Barbara L. Fredrickson

There have been mountains of scientific research conducted on how fear, sadness, grief, depression, anxiety, worry, and dozens of other negative emotions affect our well-being. Oddly enough, however, there has been very little hard science devoted to the impact of positive emotions. That is, until the work of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

An award-winning researcher and teacher, Fredrickson is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UNC. She has also become the leading figure in scientific research on positivity, perhaps best known through her eponymous book on the subject. Her work has been featured in the
New York Times Sunday Magazine, US News & World Report, USA Today, O magazine, and on CNN and PBS.

For this issue on the Power of Words, we thought Barbara’s investigations of the power of feelings would be the perfect complement to Kevin Hall’s explorations of the power of words. We reached her at her laboratory on a busy pre-holiday Friday and she graciously made the time to answer our questions, which left us feeling positively wonderful. — J.D.M


How did you first get on the trail of this work?

I have been a psychologist for decades, and had the good fortune of getting involved in research on emotions about twenty years ago, when this whole area was first becoming revitalized.

It became very clear to me that most of the science was on negative emotions. Actually, that’s not terribly surprising; it more or less follows the prevalent disease model of modern medicine, where we look for problems and try to solve them.

What was interesting to me was that the big questions about positive emotions—Why do we have positive emotions? What are they good for? How did they evolve?—all of these were still wide open. Nobody was really asking these questions.

In all the various pursuits I’ve studied throughout my career, I have always relished the challenge of a new frontier. I love working on questions nobody else is asking.

So was it the fact that it was uncharted terrain that drew you to the topic, more than the topic itself?

I tell a story in the book about how a good friend who was also an emerging emotion scientist at the time told me, “You study emotions because you have none.” She was accusing me of being generally Spock-like!

Of course, it’s a pure fiction to say that someone doesn’t have emotions. Everybody has emotions, whether they acknowledge them or not. And when we don’t acknowledge how our emotions are shaping us, whether those are negative or positive emotions, we don’t have access to the steering wheel of our life, so, we end up kind of just pushing our way through as if we’re in a bumper car, instead of really steering our way through.

But I do think that over the years, my research on positive emotions has also been a teacher to me on how to live with more balance and have more life in life.

Is it easier to put our finger on negative emotions, or are they just sexier? Do they call out more for attention?

It’s all of those things, and they are all related. There’s a wonderful summary in a 2001 scientific article from the Review of General Psychology entitled, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.” The article summarized decades of work to show that negative experiences and events grab our attention much more thoroughly than do their positive counterparts. For example, losing $100 feels worse than winning $100 feels good.

Actually, that asymmetry is there for very good reasons. For our ancestors, the kinds of circumstances that would elicit negative emotions could often be life-or-death situations, so it would not be wise to be casual about whether or not we attend to them.

Whether or not we pay close attention to our positive emotions is seldom going to be a life-or-death matter, but more typically one of a missed opportunity versus capitalized opportunity.

So our attention is less riveted by positive things, because the consequences of these emotions are not as dire as for when we ignore negative emotions.

Exactly. That’s the core asymmetry between positive and negative: negative feelings hit us much harder and grab our attention more thoroughly than positive feelings. And that’s hard-wired.

Here is another, equally fascinating asymmetry: if you look at the distribution of good and bad events in the world and in people’s lives, it favors the positive by far. Positive events are more frequent than negative events, and therefore positive feelings are more frequent than negative feelings—yet those feelings grab our attention far less.

Our studies showed that the typical person, one with no depression or anxiety disorder, might experience positive to negative emotions in a ratio of about 2:1. To function at high levels and be truly thriving and flourishing requires operating at a positive to negative emotion ratio of more than 3:1.

How did you determine that golden ratio?

This grew out of a collaboration with a psychologist whose specialty is in mathematical modeling, and who had gathered some rich data on business teams.

He started by observing his subjects in hour-long meetings where they worked on five-year plans and things like that. He recorded everything said in these meetings and rated every statement according to whether it was positive, neutral or negative; whether it was asking a question (what he called an “inquiry”) or advocating the speaker’s own point of view, that is, whether it had the character of being more open or more firmly set; and whether the statement showed an other-focus and orientation outside the group or a more insular focus.

He looked at how these variables interrelated and correlated over time, and from that, he created a mathematical model of the behavior he observed.

After completing this study, he got in touch with me and said he thought he might have a model that described my own theory of how positive emotions evolved and the value they hold for us today.

