs into action. You search for a proportionate stimulus to explain your overreaction, but you’ve forgotten about the oblivious driver that waylaid your commute minutes before. Instead, you erroneously conclude that your colleague must have said something truly offensive to cause your state of anger and you double down on your verbal confrontation.

We likely commit numerous errors of emotional causative analysis every day. Most of these errors are harmless in and of themselves, but problems can arise when misattributions add up and we overgeneralize.

For instance, suppose that you survive your emotionally harrowing carpool, and arrive at work exasperated by your argument with your colleague. You are understandably short on patience when another co-worker runs into you on your way to the elevators, causing you to spill your coffee all over your clean white shirt. You erupt—or brood, depending on your temperament—seething with irritation. You dry yourself off, disingenuously accept your co-worker’s apology, and get on the elevator. It is at this point where your emotional causative analysis can err into overgeneralization.

Your cognitive causal engine whirs into action yet again as you attempt to construct a coherent narrative to explain the morning’s events. Given that you missed the initial inciting stimulus in the form of a completely separate oblivious driver, you are working with incomplete information. Perhaps you conclude that you just had a run of bad luck to begin your day and shrug off the morning’s negative emotional interactions without ill consequence. However, you may not be so self-forgiving and instead conclude that because you are the common denominator within these two occasions, you are somehow responsible. In searching for the simplest explanation, you may conclude that you possess a short-temper and unjustly overreacted to your two colleagues. In isolation, this conclusion that you are short-tempered might be dismissed as representing a simple transient “bad day.” However, if we multiply this scenario across weeks, months, and years the hazards of overgeneralization become manifest.

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Many factors can contribute to the bias of someone’s overgeneralization: a depressive disorder or temperament, persistent negative external factors (e.g. a toxic workplace), or simple bad luck to name but a few factors that may bias to negative overgeneralizations. But no matter the cause, if you bias towards negative causal analysis and overgeneralization, then your transient “bad day” may transform into a self-concept of you as a “bad person.”8 This process of “fusing” a thought (e.g. “I am a bad person”) with reality (e.g. you actually are a bad person) is known as cognitive fusion and is an important concept that will help us further comprehend the implications of catharsis and vented anger.

Cognitive fusion is a concept developed by the psychologist Steven C. Hayes, PhD from the University of Nevada in his “third wave” behavioral therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (“ACT”). Cognitive fusion “refers to excessive or improper regulation of behavior by verbal processes … guided more by relatively inflexible verbal networks than by contacted environmental contingencies.”8 In other words, cognitive fusion describes the process whereby our behavior is dictated by our internal language (i.e. thoughts) rather than by a more direct and fluid adaptation to a given environment.

For example, the thought, “I am a bad person,” may lead to the literal interpretation that you are in fact a bad person. Even worse, it may constrain your behavior to reinforce this conclusion, shutting off the psychological flexibility that allows the human organism to reinvent itself and adapt throughout its lifetime.

If we had total control over our thoughts, cognitive fusion would not be as potent a foe as it is. We could simply recognize the negative effects of our maladaptive thoughts, stop thinking them, and thus defuse the relationship. However, thoughts are the seismograph of the mind, translating the motion of subjective experience into a representative language of circumstance. Although some of the metaphorical “motion” of our thoughts is undoubtedly within our control, a significant amount of what is translated into thoughts (i.e. internal language) reflects internal and external events outside, or at least resistant to, volitional control. In other words, thoughts often seem to have a mind of their own. Thus, cognitive fusion can be a beguiling process by which stimuli, often beyond our control, give rise to emotion and feeling states with attendant, and sometimes inaccurate, cognitive appraisals that can become cemented into our self-concept through a literal, cognitively fused interpretation of said thoughts.

We have charted a path from stimulus to emotion to feeling and cognition. Having explored some of the constraints and implications of cognition and language, we now have an adequate foundation from which we can better explore the cathartic fallacy.

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Why do we vent? The short answer is: because it feels good. But to understand the nature of the frequently reported calm and relaxed state that emerges in the immediate aftermath of anger thus vented,1 we must explore the vital importance of emotional validation to the human experience.9

The fundamental importance and lengths to which the human organism will go to achieve a sense of validation and interpersonal harmony is exemplified by interaction synchrony (also known as behavioral entrainment). Interaction synchrony refers to the process by which we unconsciously coordinate body movements, facial expressions, attitudes, vocal cadences, and emotions with one another during direct or indirect communication. By synchronizing, we unconsciously engage in a complex dance of mutual validation: your frown is reflected in my frown and the associated emotional state is vindicated. When our interactions are synchronized we experience a reinforcing emotional reward—while a lack of synchrony produces a profoundly unpleasant state.10 This feature of the human psyche makes significant evolutionary sense given that the behaviors of an emotionally synchronized other may be significantly easier to predict and influence than a non-reciprocal emotional partner. When I reciprocate your frown and emotional state it gives me the ability to not just cognitively hypothesize about your feeling state, but also to feel it. Let’s modernize this example for the workplace (the contemporary version of the prehistoric savannah).

