Most scientists who study emotions focus on negative states: depression, anxiety, fear. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has spent more than twenty years investigating the relatively uncharted terrain of positive emotions, which she says can make us healthier and happier if we take time to cultivate them.
Fredrickson’s findings are the subject of her new book, Positivity (Crown). Though its title might make it sound like a self-help bestseller, the book doesn’t belong in the pop-psychology section, and Fredrickson is no Pollyanna telling us to put on a smile before leaving the house each morning. Negative emotions, she says, are necessary for us to flourish, and positive emotions are by nature subtle and fleeting; the secret is not to deny their transience but to find ways to increase their quantity. Rather than trying to eliminate negativity, she recommends we balance negative feelings with positive ones. Below a certain ratio of positive to negative, Fredrickson says, people get pulled into downward spirals, their behavior becomes rigid and predictable, and they begin to feel burdened and lifeless.
Fredrickson, who’s forty-four, was born and raised in the Midwest and comes from, in her words, “a long line of stoics” who didn’t discuss or reveal their emotions. When she was growing up, emotional expression — positive and negative — was discouraged. She says, “The implicit message from family members was ‘You should have known how I was feeling by the look on my face.’ Yet the looks on their faces hardly ever changed!” The suppression of emotions at home motivated her escape into the life of the mind, and she focused on her academic studies.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Carleton College in Minnesota, Fredrickson moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she received her PhD from Stanford University and did her postdoctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley. She began studying positive emotions because there was so little research on them, she says. A good friend in graduate school once joked that Fredrickson studied emotions because she didn’t have any. Fredrickson acknowledges the joke’s kernel of truth: she’s spent much of her adulthood becoming fluent in the emotions that were left unspoken in her childhood. She exemplifies the adage that we teach best what we most need to learn.
Fredrickson has been on the faculty of Duke University and the University of Michigan and is currently the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also serves as director and principal investigator of the university’s Positive Emotions and Psycho¬physiology Lab. Fredrickson’s research has been featured in the New York Times Magazine and on CNN and PBS. Her theory of how positive emotions have functioned in human evolution was recognized with the 2000 American Psychological Association’s Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology. Since then, she has traveled extensively as an international expert on positive emotions, and in 2008 she received the Society for Experimental Social Psychology’s Career Trajectory Award.
Fredrickson and I arranged to meet for this interview at a restaurant we both enjoy in Carrboro, North Carolina. The owners graciously allowed us to come in before they opened for the day so we could have a quiet spot to talk. Fredrickson arrived dressed smartly in black with a Parisian scarf around her neck, and we settled into a booth to discuss the benefits of increasing positive emotions in our lives. The name of the restaurant, appropriately enough, is GlassHalFull.
Winter: How do you define “positive emotions?”
Fredrickson: If we look at a whole range of positive emotions — from amusement, to awe, to interest, to gratitude, to inspiration — what they all have in common is that they are reactions to your current circumstances. They aren’t a permanent state; they’re feelings that come and go. That’s true of all emotions, but positive emotions tend to be more fleeting.
They are also what I would call “wantable” states. They not only feel good, but we want to feel them. Some people might say it feels good to be angry, and anger can sometimes be useful or productive, but people don’t want to feel angry. Positive emotions have a kind of alluring glitter dust on them. You want to rearrange your day to get more of those sparkling moments.
Even so, people do differ in how much they actively seek out positive emotions. One of my aims in writing my book was to increase readers’ appreciation and respect for positive emotions so they could perhaps reap the benefits of positive emotions more fully.
Winter: You make a distinction between pleasures and positive emotions. How are they different?
Fredrickson: When I began my work, many scientists lumped pleasure and positive emotions together and concluded that both signal us to go forward as opposed to pull back. I agree that positive emotions have that go-forward quality, but I’ve argued for separating the two psychological states. Positive emotions are triggered by our interpretations of our current circumstances, whereas pleasure is what we get when we give the body what it needs right now. If you’re thirsty, water tastes really good; if you’re cold, it feels good to wrap your coat around you. Pleasures tell us what the body needs. Positive emotions tell us not just what the body needs but what we need mentally and emotionally and what our future selves might need. They help us broaden our minds and our outlook and build our resources down the road. I call it the “broaden-and-build” effect.
Winter: What about happiness? Is it a positive emotion?
