Finding Happiness by Cultivating Positive Emotions

Are you happy now?


| September-October 2009



Happiness

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?