Imagine that a caustic co-worker is rude to you. This rude stimulus precipitates an emotion state of anger and a rising tension in your body. Thoughts of indignation are soon layered within the emerging feeling state and you grow more and more tense. You return to your office and broodingly slump into your chair. It isn’t long before your office mate walks in with his or her morning coffee. Until now, you had shouldered the burden of your rude encounter and the resulting feeling state on your own, but now your more civil colleague’s presence gives you the opportunity to share your psychological burden and seek validation. So, what do you do?

If you’re like most of us, you likely grumble about your caustic co-worker and experience a temporary mental unburdening. If you are particularly lucky, then your supportive compatriot may have his or her own negative experience with the caustic co-worker to share with you or, at the very least, may validate your own. The resulting interaction synchrony and validation allows you both to bask in the bliss of a seemingly harmless cathartic relief.

This story seems to have a happy ending; so, what’s the problem with venting your anger? As we discussed before, the immediate subjective effects of venting anger are often a sense of calm and relaxation. However, if we look beyond the immediate effects, then we begin to discover hazards lurking just around the corner.

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Humans have a distinct temporal bias for immediate or near-term consequences. Near-term consequences are treated with disproportionate significance because of the immediacy of their experience. Delayed or long-term consequences exist somewhere beyond our immediate experience horizon and are frequently minimized or completely overlooked. And it is on this long-term scale that we can begin to appreciate the insidious danger of cathartically vented anger.

Despite the near-term subjective rewards of venting our anger, numerous studies have demonstrated that this “cathartic” process is actually associated with increased future levels of anger rather than the decreased levels predicted by classic cathartic theory.1–3,9 The act of venting anger has consistently been associated with increased levels of future anger whether venting is examined in its physical (e.g. punching a punching bag), verbal, written, or thought form. Interestingly, researchers have demonstrated that even just ruminating about our angry feelings—a form of “thought-venting”—increases levels of anger without needing to actually externalize our frustration in the form of words or actions.2

Unfortunately for our coworkers and loved ones, vented anger appears to generate collateral damage. In one study for example, half the participants were instructed to ruminate about a source of irritation while the other half did not. After a time, a confederate lab assistant entered the room and verbally fumbled through the instructions for what participants thought was the second part of the study. Those participants who ruminated (i.e. thought-vented) prior to encountering the fumbling confederate lab assistant were significantly more likely to act aggressively towards the lab assistant.3 Substantial literature supports this finding and the role of induced angry rumination in triggering displaced aggression towards innocent individuals who commit, what would normally be perceived as, minor infractions.

The increased levels of anger associated with venting are classically explained by Cognitive Neoassociation Theory. This theory asserts that aggressive thoughts and their associated emotions are linked together within an associative mnemonic network. Thus, when a single angry thought-emotion is activated it tends to enhance and activate other connected thought-emotion dyads.2 Consequently, not only does an angry thought-emotion have the potential to activate a network of similar angry thought-emotions, but it also serves to enhance and strengthen that same network.

Besides increasing the likelihood that aggression will be displaced onto the innocent, vented anger seems to be contagious. There is a substantial literature that supports the idea that emotions in general (not just anger) are communicable. We briefly explored this concept earlier in our discussion of interaction synchrony in which we found that conversing individuals unconsciously coordinate body movements, facial expressions, attitudes, vocal cadences, and emotions.10 But even barring this foreknowledge, the supposition that emotions are contagious may strike you as self-evident if you have ever left an encounter with a particularly positive friend feeling happier. But even so, the virulence with which emotions can be communicated may yet surprise you.

It turns out that you don’t even need to comprehend the content of someone’s speech to “catch” his or her emotion state. In one group of studies, researchers used distracting tasks in audio-only exposed participants to demonstrate that, even in the absence of visual or spoken content cues, participants were still “infected” by another’s emotion.11 Perhaps most disturbingly, a majority of participants were unaware that their emotions and feeling states had been influenced by another. Thus, emotions appear to be capable of unconscious transmission through expressive cues that may exist outside our awareness.