Fredrickson: Scientists most often measure happiness by asking how strongly a person agrees with statements like “I’m satisfied with my life” or “If I could live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” These kinds of questions are much broader in scope than questions that are used to meas¬ure positive emotions, such as “Are you feeling amused, silly, or lighthearted?” Positive emotions are much more narrow-band feelings, not overall judgments about your life. Sometimes we use happy to refer to a specific emotion, but, scientifically speaking, it’s not OK to use a single word, like happy, in multiple ways. I view happiness as the overall outcome of many positive moments.
My goal as a scientist has always been to pull apart the process of how one state leads to another and ultimately guides us to a useful outcome. Over the last decade researchers have found some stunning correlations between expressing more positive emotions and living longer. My role is to ask, How does that happen? How do you go from experiencing these pleasant momentary states to living longer — perhaps even ten years longer?
Other researchers have found that the number of positive emotions a person feels predicts his or her satisfaction with life. What we’ve done is uncover how positive emotions actually cause us to be happier by helping us build our resources for managing day-to-day life. When we have better resources, we emerge from adverse situations feeling more satisfied with the outcome.
My colleagues and I have a paper forthcoming in the journal Emotion called “Happiness Unpacked.” We’re trying to take this word happiness, which is a little bit of a garbage-can term — people put too many things in it — and look under the hood at the dynamics of the process. And what we’ve found is that we should be focusing on how we feel from day to day, not on how we can become happy with life in general. If you focus on day-to-day feelings, you end up building your resources and becoming your best version of yourself. Down the road, you’ll be happier with life. Rather than staring down happiness as our goal and asking ourselves, “How do I get there?” we should be thinking about how to create positive emotions in the moment.
Winter: Aren’t there cultural differences in which emotions we define as “positive?”
Fredrickson: Yes, what have been studied the most are differences between East Asian and Western populations. The typical finding is that Westerners (Americans and Canadians, mostly) feel positive emotions when they do something that sets them apart; they feel pride in their accomplishments. East Asians more often feel positive emotions in situations that connect them to another person. Those are just general trends, however. Within each culture there’s a lot of variance.
I would argue, too, that how much people appreciate positive emotions differs from culture to culture. Latin cultures, for example, celebrate positive emotions more and have more passions built into the culture. In the U.S. I think that our focus on productivity, outcome, and achievement helps blind us to positive emotions.
But positive emotions seem to function the same way in all cultures. For example, we’ve created a study examining how positive emotions help people feel “at one” with another person. We have people think about their best friends and then look at a series of images showing two circles. First the circles overlap a little bit, then a little bit more, and a little bit more. We ask the research participants to select the pair of circles that depict how they feel about their best friend. Then we cause the participants to experience some positive emotions and have them fill out a similar survey, which includes more items so that they can’t remember which circles they chose the first time. When we ask how they feel about their best friends now, people pick circles that overlap more, indicating more of this feeling of oneness. We’ve been able to replicate those results in India and Japan, as well.
Winter: Is that a typical example of the type of research that you do?
Fredrickson: We do lots of different studies. I like to follow the ideas rather than stick to one particular method. In the early days more of our research was physiological: we were looking at blood pressure, heart rate, and so on. In another series of studies we trained people in lovingkindness meditation, which focuses on creating more feelings of warmth and kindness toward others. You’re first asked to think of someone in your life for whom you have warm and tender feelings, whether it’s a child or a spouse or even a pet, and then to try to bring forth those feelings as much as you can and hold them in your heart. As you’re doing that, you let the child or pet or person you were thinking about kind of slip away, but you hold on to the feeling. Then you take that warm, tender feeling and apply it to yourself or to others whom you might not normally feel that way about. And you continue to apply that feeling to ever larger circles of people.
We had a study come out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in November 2008 called “Open Hearts Build Lives.” We looked at the effects of lovingkindness meditation on people’s resources. We gave the research participants a survey to take stock of their personality traits, health, and social ties at the start of the study, then randomly assigned them either to learn lovingkindness meditation or not. All of them tracked their emotions daily for two months, and then, a few weeks after the meditation workshops had ended, we measured those same traits again. We found that the participants who learned to meditate were doing much better than when they’d started. More important, the ones doing the best were the same ones who reported increases in positive emotions during the workshop. If people learned the meditation but didn’t feel more positive emotions from it, they didn’t experience any benefits down the road. So we were able to attribute the benefits not to learning lovingkindness meditation but to the daily increase in positive emotions that most participants got from it. Over time positive emotions literally change who we are.
