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2012 Spring Issue 2 (April 13, 2012)

Psychologist encourages Convo crowd to balance emotions

April 13, 2012
By Jonathan Lin

On Friday, April 6th, psychologist and Carleton alum Barbara Fredrickson ‘86 gave a new perspective on positive emotions. Acknowledging that most scientists studying emotions tend to solely focus on the negative states including depression and anxiety, Fredrickson addressed the general overemphasis of being happy and optimistic in pop-psychology methods.

“Living your life by ‘Being Happy’ actually backfires,” she argued. “It sets up high expectations and makes you even more miserable.”

She presented two facts and cautions about positivity, noting from the onset that “this is no invitation to sweep existing problems under the rug. Science now shows that one should place positive and negative human experiences side by side, for this is the definition of hope. Therefore this blending is the secret of being resilient.”

The first fact revealed that science confirmed that positivity “fundamentally changes you, opens you, and expands your worldview, resulting in a completely different world experience.” She cited randomized and controlled studies, where subjects were assigned to feel emotions via very mild stimuli and as a result became more observant, which was measured by tracking eye movements. Other techniques such as brain imaging showed that “when you’re feeling good you take in more.”

Furthermore she showed how positivity was linked to a plethora of other benefits, including “higher creativity, better academic performance, better medical decisions, more connections and trust, better negotiations, more eye-contact and bio-behavioral synchrony.” 

As a result, Fredrickson argued, “positivity isn’t about seeing a glass half-full or looking through rose-tinted glasses, but instead registering the bigger picture.”

The second fact revealed that positivity was nourishing, and Fredrickson argued that “this decision for positive living starts in lifestyle changes and seeing results in the long-term – like the process of lowering cholesterol.”

Fredrickson’s latest work involved positivity on the cellular level, such as examining the immune system and the relationship between stress and illness. “The heliotropic effect you see in flowers – where they follow the sunlight – that happens in humans too,” Fredrickson stated.

She stated that the first caution of positivity is that it cannot be faked.

“It’s very tempting to manufacture positivity,” she said, “and here is the dark side of positive psychology: just because we have the knowledge of how positivity benefits us doesn’t mean we can successfully implement it all the time.”

Fredrickson emphasized that faking positivity does the same amount of cardiovascular damage over time as contempt.

“Overdoing positive thinking can be harmful,” she highlighted. “Negativity is very necessary, just in the right proportions.”
The second caution was the eventual removal of external support.

“This resonates particularly with college students,” Fredrickson remarked, “in that for most of your lives so far other people have worked hard to present you with opportunities to stoke your positivity.”

She called these ‘rituals,’ practiced by all parents, friends, and institutions. “The post-Carleton world forces you to feed yourself the right proportion of positivity,” she argued.

She highlighted some key concepts of positivity, such as worrying less, being open, and focusing more on the present.

“The most important thing is that there is never any need to manufacture positive emotions, but rather be attentive to existing and subtle sources of positivity that happen all the time.” 

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