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It is important to note that the fact that emotions can be communicated via non-semantic, unconscious pathways doesn’t mean that this is the only route by which they are transmitted. We are empathic, social creatures who can not only intellectually appreciate another’s experiences, but we can also consciously feel these same experiences. Whether through a conscious appraisal of semantic cues (i.e. verbal content), body language, or vocal cadence, humans have incredible empathic capabilities. And perhaps not surprisingly for such an adaptive trait, individuals differ in their ability to transmit or absorb emotions. Some individuals are what researchers Kelly and Barsade have referred to as “good senders” or “good receivers” of emotion.10

In addition to the inherent emotional potency of our sending or receiving abilities, the power structure of a relationship strongly affects the transmissibility and direction of our emotional contagions. For instance, all things being equal, a superior (e.g. supervisor, boss, or higher “class” individual) has a disproportionate emotional contagion effect on his or her subordinate.12 And this disproportionality is made even more extreme if either party in the relationship is more of a good sender or receiver of emotions. For instance, a manager who is a good sender of emotion will impact a subordinate who is a good receiver over and above the degree predicted by their power differential.

It will likely come as no surprise that emotional contagions are not isolated to dyadic relationships and exist at the group level as well. Mean group emotion and feeling states can be predicted by leaders or high-status individuals within the group. Furthermore, negative emotion and feeling states of group leaders are not only associated with negative group emotion and feeling states, but also with impaired group effort and efficiency.12

It is important to reiterate that the contagious nature of emotions is not exclusive to negative emotions. These same empathic properties confer the ability to transmit positive emotions as well. So why is it that negative emotions have such an insidious power?

Error Management Theory suggests that humans may have evolved to be especially attuned to negative emotions. Over the course of evolutionary history, it was frequently better to err on the side of overreaction. For instance, if our ancestors alerted to a snake-shaped branch in our path, then they lived to see another day. However, if they did not alert to a snake-shaped snake in their path, then they may not be lucky enough to learn the error of their ways. This asymmetry in risk led to a bias to respond more strongly to so-called “false positive” signals than to “false negatives.” It was better to run from false positive snakes than to trip over false negative ones.13

The unfortunate byproduct of our evolutionary history is that we respond more to negative emotions than we do to positive emotions.14 This negativity bias served our ancestors very well and is still useful in certain situations; however, it makes negative emotions, such as those extruded during vented anger, all the more potent and transmissible.

So, what are we to do? Suppress or deny negative emotions?

We by no means intend to provide as our thesis the suggestion that negative emotions must be suppressed or denied. This would be akin to emptying the vacuum in the corner of the room instead of the trashcan. The world is a challenging and stressful place and negative stimuli will inevitably beget negative emotions. That being said, it is what we do with these negative emotions and feeling states that determines their long-term impact.

Professor Barbara Frederickson, PhD, in what has become a seminal paper in the positive psychology literature, described the “Broaden-and-Build Theory” of positive emotions. Professor Frederickson observed that negative emotions trigger “narrow” thoughts and behaviors—e.g. fear leads to an evolutionary appropriate fight, flight, or freeze thought and behavior pattern. Returning to our earlier thread of evolutionary reasoning, the narrowing nature of negative emotions makes sense when presented with mortal danger: far better to have fewer behavioral choices when you need to act quickly to save life and limb. The corollary of this negative emotion-narrowing paradigm is that positive emotions tend to lead towards “broad” thought and behavioral patterns. Thus, positive emotions allow individuals to broaden-and-build on thoughts and behaviors through facilitated curiosity, exploration, and interest.15

The important point to realize from the Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive and negative emotions is the parity with which it treats the two poles of emotional experience. There is nothing inherently bad about negative emotions in this view; in fact, they are useful and adaptive in a context that calls for a quick and decisive action. Negative emotions only become pathological when they are deployed outside of the appropriate context and displace more context-appropriate positive emotions.8

This context-specificity turns out to be a crucial aspect of understanding the hazards of cathartically vented anger. In a workplace context that is flexible and responsive to criticism, negative emotions can be articulated without incurring the toxic side effects associated with more classic, unconstructive venting. The difference between a critically expressed negative emotion and a more classically vented negative emotion is the difference between a constructive process and a destructive process. Although as human beings, we are exquisitely proficient at adapting to various environments, we are equally skilled at adapting our environment to us. Thus, in a workplace that is elastic and responsive to criticism, grievances have a constructive path to resolution. However, in corporate environments that are inelastic and unresponsive, grievances enter an echo chamber of organizational stasis. Let’s play this out.

