Don't Worry, Be Happy

By Mary-Russell Roberson '86

With all the doom and gloom in the world today, it’s hard not to be negative. Psychology professor and researcher Barbara Fredrickson ’86 shines a new light on the power of positive emotions. Voice Fall 2008

What does it mean to flourish? Not just to survive, but to thrive? Most people would include good health, creativity, growth, and resilience among their definitions. Whenever someone claims to have found the path to this holy grail, we flock to hear his speeches and buy his books. Yet research suggests that fewer than 20 percent of U.S. adults today are flourishing. What have they found that the rest of us haven’t?

According to Barbara Fredrickson ’86, the “fuel” for flourishing is something we all have access to, but few of us know how to tap into: positive emotions. Fredrickson, psychology professor and director of her own laboratory at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, has been researching the purpose of positive emotions for the past 20 years—and her work has led to discoveries that she wants to share with a wider audience. “When I looked at the different things my work was saying, it was coming together to be instructions about life and how to live it,” she says. To get her message out, she’s written a book, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive, which will be published by Crown in February 2009.

Fredrickson first became interested in positive emotions partly because they had not received much attention from the scientific community. Scientists had already shown that negative emotions produced specific survival actions. Negative emotions narrow attention and rev up the body to meet an immediate threat. Fear, for example, causes an urge to flee; anger creates an urge to attack; disgust causes the urge to expel or avoid something that may be teeming with germs. Negative emotions also produce measurable physiological changes, such as increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which ready the body for action.

Positive emotions—joy, amusement, gratitude, pride, contentment—don’t produce such clear physical changes, nor do they invoke urges to perform specific behaviors. This piqued Fredrickson’s interest, as did the fact that no other scientists had begun looking for the evolutionary advantages of positive emotions. “What appealed to me was the uncharted territory,” she says. “I wanted to study something that no one had ever studied.”

Robert Levenson, Fredrickson’s mentor at the University of California–Berkeley, where she did her postdoctoral work, had proposed that positive emotions might undo the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions. Fredrickson decided to test the idea. She measured heart rate and blood pressure of volunteers, then told them they would have to give a speech that would be videotaped and evaluated. As expected, the heart rate and blood pressure of the volunteers went up. After a few minutes, she told them they didn’t have to give a speech after all. All the subjects immediately watched a short film. Those who watched films designed to elicit amusement or contentment returned more quickly to their baseline physiological measures than those who watched a neutral film. Those who watched a sad film recovered slowest of all.

Too much time spent with a racing heart and elevated blood pressure can contribute to heart disease, so as a recovery tool positive emotions may contribute to health. But Fredrickson wasn’t satisfied that she had uncovered the full story.

“Is this the evolved purpose of positive emotions—that they are a reset button?” she asks. “That would suggest that most of our positive emotions would occur in the context of negative emotions.” Obviously, though, people experience positive emotions in many situations, not just those involving negative emotions. So Fredrickson kept looking.

Some research shows that people feeling positive emotions perform better on tests designed to measure creativity, flexibility, and open-mindedness, although these benefits are just as transitory as the emotions that produce them. But Fredrickson suspected that these transitory states must produce long-term survival advantages—otherwise, why would positive emotions have evolved in the first place? And why would they have remained such a central part of the human experience?

Fredrickson developed a theory that positive emotions open people’s minds to opportunities for building personal resources, such as physical skills, friendships, or knowledge, which in turn help people survive and thrive when life gets tough. Fredrickson calls her theory “broaden and build,” referring to broadened thinking and building personal resources.

While anger spurs people to attack, joy may spur them to go out dancing, make new friends, or learn something new. When the joy wanes, the resources remain. Physical endurance, friendship, and knowledge can help a person survive an illness, a job loss, or another setback. Plus, the effects of positive emotions grow over time, Fredrickson says: “The benefits of positive emotions happen in the future, not just in the moment that you are feeling them.”

Nice idea. But how do you prove it?

Fredrickson started with the “broaden” part of her theory. She and her graduate students used a variety of laboratory experiments to add to the body of research showing that people who are experiencing positive emotions think more creatively and see more possibilities than people experiencing negative emotions. For example, volunteers who watched film clips designed to elicit amusement or contentment made much longer lists in response to the question “What do you feel like doing right now?” than did volunteers who watched films designed to elicit anger, anxiety, or no emotion. They were also more likely to see the big picture on a test that measures global thinking.

