Finding Happiness by Cultivating Positive Emotions

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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.

What about happiness? Is it a positive emotion?

Scientists most often measure happiness by asking how strongly a person agrees with statements like “I’m satisfied with my life” or “If I could live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” These kinds of questions are much broader in scope than questions that are used to measure positive emotions, such as “Are you feeling amused, silly, or lighthearted?” Positive emotions are much more narrow-band feelings, not overall judgments about your life. Sometimes we use happy to refer to a specific emotion, but, scientifically speaking, it’s not OK to use a single word, like happy, in multiple ways. I view happiness as the overall outcome of many positive moments.

My goal as a scientist has always been to pull apart the process of how one state leads to another and ultimately guides us to a useful outcome. Over the past decade researchers have found some stunning correlations between expressing more positive emotions and living longer. My role is to ask, How does that happen? How do you go from experiencing these pleasant momentary states to living longer–perhaps even 10 years longer?

What is a typical example of your research?

We do lots of different studies. I like to follow the ideas rather than stick to one particular method. In the early days more of our research was physiological: We were looking at blood pressure, heart rate, and so on. In another series of studies we trained people in loving-kindness meditation, which focuses on creating more feelings of warmth and kindness toward others. You’re first asked to think of someone in your life for whom you have warm and tender feelings, whether it’s a child or a spouse or even a pet, and then to try to bring forth those feelings as much as you can and hold them in your heart. As you’re doing that, you let the child or pet or person you were thinking about kind of slip away, but you hold on to the feeling. Then you take that warm, tender feeling and apply it to yourself or to others whom you might not normally feel that way about. And you continue to apply that feeling to ever larger circles of people. 

We had a study come out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in November 2008 called “Open Hearts Build Lives.” We looked at the effects of loving-kindness meditation on people’s resources. We gave the research participants a survey to take stock of their personality traits, health, and social ties at the start of the study, then randomly assigned them either to learn loving-kindness meditation or not. All of them tracked their emotions daily for two months, and then, a few weeks after the meditation workshops had ended, we measured those same traits again. We found that the participants who learned to meditate were doing much better than when they’d started. More important, the ones doing the best were the same ones who reported increases in positive emotions during the workshop. If people learned the meditation but didn’t feel more positive emotions from it, they didn’t experience any benefits down the road. So we were able to attribute the benefits not to learning loving-kindness meditation but to the daily increase in positive emotions that most participants got from it. Over time positive emotions literally change who we are.

What are the specific benefits of positive emotions?

When people increase their daily diets of positive emotions, they find more meaning and purpose in life. They also find that they receive more social support–or perhaps they just notice it more, because they’re more attuned to the give-and-take between people. They report fewer aches and pains, headaches, and other physical symptoms. They show mindful awareness of the present moment and increased positive relations with others. They feel more effective at what they do. They’re better able to savor the good things in life and can see more possible solutions to problems. And they sleep better.

Tell me about your collaboration with business consultant Marcial Losada.

He contacted me and said he had a mathematical model that he thought articulated my broaden-and-build theory. He was looking at group behavior among business teams in a way that was compatible with how I had been talking about individuals broadening their capacity, building their resources over time, and showing resilience.

Losada ran mathematical models showing what was going on in these business teams–how one person’s positive or negative behavior influenced another’s and how dynamics developed over time. He told me he could calculate the exact “positivity ratio” that would predict a group’s success. I offered to test his ratio against data that I had collected to see whether it held up in other contexts as well. We decided that, if the data cooperated, we would write a paper together.

What sort of studies had Losada conducted?

He had been studying 60 business teams as they did annual strategic planning. These weren’t fake meetings arranged for research; they were real planning sessions. Losada had a team of assistants behind one-way mirrors listen in and record every statement that was made and identify it as “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.” The research assistants also recorded whether people were focused inward on the group or were thinking about the larger context surrounding the organization, and whether people were advocating their own point of view or were asking questions and trying to pick up new information.

Later, drawing upon independent business metrics, he was able to rank the business teams’ performances. The really successful, high-performing teams had about a six-to-one ratio of positive to negative statements, whereas the low-performing teams had ratios of less than one to one, meaning that more than half of what was said was negative. People on the high-performing teams had an even balance between asking questions and advocating for their own points of view, and also an equal measure of focusing outward and focusing within the group. The low-performing teams had asked almost no questions and almost never focused outside the group. They exhibited a self-absorbed advocacy: None of them were listening to each other–they were all just waiting to talk.

Losada took this behavioral data and wrote algebraic equations that reflected how each stream–the questioning, the positivity, and the outward-inward focus–related to the others.