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Overtime within an inelastic organization, grievances and the negative emotions associated with them can generalize and involve cognitive grievance/anger networks both within an individual and within a corporate culture. The positive immediate feelings associated with the vented anger reinforce the venting while the long-term increase in individual and corporate cultural anger is swept under the rug of our temporal emotional bias. This process leads to a self- and group-perpetuating process whereby immediate pleasure is insidiously supplanted by delayed exacerbations of anger, which in turn triggers ever more immediate pleasure-granting venting. Before long, our inelastic workplace will take on a pervasive culture of negativity.

Individuals most steeped in the culture of negativity are rewarded for their organizational time investment with promotions, placing them in managerial roles. In this position of power, these same individuals disproportionately perpetuate the culture of negativity in their subordinates. New hires, lacking the grinded intimacy with their work tasks necessary to breed high levels of anger and frustration, are still unconsciously infected with the negative emotions that permeate the office. When these new hires seek to explain their emotional infection, they are provided ample rationalizations from more veteran coworkers. And because they desire cognitive coherence, the new hires connect the transmitted anger to the culturally-instilled negativity myths. And thanks to cognitive fusion, these myths become subjective reality. Soon work effort decreases across the board as cultural negativity rises, which in turn leads to a decreased bottom line, resulting in increased managerial stress levels and a feedback worsening of cultural negativity.

Let’s stop our catastrophization here and explore how we might break free from this rather grim cycle.

As with most things, recognition is the first step towards resolution. It is important for subordinates to be self- and organizationally-aware, but perhaps even more so for management. We can leverage the asymmetric nature of emotional influence to our advantage and target management as leaders of change. Self-aware and positive management can transmit this positivity to their subordinates.

Organizations can foster a culture of constructive criticism and enhance structural elasticity to better respond to the shifting needs of workers and consumers. Rather than waiting for fire, management can respond to smoke and address concerns before they have a chance to erupt into widespread grievances.

The key to sustained organizational change is elasticity. Forced positive states or suppressed negative states are extremely psychologically taxing on an individual and cannot be sustained for long. Although the evidence reviewed today suggests that chronically venting our anger has numerous risks associated with it, if we are not given a constructive outlet with which to deal with emotional friction we will inevitably exhaust our emotional willpower and vent out of sheer necessity.

The remedy for the cathartic fallacy can be found both within the individual and at the group level. Our evolutionary history has instilled a reflex to fight, fly, or freeze in response to danger. Thus, if we wish to deal with a stressful situation without running or freezing we must fight. But it is up to us as individuals and as groups whether this fight manifests in the form of vented anger or constructive criticism. And if you take anything away from the research reviewed today, we hope it is that the stakes are high when we choose a methodology to deal with our frustration.

References

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  2. Bushman BJ. Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2002;28(6):724-731. doi:10.1177/0146167202289002.
  3. Bushman BJ, Bonacci AM, Pedersen WC, Vasquez EA, Miller N. Chewing on It Can Chew You Up: Effects of Rumination on Triggered Displaced Aggression. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2005;88(6):969-983. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.88.6.969.
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  6. Harris R. ACT Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications; 2009.
  7. Barsalou LW. Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Published August 1999. Accessed May 14, 2017.
  8. Hayes SC, Luoma JB, Bond FW, Masuda A, Lillis J. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behav Res Ther. 2006;44(1):1-25. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006.
  9. Martin RC, Coyier KR, VanSistine LM, Schroeder KL. Anger on the Internet: The Perceived Value of Rant-Sites. CyberPsychology Behav Soc Netw. 2013;16(2):119-122. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0130.
  10. Kelly JR, Barsade SG. Mood and Emotions in Small Groups and Work Teams. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process. 2001;86(1):99-130. doi:10.1006/obhd.2001.2974.
  11. Neumann R, Strack F. “Mood contagion”: The automatic transfer of mood between persons. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2000;79(2):211-223. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.79.2.211.
  12. Sy T, Côté S, Saavedra R. The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader’s Mood on the Mood of Group Members, Group Affective Tone, and Group Processes. J Appl Psychol. 2005;90(2):295-305. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.90.2.295.
  13. Haselton MG, Nettle D. The Paranoid Optimist: An Integrative Evolutionary Model of Cognitive Biases. Personal Soc Psychol Rev. 2006;10(1):47-66. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr1001_3.
  14. Rozin P, Royzman EB. Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion. Personal Soc Psychol Rev. 2001;5(4):296-320. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0504_2.
  15. Fredrickson BL. The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. Am Psychol. 2001;56(3):218-226.

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