Winter: What are the specific benefits of positive emotions?
Fredrickson: When people increase their daily diets of positive emotions, they find more meaning and purpose in life. They also find that they receive more social support — or perhaps they just notice it more, because they’re more attuned to the give-and-take between people. They report fewer aches and pains, headaches, and other physical symptoms. They show mindful awareness of the present moment and increased positive relations with others. They feel more effective at what they do. They’re better able to savor the good things in life and can see more possible solutions to problems. And they sleep better.
Winter: A graduate student of yours from the University of Michigan spearheaded a study of race bias and positive emotions.
Fredrickson: Yes, that finding is huge. Kareem Johnson was the student. He’s now on the faculty at Temple University. He was interested in how we perceive other people’s faces. It’s well-known that we perceive objects by looking at their features. If we see a coffee mug, for example, we might notice that it’s blue and narrow at the top. But we perceive faces as a whole. We don’t think, I’ve seen these eyes before, or, I’ve seen that nose before. In fact, we have this holistic perception of anything with which we’re expertly familiar. Expert bird-watchers perceive birds as a whole, for example, whereas novice bird-watchers notice individual features. In a way we’re all experts at human faces.
Johnson thought that since positive emotions make people think broadly or holistically, people should be better at recognizing faces when they’re in a positive emotional state. So he showed research participants a set of faces on two occasions to see how many they could remember. When his results came back inconclusive, we were all frustrated. An effect was there, but it wasn’t large or reliable. So we broke the data down in different ways. We separated men and women, and, noticing that he’d used both Asian faces and white faces in the study, we broke it down by race. And that’s when we found something unexpected: positive emotions had no effect whatsoever on the ability of white participants to recognize white faces, but there was an effect on their ability to recognize Asian faces. We found that positive emotions increased the ability to recognize cross-race faces only — that is, the Asian faces for white participants. In later studies we replicated the finding with whites’ ability to recognize black faces.
And the positive emotional state didn’t just make it a little bit easier for participants to recognize cross-race faces. It made it no different than recognizing faces of the participants’ own race. It was as if race was gone from people’s minds — at least, in terms of face recognition. Scientists had earlier determined that when people look at cross-race faces, they look at individual features: a nose, an eyebrow . . .
Winter: They’re objectifying.
Fredrickson: Exactly. They use the same process they use to recognize objects, which suggests there’s some dehumanization going on. The implications of that are heart wrenching. But what we’re finding is that, under the influence of positive emotions, people use the same holistic process for cross-race faces that they use for faces of their own race. It’s as if people, when they’re feeling good, are better able to see the full humanity of people of a different race.
Johnson did another study in which we took a white face and a black face and used morphing software to create faces that were a blend of the two. We created morphs that were 10 percent white, 20 percent white, and all the other gradations along the way. We then presented the faces one at a time to participants — who knew they were looking at morphed pictures — and asked, “Does the photo have more of the black face or more of the white face in it?” Under normal circumstances, people were good at being able to say whether the morphed picture had more of the white face or more of the black face in it. But when they were experiencing positive emotions, people became worse at that task. They failed at drawing distinctions between the races and identifying which features were “other.”
What I especially like about the face-recognition work is that it’s related to broadened thinking — if you have more-inclusive views, you’re able to recognize more individuals — and also to building resources, because the first step in building a relationship is recognizing a person. If you’re not sure whether you talked to this person last week, you’re going to hold back on saying hello to him or her. There’s no going forward in a relationship until you can correctly identify whom you’re talking to. [Laughs.] I think this finding is especially important in a global environment if we wish truly to connect as people.
Winter: Could you tell me about your collaboration with business consultant Marcial Losada?
Fredrickson: He contacted me in 2003, just a few weeks after I’d had my second son, and said he had a mathematical model that he thought articulated my broaden-and-build theory. He was looking at group behavior among business teams in a way that was compatible with how I had been talking about individ¬uals broadening their capacity, building their resources over time, and showing resilience. It was a very unlikely collaboration, however. Though he’d gotten his PhD in psychology decades earlier, he’d just retired from a long career in industry and was doing business consulting. Mathematical modeling was his hobby. He didn’t have a research lab at the time — just a laptop at his dining-room table and loads of data from past observations of business teams.
