Cultivating positive emotions – the science of happiness

Cultivating positive emotions – the science of happiness

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 ê¢__‘–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 Psychophysiology 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.

To read more from this interview and to read Fredirckson’s answers to questions about different types of happiness and cultural differences in happiness – click here