We eventually connected and found the commonalities in our research. He came up with a mathematical model that yielded the precise ratio that spelled the difference between high-functioning and just doing okay.

We tested this ratio in a variety of different contexts to see whether it held up in very different circumstances. What we found was that in every case, ratios above 3:1 uniquely describe people who are flourishing, and ratios below 3:1 describe everybody else.

So this is something like an emotional pH test.

In a way, yes. And the sad fact is that very few people score above 3:1—probably fewer than 20 percent in the U.S.

It’s amazing that this cutoff point is such a clear delineation.

It is amazing. Of course, there are some important cautions here. This ratio is measured with the most precise tools we have, but these are not entirely foolproof, because they rely on how truthfully and accurately people report their emotions.

I offer this as a prescription in my book, with all the caveats a scientist would include with any prescription: assuming people aren’t out to deceive themselves about what they’re experiencing, and so on.

And there is some way we can accurately assess this ratio in ourselves?

Yes; on our web site, PositivityRatio.com, there is a free online version of the test I use in my research. This Positivity Self-Test takes only a minute or two, and it computes people’s positivity score, their negativity score, and their ratio.

You can use this just as you would step on a scale to check your weight, or the way a nutritionist would advise you to keep track of what you eat and your activity levels in order to meet your fitness goals.

To get a handle on what ratio really describes one’s life, I suggest taking this test every evening for a few weeks, and then continue tracking it as you make changes in your life.

A number of organizations and professionals are using this; personal coaches use it with their clients, wellness programs use it to help increase their employees’ emotional vitality, and so forth.

I’m intrigued by something you’ve said: that trying to force positive emotions can create “toxic insincerity.”

That’s right.

This seems to run counter to what so many salespeople have been taught: Fake it until you make it. Act enthusiastic!

There is some really fascinating science that shows that insincere smiles, for instance, can be as harmful to the cardiovascular system as expressions of hostility and contempt, and that masking a negative feeling with a positive veneer is actually damaging, physiologically as well as interpersonally.

Sometimes putting on a smile may shift your perspective enough so that genuine positive emotions might be eventually sparked. But the key is to keep your eyes on the make it part, as opposed to the fake it part.

You also say the attempt to totally eliminate negativity would be futile and counterproductive.

Exactly. One thing I really appreciate about the 3:1 ratio—and this has been supported by our studies—is that it’s wide enough to encompass all emotions. There’s no emotion that you have to forever banish from your repertoire. It’s a matter of keeping our negative experiences in proper proportion to our positive experiences.

I make a separation between what I call necessary and gratuitous negativity. Gratuitous negativity is negativity that loses its tether to current circumstances.

We know that negative comments and expressions get people’s attention, and just as the media is often accused of doing —“If it bleeds, it leads”—we sometimes use expressions of negativity just to get attention or to keep things interesting.

For example?

Gossip, biting sarcasm, things like that. These are the kinds of negativity to single out for reduction.

On the other hand, when you encounter an injustice in life, you certainly do want to get angry and use the energy of that anger to try to make the situation better. And when you lose someone you love, you certainly want to mourn. It would be inappropriate to go through that kind of experience with a sunny attitude.

And then there’s forced or faux positivity.

We all know people who give us perhaps too much positivity, even when the circumstances don’t call for it. That is, they’re not being empathic to our difficulties. In fact, being overly positive can drive people away from us.

One message from my research that many people find reassuring is that negative emotions are important for flourishing, too.

Negativity is important. The key here is to look at the balance. Positive and negative can’t be given equal weight, because of that well-documented asymmetry. Negative is stronger than positive, so if positive emotions are going to keep pace with and outweigh negative emotions, we need to have them in greater numbers.

The idea of “gratuitous negativity” fascinates me. I think about things like ruminating over past grudges or perceived injustices from last week or last month. So is it a matter of having an authentic response to the situation, but then moving on?

Exactly. One characteristic of resilient people we’ve observed in our work is that their emotions are very much tied to current circumstances.

People who are less resilient are more likely to worry about what-ifs in the future, or to perseverate on something bad that happened in the past but is now safely behind us.

Resilient people are more emotionally nimble. They experience negative emotions when faced with negative circumstances, but when those negative circumstances are resolved or gone, they quickly reset back to a baseline of mild positivity.