The first day we met, Losada ran mathematical models for me on his laptop, showing what was going on in these business teams — how one person’s positive or negative behavior influenced another’s and how dynamics developed over time. Losada told me he could calculate the exact “positivity ratio” that would predict a group’s success. I offered to test his ratio against data that I had collected to see whether it held up in other contexts, as well. We decided that, if the data cooperated, we would write a paper together.
Winter: What sort of studies had Losada conducted?
Fredrickson: He had been studying sixty business teams as they did annual strategic planning. These weren’t fake meetings arranged for research; they were real planning sessions. Losada had a team of assistants behind one-way mirrors listen in and record every statement that was made and identify it as “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.” The research assistants also recorded whether people were focused inward on the group or were thinking about the larger context surrounding the organization, and whether people were advocating their own point of view or were asking questions and trying to pick up new information.
Later, drawing upon independent business metrics, he was able to rank the sixty business teams’ performances. The really successful, high-performing teams had about a six-to-one ratio of positive to negative statements, whereas the low-performing teams had ratios of less than one to one, meaning that more than half of what was said was negative. People on the high-performing teams had an even balance between asking questions and advocating for their own points of view, and also an equal measure of focusing outward and focusing within the group. The low-performing teams had asked almost no questions and almost never focused outside the group. They exhibited a self-absorbed advocacy: nobody was listening to each other — they were all just waiting to talk.
Losada took this behavioral data and wrote algebraic equations that reflected how each stream — the questioning, the positivity, and the outward-inward focus — related to the others. He learned that his equations matched a set of existing equations called the Lorenz System, which is famous in nonlinear dynamics because it led to the discovery of chaos theory, sometimes called the “butterfly effect” — the idea that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in one location can set in motion a series of events that causes a hurricane on the other side of the globe.
When Losada used these equations to plot the dynamics of the high-performing and low-performing business teams, you could see how, in the high-performing teams, one person’s question led to another person’s positivity. You could see that the two groups, high- and low-performing, were not just different in degree; they were different in kind. Underneath the dynamics for the high-performing teams was what physicists call a “complex chaotic attractor,” which produces unpredictable or novel outcomes. So high-performing teams produced novel creative results. Under¬neath the structure of low-performing teams was a “fixed-point attractor” that caused the teams to spiral down to a dead end. There were also medium-performing teams, which showed some creativity, and at times it looked as if a complex chaotic attractor was trying to emerge, but then a moment of intense negativity would occur, and they’d never bounce back. What’s interesting is that the negativity always arose within the realm of self-absorbed advocacy and not asking any questions. That’s where the fixed-point attractor lies.
Winter: What was the ratio that Losada gave you?
Fredrickson: Using the Lorenz equations, we were able to algebraically predict that a ratio of three positive events to one negative event should be the tipping point where things become chaotic — in a good sense — and a medium-performing team becomes a high-performing one. (Losada would bristle at my use of three to one. He would say 2.901 to 1 is the ratio, because when you get into the mathematics, precision is critical.)
I tested that ratio against my own data in one study after another. Each time I found support for the idea that the three-to-one ratio is a tipping point. I pored through the scientific literature and found other scientists who were examining how positive and negative emotions balanced each other out, and I found still more evidence consistent with Losada’s math. As soon as we saw how consistent the evidence was, we started writing that paper, which appeared in American Psychologist in 2005.
I feel fortunate to have played a role in that discovery. It wasn’t just adding to the scientific literature on emotions; it was about life and how to live it. I started to feel that this is important information for people to know about themselves. If we’re aware of the tipping-point ratio, it could make a big difference in how we choose to live our lives. That’s what compelled me to write the book.
I’ve looked at my own life differently since then, too. We discovered the ratio just after my second son was born, and the discovery definitely changed the way I thought about parenting. When your kids are young, your reactions help shape how they perceive their experiences — whether they’re going to feel good or bad about what just happened. You’re the sculptor of their emotional lives. We tend to tell toddlers, “No, no, no,” all the time. My work made me think there needs to be more playfulness in my parenting, more emphasis on stepping back and following the child’s interest. On some level I think parents know this, but the three-to-one ratio provides a yardstick against which I can assess how a day went. It motivates me to make sure the negativity I send my sons’ way is necessary and in proper proportion with the positivity I offer them. I want to make sure that my boys have the ability to express whatever they’re feeling and to follow their interests. I think that was missing when I was growing up, and it led me to go upstairs into my head and carve a life out of staying up there.
Winter: Is three to one the ideal ratio?