When Losada used these equations to plot the dynamics of the high-performing and low-performing business teams, you could see how, in the high-performing teams, one person’s question led to another person’s positivity. You could see that the two groups, high- and low-performing, were not just different in degree; they were different in kind. Underneath the dynamics for the high-performing teams was what physicists call a “complex chaotic attractor,” which produces unpredictable or novel outcomes. So high-performing teams produced novel creative results. Underneath the structure of low-performing teams was a “fixed-point attractor” that caused the teams to spiral down to a dead end. There were also medium-performing teams, which showed some creativity, and at times it looked as if a complex chaotic attractor was trying to emerge, but then a moment of intense negativity would occur, and they’d never bounce back. What’s interesting is that the negativity always arose within the realm of self-absorbed advocacy and not asking any questions.

What was the positivity ratio that Losada gave you?

We were able to algebraically predict that a ratio of three positive events to one negative event should be the tipping point where things become chaotic–in a good sense–and a medium-performing team becomes a high-performing one.

I tested that ratio against my own data in one study after another. Each time I found support for the idea that the three-to-one ratio is a tipping point. I pored through the scientific literature and found other scientists who were examining how positive and negative emotions balanced each other out, and I found more evidence consistent with Losada’s math. As soon as we saw how consistent the evidence was, we started writing that paper, which appeared in American Psychologist in 2005.

I feel fortunate to have played a role in that discovery. It wasn’t just adding to the scientific literature on emotions; it was about life and how to live it. I started to feel that this is important information for people to know about themselves. If we’re aware of the tipping-point ratio, it could make a big difference in how we choose to live our lives. That’s what compelled me to write the book.

I’ve looked at my own life differently since then, too. We discovered the ratio just after my second son was born, and the discovery definitely changed the way I thought about parenting. We tend to tell toddlers “No, no, no” all the time. My work made me think there needs to be more playfulness in my parenting, more emphasis on stepping back and following the child’s interest. On some level I think parents know this, but the three-to-one ratio provides a yardstick against which I can assess how a day went. It motivates me to make sure the negativity I send my sons’ way is necessary and in proper proportion with the positivity I offer them. I want to make sure that my boys have the ability to express whatever they’re feeling and to follow their interests. I think that was missing when I was growing up, and it led me to go upstairs into my head and carve a life out of staying up there.

Is three to one the ideal ratio?

No, three to one is the tipping point. The healthiest thing would be to aim above that–four to one, five to one, or even six to one. Actually, there’s research that suggests married couples who share about a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions with one another are in solid marriages. In marriages that are not doing well or are on a slippery slope toward divorce, the ratio is more like one to one or less. And there’s not a lot of in-between. Couples seem either to find a steady state at about five to one, or else slide down into negativity.

In general the epidemiological data show that only 20 percent of Americans are flourishing. The rest are either languishing or just getting by. Maybe they remember a time in their lives when things were coming together easily; there wasn’t a lot of self-concern, self-scrutiny, or self-loathing because they were focused outward and contributing to the world. But now they’re just doing the minimum necessary to get by. This “just getting by” mode is not depression or mental illness. It’s merely people living lives of quiet despair. Upwards of 60 percent of the adult population feel like they’re going through the motions. It makes me want to share the news about this work and get people back to those times when they were flourishing.

What do you mean by “flourishing”?

Flourishing encompasses both feeling satisfied with your life and also functioning well in it. The way psychologists measure that second part is to assess whether people feel as if they are learning, growing, and making contributions to society.

How has your study of positive emotions been received in the aca­demic community? What criticisms and support have you received?

Positive psychology was founded about a decade ago, but I’ve been doing work on positive emotions for almost two decades, so for many years I worked in relative isolation and didn’t draw critical attention. Since Marty Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, founded positive psychology, the field has grown like wildfire, with lots of interest both within and outside academia, but it’s also garnered a fair amount of criticism. Some of the criticism, I think, is based on a mis­understanding of positive psychology: that we’re saying you should feel positive all the time, and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t; or that we’re saying the negative side of life isn’t worth studying.

Traditional psychology started out mimicking medicine. Because medicine was all about diagnosing, treating, and curing diseases, psychology focused on diagnosing, treating, and curing mental illnesses. And psychology developed its scientific rigor through its efforts to understand pathology. What Seligman did was take that scientific rigor and direct it toward understanding human potential. He challenged the field to look at what makes life worth living; at what a healthy person looks like, rather than a suffering one. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on understanding and treating mental illness.

I also think some critiques of positive psychology arise from the belief that if you’re a hard-nosed intellectual, you can’t think being happy is good. There’s a famous paper in psychology called “Happy but Mindless?” that suggests that people who are happy are somehow bubbleheaded softies, not critical of the world and therefore not intellectuals. I think that’s a distorted stereotype that highly critical people cultivate to justify their own negativity. Being positive or negative isn’t about being smart or dumb; it’s about thinking broadly or narrowly. Whether thinking broadly is useful or not depends on the situation you’re in. It’s just a different style of thinking. In some circumstances it can help you be more creative.