Next, Fredrickson wanted to test whether positive emotions led to the development of personal resources. In order to do this, she needed to be able to increase the positive emotions experienced by one group of people over time as compared to a control group. A variety of researchers have shown that meditation increases positive emotions, so Fredrickson enrolled one group of volunteers in a seven-week meditation class and put another group on the waiting list for the class. Before, during, and after the classes, Fredrickson collected daily information from both sets of volunteers about their emotions, 18 different personal resources (including health, social support given and received, and feelings of competence), depressive symptoms, and life satisfaction.

After rigorous analysis of a mountain of data, she and her students discovered that the meditators did experience more positive emotions than the nonmeditators, and that the meditators logged increases in personal resources and in life satisfaction. The results of the study will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Positive emotions aren’t the only way to build personal resources, Fredrickson says—they’re just the most efficient. Sure, an angry person can trudge to the gym, and a frightened person can use techniques from a self-help book to meet new people. But the joyful person who starts a pickup basketball game and the amused person who shares a funny observation with a stranger achieve similar results with a lot less work.

No one’s life can be completely free of negative emotions, Fredrickson points out. However, she says, people who are able to cultivate and savor positive emotions, even in the midst of trouble, have a better chance of thriving. After 9/11, she says, virtually everyone in America felt sadness, fear, and anger. In a study of 100 undergraduates at the University of Michigan, where she used to teach and have a lab, Fredrickson found that people who also felt positive emotions—such as gratitude, a renewed sense of community, and an intense curiosity about world events—recovered more quickly from the emotional trauma.

“Sometimes it seems like our emotions rain down on us,” she says. “But we have far more control over what we feel than we think we do. Exercising that control is really critical to how our lives unfold.” (See below for tips on being positive.)

Fredrickson, who is married and has two young sons, makes time to meditate daily and savor pleasures small and large. During the bus ride to work, she looks for and enjoys her favorite sights. As she’s leaving a conference, she’ll pause to feel grateful for the experience. And during times of stress and challenge, she consciously notices the silver linings—such as the babysitting and cooking services lovingly offered by neighbors and friends when her husband was in the hospital. “I do look around at everything as a gift,” she says. “That’s not an inner dialogue that I’ve always had with myself, but I think it makes a big difference.”

Colleagues, students, friends, and strangers have told Fredrickson that her research has changed their lives, and their stories inspired her to write for a popular audience.

“I know my research can make a big difference in people’s lives,” Fredrickson says, “and I’m hoping my book will help more people gain that insight and mastery. Positive emotions expand our awareness of the world around us, and it turns out that being able to see the big picture has a lot of positive consequences that help people become the best version of themselves.”


Increasing Your Daily Dose of Positive Emotions

Eat More Ice Cream? Unfortunately, no. For most people, eating ice cream generates pleasure, not positive emotion. Pleasure and positive emotion often come wrapped together—eating ice cream as part of a social gathering—but Fredrickson distinguishes between the two: “Pleasures are triggered more by physical sensations. Positive emotions are triggered more by finding positive meaning in a given circumstance.”

Change the Way You Think Positive emotions can’t be forced, but changes in thinking patterns can. “Just saying ‘I’m going to be happy’ doesn’t do it,” Fredrickson says. To unlock emotions of gratitude, you need to frame things in a positive light. Walking down the street may seem ordinary, she says, “or you can think, ‘Hey, people are smiling. I live in a great town.’ ” Reframing works for negative events, too. During hard times, appreciate the support of friends and your own resiliency. After a natural disaster, marvel at the goodness of volunteers handing out water and rebuilding homes.

Lose Yourself When you become so involved in a skill, craft, or sport that the whole world goes away, you are experiencing a positive emotional state that psychologists call “flow.” Such activities also generate a sense of accomplishment and well-earned pride.

Go for a Walk—Outside One of Fredrickson’s students at the University of Michigan ran an experiment that showed that people who spent more time outside in beautiful weather experienced more positive emotions.

Stop and Smell the Roses “Most moments in life are at least mildly positive,” Fredrickson says, “but negative things just jump out and scream at you.” Give positive moments their due—train yourself to look for them and appreciate them.

Help Out Research has shown that volunteering or helping other people is a reliable way to generate positive emotions.

Get off the Treadmill A new gadget may make you happy, but not for long. The urge to regain that happiness by purchasing a bigger, better gadget puts you on the “hedonic treadmill.” Positive actions also can lose their luster through repetition. “Increase the variety in how you approach things,” Fredrickson says. “Keep things fresh.”

Meditate Research has shown meditation to be a remarkably reliable way to produce positive emotions. What’s more, meditation bypasses the hedonic treadmill, says Fredrickson, because “it’s a new challenge every day.”

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