Resilient people also tend to have a complex emotional mix of reactions in the midst of difficult circumstances. They can feel anxious and worried, while at the same time feeling grateful and loving.

Less resilient people tend not to experience any positive emotions when they are feeling negative emotions. When bad things happen, positive emotions go out the window.

People who are resilient are able to hold those two states side by side. They don’t paper over negative experiences with positive, but they also don’t leave their positive approaches and perspectives behind when they face the negative. Does that make sense?

Completely. Life is not all-or-nothing, black-or-white.

Exactly. Most circumstances we face are neither 100 percent bad nor 100 percent good, so there should be room to have a mix of emotions about the same event.

We found this, for example, when we did some detailed studies of people after 9/11. We found that resilient people were the ones who, in addition to feeling angry, sad and scared, also felt grateful, interested and loving.

I suppose that relates to the capacity to embrace contradiction.

Yes. Right now I’m reading Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich; her subtitle conveys her thesis well: “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.”

I think the key word in that subtitle is the word “relentless.” There is nothing wrong with positive thinking; it’s the exclusive focus on the positive that Ehrenreich is talking about.

The science shows us that people who navigate social and emotional situations well are the ones who can embrace contradiction, look at both sides of the situation and experience opposing emotional states.

I imagine this would profoundly affect the quality of one’s interactions with others.

We know that emotions last for moments, not for hours or days. No emotion is meant to be a permanent veneer.

If positivity were a permanent state, people wouldn’t be able to react to change. They wouldn’t know the difference between good news and bad news, or between an insult and an invitation.

Emotions are a type of ancestral wisdom that helps us respond quickly to threats and opportunities in our current circumstances. If we think that one emotion fits all circumstances, we’re just plain wrong. Emotions come and go in order to alert us to changes in our circumstances.

Having said that, it’s also true that we can cultivate certain emotions to help us grow in a certain direction.

Have you explored the distinction between the emotions we’re aware of and our own self-talk, which we may or may not be aware of?

The first and most important leverage point for our emotions is how we interpret our current circumstances. And that is often, though not always, revealed in self-talk.

Some of our basic interpretations don’t even get an inner voice. But often the only way we know how we’re interpreting an event or situation is by looking at our self-talk—“Oh, I’m really frightened by this circumstance; I must see it as threatening”—and then unpacking that further and following the trail of our emotions to figure out how we’ve interpreted something.

Those sorts of interpretations are thought to be the most potent seed of our emotions, which means that changing self-talk is a tried-and-true way to change emotions.

There are decades of work in cognitive behavioral therapy all about how to change our self-talk away from depressogenic talk towards healthier, more realistic interpretations. It boils down to noticing when you’re being catastrophic in your conclusions and thinking black-and-white.

“Why does this always happen to me?” “Why do they always do that?”

Exactly.

I’m curious about the impact of these emotional ratios on our actual physical health. Do we know much about that?

The state of the science there is still pretty new. We know a lot about the influence of negative emotions on health, and we know a little about the influence of positive emotions on health. But looking at the exact ratio and its effects on health, those are exactly the kinds of questions we’re looking at right now.

I think there’s every reason to expect that if this is a genuine tipping-point ratio in terms of mental health, it may well also be a tipping-point ratio in terms of physiological health. We know about both the denominator and the numerator of that ratio and how they relate to health, so that’s a reasonable expectation.

Fascinating. Are you involved in that pursuit?

Yes, to some extent. I’m looking at how the capacity to self-generate positive emotions and improve that ratio can build healthy lifestyles and, in the long run, improve health.

Of course, all of this is based on the slow and steady accumulation of health benefits, and requires longitudinal studies. There are rarely any quick answers in this corner of science.

What kind of impact or responses has your book garnered since its release?

One of my favorite reviews was a customer review on Amazon: “Finally, a book about positive emotions for skeptics!”

There are a lot of voices out there saying, “Think positive!” or “Be positive!” My aim is not to simply join that chorus, but rather to provide a lens from science that helps people understand what are the grains of truth in the general chorus of pop psychology, and what are perhaps the more naïve aspects of it.

I believe it is by looking to the science that we will learn what is genuinely useful and what is just plain made-up and not useful in that tidal wave of messages about why you have to always be positive. My aim is to help separate the useful from the not-so-useful.

And yes, I think the work is being well received and is to some extent having that effect.

The thinking person’s positive thinking book.

I appreciate that take on it! Because that is exactly my aim.


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