Fredrickson: No, three to one is the tipping point. The healthiest thing would be to aim above that — four to one, five to one, or even six to one. Actually, there’s research that suggests married couples who share about a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions with one another are in solid marriages. In marriages that are not doing well or are on a slippery slope toward divorce, the ratio is more like one to one or less. And there’s not a lot of in-between. Couples seem either to find a steady state at about five to one, or else slide down into negativity.
In general the epidemiological data show that only 20 percent of Americans are flourishing. The rest are either languishing or just getting by. Maybe they remember a time in their lives when things were coming together easily; there wasn’t a lot of self-concern, self-scrutiny, or self-loathing because they were focused outward and contributing to the world. But now they’re just doing the minimum necessary to get by. This “just getting by” mode is not depression or mental illness. It’s merely people living lives of quiet despair. Upwards of 60 percent of the adult population feel like they’re going through the motions. It makes me want to share the news about this work and get people back to those times when they were flourishing.
Winter: When you say “flourishing,” what do you mean?
Fredrickson: Flourishing encompasses both feeling satisfied with your life and also functioning well in it. The way psychologists measure that second part is to assess whether people feel as if they are learning, growing, and making contributions to society.
Winter: How has your study of positive emotions been received in the academic community? What criticisms and support have you received?
Fredrickson: Positive psychology was founded about a decade ago, but I’ve been doing work on positive emotions for almost two decades, so for many years I worked in relative isolation and didn’t draw critical attention. Since Marty Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, founded positive psychology, the field has grown like wildfire, with lots of interest both within and outside academia, but it’s also garnered a fair amount of criticism. Some of the criticism, I think, is based on a misunderstanding of positive psychology: that we’re saying you should feel positive all the time, and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t; or that we’re saying the negative side of life isn’t worth studying.
Traditional psychology started out mimicking medicine. Because medicine was all about diagnosing, treating, and curing diseases, psychology focused on diagnosing, treating, and curing mental illnesses. And psychology developed its scientific rigor through its efforts to understand pathology. What Seligman did was take that scientific rigor and direct it toward understanding human potential. He challenged the field to look at what makes life worth living; what a healthy person looks like, rather than a suffering one.
But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on understanding and treating mental illness. I’m collaborating on a project in which we are trying to teach people with schizophrenia loving¬kindness meditation to help with the symptoms of their disease that you don’t hear so much about: the zapped motivation and flattened emotional life.
I also think some critiques of positive psychology arise from the belief that if you’re a hard-nosed intellectual, you can’t think being happy is good. There’s a famous paper in psychology called “Happy but Mindless?” which suggests that people who are happy are somehow bubble-headed softies, not critical of the world and therefore not intellectuals. I think that’s a distorted stereotype that highly critical people cultivate to justify their own negativity. [Laughs.] Being positive or negative isn’t about being smart or dumb; it’s about thinking broadly or narrowly. Whether thinking broadly is useful or not depends on the situation you’re in. It’s just a different style of thinking. In some circumstances it can help you be more creative.
Some people never get past a superficial impression of positive psychology, but those who do often say there’s much more depth to it than they thought. I have also had people say to me, “I don’t like positive psychology, but I like your work.” [Laughs.] My goal is to encourage people to see that there’s far more to positive emotions than just feeling good.
Winter: As I was searching online for critiques of the positive-psychology field, I was surprised to find English teachers weighing in — in particular, Eric G. Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, who’s written a book called Against Happiness. He and others argue that sorrow, melancholy, and other so-called negative emotions stimulate people to reflect deeply, to plumb the depths of the psyche, and to generate works of art. Do you think negativity is something to be avoided or minimized?
Fredrickson: Not at all. Actually we’ve found that negativity is required for flourishing. The beauty of having a mathematical model, as Losada and I did, is that you can test hypothetical worlds, such as a world with almost no negativity. What would that lead to? We ran the mathematical model with a hundred-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions, and the complex, beautiful butterfly dynamics just dissolved.
Nobody in positive psychology is advocating full-time, 100 percent happiness. The people who do best in life don’t have zero negative emotions. In the wake of traumas and difficulties, the people who are most resilient have a complex emotional reaction in which they’re able to hold the negative and the positive side by side. Say you’re in mourning for a spouse, but you’re still able to laugh or feel blessed when you appreciate the deceased’s good qualities, or to appreciate that your neighbors are taking such good care of you. It doesn’t mean that you’re not deeply pained by the death. And the positive emotions you feel are quiet, more reverent. Denying the negative and painting on the positive is unhealthy, and anybody who makes it their goal never to express a negative emotion quickly drives everyone away from them, because we know their positivity isn’t real. And the reason we know it’s not real is that emotions should reflect our circumstances, and nobody goes through life with 100 percent good circumstances. There’s no escaping loss, grief, trauma, and insult.
