CEO Coach Robinson Blog# Six- Summarizing Fredrickson’s book on Positivity

by jeremy.robinson on March 1, 2010

POSITIVITY - Book CoverPsychologist and Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson has written an important book called Positivity which I urge you to buy and read closely.  Many of you don’t have time to read this book so below I’ve provided a brief summary of some of the key learning points.

Facts about positivity:

  1. Positivity feels good.  Forms positivity can take range from joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and most importantly, love.  Each of these forms of positivity can change your life and your future.
  2. Positivity changes how your mind works.  It changes the scope and boundaries of your mind.
  3. Positivity transforms your future.  Repeated experiences of positivity build up at least one physical resource, e.g.- you sleep better; at least one mental resource, e.g.- you are more mindful of current circumstances; at least two psychological resources, e.g.- you are more optimistic and more resilient; and several social resources, e.g.- you have better connections to family and colleagues.
  4. Positivity puts the breaks on negativity. In a heartbeat, negativity can spike your blood pressure, but positivity can calm it.  It works like a reset button.
  5. Positivity can increase your productivity.

Nearly all other studies within the science of emotions have centered on negativity- depression, aggression, anxiety, and all the ills that negative states can produce in people’s lives.  These are incredibly well documented and studied.

Positive emotions have just begun (in the last ten years) to be studied scientifically.  We do, however, have common experience and wisdom about these emotions through the ages.

Fredrickson notes that the old science tried to answer the riddle of positive emotions by resting on the assumption that all emotions,  positive and negative, were consequential to our ancestors because they produced urges to act certain ways- emotions would trigger action tendencies.  For example, fear is linked with urge to flee, anger with urge to attack, etc.

But these theories didn’t answer the question what good are positive emotions?

Fredrickson developed the theory that positive emotions do the opposite of negative emotions which narrow people’s ideas about possible actions.  They broaden people’s ideas, opening up our awareness to a wider range of thoughts and actions than is typical.  She uses joy as an example of how it sparks the urge to play and be creative.  Positive emotions open our hearts and minds to makes us more receptive and more creative.

Positive emotions create open mindsets- which produce more accurate mental maps of the world.  Negativity constrains your experience of the world.  Positivity draws us out to explore and experience the world in new ways.

Positivity transformed early humans for the better leaving them with extra measures of physical, social, intellectual and psychological resources.  The feelings of positivity caused early humans to broaden and build when they felt safe.  Over millennia, natural selection sculpted our ancestors’ capacities to experience positivity to where we are today.

Americans are conflicted about positivity. On the one hand, we recognize the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence.  On the other hand, we are coaxed into looking for happiness in the wrong ways and the wrong places- through higher salaries, more possessions, or higher achievements.  We can get lost focusing on the future instead of lingering in the present.

Positivity encourages us to make a shift to looking at positive emotions as a means, as a daily way of life, but not an end in itself.

Fredrickson’s studies indicate that to benefit from the effects of positivity people need to experience it on a 3-to-1 ratio.

It’s also noted that in thinking about positivity she is not talking about Pollyanna positivity- only really heartfelt positive emotion.

It’s also important to have negativity in your life.  People can’t flourish without it.  Loss is a central experience to life.  We are angered by injustice and frightened by danger.  The 3-to-1 ratio involves acknowledging and living with these negative feelings while building on the positive.

There are further caveats.  Insincere positivity has just as many toxic effects as negativity.  There’s lots of research that tells us that anger kills in terms of heart disease, stroke, etc.  The new news is that insincere positivity may kill people also.  The bottom line- if you don’t actually feel the positivity you express, it may be doing you more harm than good.  The bottom line is:  your body knows when you’re cheating and it punishes you for it.

What else is not true positivity?  Bodily pleasures- like eating, warming your body with a blanket or sexual activity.  In some ways, bodily pleasures are closer to negativity than positivity.  Why?  Because they narrow your focus towards the object of your desire.  Their narrow mindsets and in-the-moment payoffs set them apart from positive emotions which broaden your mind and pay off down the road.

What else goes against positivity?

Over-analysis kills positive emotions.  Positive emotions are very fleeting and if you over analyze them, they will quickly vanish.  They needed to be applied and felt lightly, tenderly.

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