Some people never get past a superficial impression of positive psychology, but those who do often say there’s much more depth to it than they thought. I have also had people say to me, “I don’t like positive psychology, but I like your work.” My goal is to encourage people to see that there’s far more to positive emotions than just feeling good.

Isn’t focusing on positive emotions a luxury available only to those who can afford it? What about people who are mired in conflict, or poverty, or awful social conditions?

I think positive emotions are available to everybody. Research has been done with people in slums across the globe and with prostitutes, looking at their well-being and satisfaction with life. The data suggest that positive emotions have less to do with material resources than we might think; it’s really about your attitude and approach to your circumstances. Hard lives often appear worse to the outside observer. If we see somebody living on the streets, we think that person’s life must be awful every minute. We think that having certain illnesses or physical limitations must be terrible all the time. But if you study people who have these illnesses or live on the streets, you find that they still feel good when they are with their friends or families, and they feel excited when they encounter something new, and so forth. It’s in the ordinary transactions of life–being with others and following your interests–that positive emotions grow.

That said, I have done some studies that show that when people are fearful or threatened–when they don’t feel “safe and satiated,” as I would put it–they have fewer positive emotions because they’re too worried about survival, their next meal, or how to clothe their children. So there are some bedrock conditions that need to be met. Once they are met, though, even at a very low level, everyone has the same opportunities to experience positive emotions. Affluence isn’t necessary.

How can we increase positivity?

One way is to be aware of the present moment, because most moments are positive. We miss many opportunities to experience positive emotions now by thinking too much about the past or worrying about the future, rather than being open to what is.

Another way is to pay attention to human kindness–not only what others have done for you, which helps unlock feelings of gratitude, but also what you can do for other people, how you can make somebody’s day. We found that even just paying attention to when you are kind–not necessarily increasing how often you’re kind, but just paying attention to the times when you are–can make you more positive.

Another simple technique is going outside in good weather. One of my former students, Matt Keller, who’s now on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder, found that people who spend even just 30 minutes outside when the weather is good show an improvement in their mood.

There are more-involved ways to increase your positive emotions, such as to practice either mindfulness meditation or loving-kindness meditation. You can also rearrange your life around your strengths. Ask yourself: Am I really doing what I do best? Being employed in a job that uses your skills is a great source of enduring positive emotions.

You’ve written that emotions are contagious, and that certainly seems to be the case when somebody is always spreading negative ones. How can we deal with the negativity of others?

I hear that a lot: “It’s not my negativity that’s a problem; it’s theirs.” I think no difficult person is 100 percent horrid. Well, you may come up with some historical exceptions, but there are usually small things that you can appreciate about any person. Sometimes the best solution is to have less contact with somebody, but we change and grow more when we continue to connect. Ask yourself: What can I change about my approach to this person that might lead us to a different place? I call this “social aikido,” a way to defuse others’ negativity without harming them or yourself. Maybe there are certain tasks that you shouldn’t do with this person. If every time you try to do task A together you’re at each other’s throats, maybe you can arrange to do other tasks with him or her.

You’ve written that people who flourish become “beautifully unpredictable.” What is the value of unpredictability?

Acting in unexpected ways is necessary for growth. Nobody grows by doing the same thing every day.

 In natural selection, random genetic variation leads to new traits, even new species. Children are not exact replicas of their parents. There’s always some random genetic combination that can lead to new skills and attributes. Similarly, I think that being “beautifully unpredictable” is essential for our individual evolution.

How has your work changed you?

I got into science because I’m a typical intellectual, ivory-tower person–not driven by emotions, very focused on achievement and success. Living in my head got me through difficult times when I was younger and helped me become a great student. But I think it disconnected me from my heart. So the biggest change for me has been to realize that achievement, recognition, and success are not everything. I have workaholic tendencies, but my work tells me: Enjoy the moment.

Do you track your own positivity ratio?

No, not formally. But I do make a conscious attempt each day to cultivate my own and others’ positivity and to appreciate the possibilities life has given me, because you never know when the next blast of negativity will show up.

To accompany the book, I created a website where people can track their positivity: Tracking helps you to become more mindful of your sources of positive and negative emotions the same way that keeping a food diary helps you become more mindful of your eating habits or a budget helps you become more mindful of your spending. After you get a feel for it and your habits are where you want them to be, you don’t need the tracking tools so much. But they can be a good place to start.

Are you happier than you used to be?

Happier isn’t the right word. I feel I’m more aware and more mindful, and I feel more alive, and I yearn to keep feeling this way. I have a better appreciation of what life can be and a humbleness about what I need to do to foster goodness in the world. I’m a student of my work, not a finished product.

Excerpted from the Sun (May 2009), which for more than 30 years has used personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs “to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.”

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