Winter: The Sun has sometimes been criticized for being “too sad.” In fact, many of the essays and stories we publish describe difficult experiences or emotions. I’ve wondered whether negative stories carry more weight or are simply more compelling.
Fredrickson: Negative events do grab people’s attention far more than positive ones. In psychology this is called the “negativity bias.” Our brains are wired to scan for perennial threats like the ones our ancestors faced. Yet there’s another psychological finding that gets talked about less called the “positivity offset.” It says that even though the negative grabs more attention, most moments in life — if you evaluate them one by one — are actually positive. So the opportunities to experience positive emotions are much more abundant. Indeed, negative emotions grab our attention partly because they’re relatively rare in day-to-day living.
Negative experiences can demand our attention so much that it takes self-discipline, willpower, and practice not to focus solely on them, and to look at all that’s positive in our situation, as well. Negativity doesn’t always feel like a choice; it feels like it just lands on you, and you have to deal with it. Positive emotions, I think, are more of a choice.
Winter: Isn’t focusing on positive emotions a luxury available to only those who can afford it? What about people who are mired in conflict, or poverty, or awful social conditions?
Fredrickson: I think positive emotions are available to everybody. There’s been research done with people in slums across the globe and with prostitutes, looking at their well-being and satisfaction with life. The data suggest that positive emotions have less to do with material resources than we might think; it’s really about your attitude and approach to your circumstances. Hard lives often appear worse to the outside observer. If we see somebody living on the streets, we think that person’s life must be awful every minute. We think that having certain illnesses or physical limitations must be terrible all the time. But if you study people who have these illnesses or live on the streets, you find that they still feel good when they are with their friends or families, and they feel excited when they encounter something new, and so forth. It’s in the ordinary transactions of life — being with others and following your interests — that positive emotions grow.
That said, I have done some studies that show that when people are fearful or threatened — when they don’t feel “safe and satiated,” as I would put it — they have far fewer positive emotions. I analyzed data from a recent Gallup World Poll. They asked questions like “Do you feel you have enough resources to feed your family every day?” and “Do you have a roof to sleep under every night?” Other questions were indicators of whether people found their environment to be safe: “If you lost your wallet, would someone return it to you?” or “Have you been assaulted in the past year?” In my analysis of these data, I determined that people who don’t feel safe and satiated have fewer positive emotions because they’re too worried about survival, their next meal, or how to clothe their children. So there are some bedrock conditions that need to be met. Once they are met, though, even at a very low level, everyone has the same opportunities to experience positive emotions. Affluence isn’t necessary.
Winter: What are some ways to increase one’s positivity?
Fredrickson: One way is to be aware of the present moment, because, again, most moments are positive. We miss many opportunities to experience positive emotions now by thinking too much about the past or worrying about the future, rather than being open to what is.
Another way is to pay attention to human kindness — not only what others have done for you, which helps unlock feelings of gratitude, but also what you can do for other people, how you can make somebody’s day. We found that even just paying attention to when you are kind — not necessarily increasing how often you’re kind, but just paying attention to the times when you are — can make you more positive.
Another simple technique is going outside in good weather. One of my former students, Matt Keller, who’s now on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that people who spend even just thirty minutes outside when the weather is good show an improvement in their mood.
There are more-involved ways to increase your positive emotions, such as to practice either mindfulness meditation or lovingkindness meditation. You can also rearrange your life around your strengths. Ask yourself: Am I really doing what I do best? Being employed in a job that uses your skills is a great source of enduring positive emotions.
Winter: You’ve written that emotions are contagious, and that certainly seems to be the case when somebody is always spreading negative ones. How can we deal with the negativity of others?
Fredrickson: I hear that a lot: “It’s not my negativity that’s a problem; it’s theirs.” [Laughs.] I think no difficult person is 100 percent horrid. Well, you may come up with some historical exceptions, but there are usually small things that you can appreciate about any person. Sometimes the best solution is to have less contact with somebody, but I think we change and grow more when we continue to connect. Ask yourself: What can I change about my approach to this person that might lead us to a different place? I call this “social aikido,” a way to defuse others’ negativity without harming them or yourself. Maybe there are certain tasks that you shouldn’t do with this person. If every time you try to do task A together you’re at each other’s throats, maybe you can arrange to do other tasks with him or her.
