Finding Happiness by Cultivating Positive Emotions
Are you happy now?
images by Reuters
Most scientists who study emotions focus on negative states: depression, anxiety, fear. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has spent more than 20 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 best seller, 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. She recommends that, rather than try to eliminate negativity, 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 45, 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. The suppression of emotions at home motivated her escape into the life of the mind, and she focused on her academic studies.
Fredrickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and director and principal investigator of the university’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab.
How do you define positive emotions?
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. Not only do they 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.
You make a distinction between pleasures and positive emotions. How are they different?
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.
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