Winter: What are your thoughts about pharmaceutical approaches to mental health?
Fredrickson: I don’t do research on psychopharmacology, but my take, simply as a professional in the field, is that there are certain circumstances in which a person has no initial seeds from which positive emotions can grow. This condition is called “anhedonia.” Drug treatment is often necessary to get such people off rock bottom.
It’s also true that 60 percent of people who are given a placebo for depression get better. I think that placebos work on people who don’t have anhedonia; who still have some positive emotions, like hope, from which they can build a path to recovery.
Winter: Inspired by your work with Losada, you’ve written that people who flourish become “beautifully unpredictable.” What is the value of unpredictability?
Fredrickson: Acting in unexpected ways is necessary for growth. Nobody grows by doing the same thing every day.
In natural selection random genetic variation leads to new traits, even new species. Children are not exact replicas of their parents. There’s always some random genetic combination that can lead to new skills and attributes. Similarly I think that being “beautifully unpredictable” is essential for our individual evolution.
Winter: Is there one positive emotion that seems to be more beneficial than others?
Fredrickson: No, all positive emotions appear to generate equally good outcomes. There are certain positive emotions that are easier to elicit, such as gratitude, because it’s possible to cultivate at any given moment. Awe or amusement, on the other hand, requires specific situations.
Winter: How has your work changed you?
Fredrickson: I got into science because I’m a typical intellectual, ivory-tower person — not driven by emotions, very focused on achievement and success. Living in my head got me through difficult times when I was younger and helped me become a great student. But I think it disconnected me from my heart. So the biggest change for me has been to realize that achievement, recognition, and success are not everything. I have workaholic tendencies, but my work tells me: Enjoy the moment.
Winter: Can you give me an example of a time when you had to draw on what you’ve learned in your work?
Fredrickson: I took a faculty seminar in integrative medicine at the University of Michigan. The approach was experiential. We were encouraged to participate as patients, to see integrative-medicine practitioners ourselves. I thought, What? You don’t want us to just read about it? [Laughs.] But I accepted the challenge. That year I realized that I was forty years old and had never learned self-care. I knew only how to work, how to achieve. Till then I’d lived off my youthful energy reserves. But by age forty those were dwindling. I was carrying extra weight from having had two kids, and I had workaholic habits and bad back and joint pain. I didn’t know how to get well except by pushing myself, saying, I need to work harder at the gym. I needed to learn how to take care of myself.
I realized that self-care needed to be guided by positivity. Looking for new ways to exercise, I came across a dance class that was about being joyful. It taught me to see being active as pleasurable. Before that, I had viewed exercise only as “work,” and I’d always get bored and wouldn’t stick with it. Now, because I crave the sheer joy of movement, I keep moving. It helped me lose thirty-five pounds last year.
As a mother, I had to learn in almost an intellectual fashion how to take care of my kids. I was an extraordinarily anxious new mom. I would ask my husband, “What do I do with the baby?” And he’d say, “If you were the baby, what would you want?” He had a much better intuition for parenting. I’m lucky to have had him to teach me.
Winter: Do you track your own positivity ratio?
Fredrickson: No, not formally. But I do make a conscious attempt each day to cultivate my own and others’ positivity and to appreciate the possibilities life has given me, because you never know when the next blast of negativity will show up.
To accompany the book, I created a free website where people can track their positivity: PositivityRatio.com. Tracking helps you to become more mindful of your sources of positive and negative emotions the same way that keeping a food diary helps you become more mindful of your eating habits or a budget helps you become more mindful of your spending. After you get a feel for it and your habits are where you want them to be, you don’t need the tracking tools so much. But they can be a good place to start.
I wanted to write a book about the positivity ratio because it’s so practical. It moves the findings from description to prescription. Many scientists are hesitant to prescribe, but it’s not a prescription for what to think or what to do. It’s a prescription for how to tell whether what you’re thinking and doing is moving you in the right direction.
Winter: Are you happier now than you used to be?
Fredrickson: Happier isn’t the right word. I feel I’m more aware and more mindful, and I feel more alive, and I yearn to keep feeling this way. I have a better appreciation of what life can be and a humbleness about what I need to do to foster goodness in the world. I’m a student of my work, not a finished product.