Posted by: counselorcarmella | July 19, 2012

Counselor Carmella Comments on “Positivity” by Barbara Fredrickson

In her 2009 book “Positivity,” psychologist and researcher Barbara Fredrickson uses  case studies, reader-friendly explanations, and research findings to help us understand this subject and the difference it can make in our lives. There is no  subtitle, but if there were, it probably would have been “How To Live A Flourishing Life.”  She uses that word a lot. I probably would have  passed this book over if I’d seen the word “flourishing” in its title.  That’s just a tad too exuberant for me.  Its too extroverted a word, too over the top.   I did read this book, though.  By the time I ran across “flourishing,” I was already  intrigued enough to keep reading. Dr. Fredrickson doesn’t mean it   exactly the way I would have thought. “Flourishing” seems to be about a state of welbeing, thriving, or  overall optimism and vitality. I can deal with that.
 
I enjoyed and appreciated what Dr. Fredrickson had to say.  Even though this is a self help book that is easy to read and  hopeful in its tone, it also includes relevant research findings and applications that more scholarly readers will appreciate.  Her  conversational style of explaining combined with her obvious  enjoyment of research makes Dr. Fredrickson someone who should be respected and taken seriously in the field of  positive psychology. This branch of psychology is growing in leaps and bounds and is receiving research and scholarly support like never before. Dr. Fredrickson is  an important part of this growing   field, in my opinion. She also seems sincere and to practice what she preaches, which I appreciate very much.
 
So, we’re not talking here about “the power of positive thinking” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” “Positivity,” as I understand it for Dr. Fredrickson, is more of a conscious mindset.   It is about how we benefit from the experiences of genuine (the word she uses is heartfelt) positive emotions. To understand the term, it helps to know  what types of feelings she is talking about. Dr. Fredrickson  states that there are ten primary positive  emotions. Love is the most common.   The other nine are  joy, grattitude, serenity,  interest, amusement, inspiration, pride, and awe.  I’ll get more specific about these in another post. Dr. Fredrickson  says positivity is not just about sensory pleasures like warm blankets and  good food. She says these experiences can be closely related, but that they are too focussed on  physical acts or comforts. She steers away from the word  “happiness” as well. I agree with her that the word “happy” is too  overused and too general.
 
Chapters 9 and 10 provide thoughts and guidelines for decreasing negativity and increasing positivity. She provides a “tool kit” in chapter 11 that contains 12 specific strategies that incorporate  ideas  brought up in the previous two chapters.  Dr. Fredrickson encourages each reader to figure  out which of these “tools” work best for  them.  If I had to  suggest just one chapter of this book to read, it would be chapter 11.
 
Dr. Fredrickson  explains that, though  positive things happen to us more frequently,  our negative experiences are more intense.  They tend to capture our attention  more easily than positive moments do and to carry more weight.  This is called negativity bias. Dr. Fredrickson  uses research and  anecdotes to reinforce the idea that we need at least a three to one positivity to negativity ratio.  Below this ratio, she says, we get  pulled into a downward negative spiral. When this happens,  thoughts and behaviors are limitted, routine, and predictable. People in this state are “languishing,” according to Dr. Fredrickson. They may feel burdened or even lifeless.  They are “stuck.”  
 
She states that positivity can loosen negativity’s mental grip on us.  When a person is above the ratio, they are in an upward spiral. These people feel alive, resilient,  energized, open, and creative.  She uses the term “flourishing” for this state of being. Dr. Fredrickson says noticing and  savoring positive moments  helps us to “broaden and build.”  In other words, to  see broader options and to build on our resources. She believes those who cultivate positivity in their lives are busy doing valuable things with their time and energy. They are meaningfully engaged with loved ones, work, and community. They feel connected and have a sense of purpose.          
 
The catch is, these feelings have to really be experienced as positive.  They can’t be faked. Doing that can cause more harm if the feelings aren’t  sincere.  This is what Dr. Fredrickson means by “heartfelt.”  Dr. Fredrickson says  moments of positivity are often just that – brief or fleeting.   She states that trying to grasp any moment too tightly can make it less positive. She encourages us to “savor” the  moments, but not try and pick them apart or analyze them too closely.  We are to strengthen our awareness, make more room for positivity, appreciate   and draw strength from moments of it, and fully   engage with them. Dr. Fredrickson says most of us actually have plenty of  opportunities to do this.   Moments of positivity are more common than we realize and actually  happen much more frequently than negative moments. She says we can shift our focus to give more weight and attention to the positive moments and suggests various ways of doing this. We can also  work on increasing these moments and on decreasing  what she calls “gratuitous” negative experiences. These are negative  experiences  we can  choose to avoid  or minimize in our  lives because they don’t serve a real purpose. A lot of times, we discover them when we pay attention to our routines, thought patterns, and conversations.  Awareness leads to choices about which ones can be changed or extinguished.  
 
An important note here is that Dr. Fredrickson doesn’t  want us to  eliminate all negativity from our lives.  Not only is that not possible, but it is not  the best thing for us either.  Life  is full of frustrations and set backs. We all experience losses and disappointments.  Dr. Fredrickson believes, as all  solid mental health  folks do, that we can grow and learn from these experiences.  She also  believes  they help us not take  the positive things in our lives for granted.  Further,  they are a good reason for us to focus on positivity.  the more we cultivate positivity, the more resilient we are when we face negative experiences.  We are physically and mentally healthier so that   we are better able to handle  difficulties.
 
Also,  Dr. Fredrickson  is not saying that positivity is “magic” for serious mental illnesses like depression.   She believes  cultivating positivity can help anyone, but   states that those who are experiencing  clinical depression or other serious problems will need additional help from therapists and physicians.  Cultivating positivity should be a part of their  plan to address the depression, but it is not the only  thing necessary. It is fair to say, though, that she believes positivity will help  someone pull out of depression more quickly and will  decrease a person’s chances of  falling back into depression.  
 
The website for this book is
The site contains more info about the book, related resources, and a positivity  self test as well as tools for increasing your ratio and  tools for  charting  your progress.  Dr. Fredrickson suggests that  readers  take the self assessment  for two weeks to know where their “base line” is and to  hopefully help them be more sensitive to moments of positivity.    
 
 
Eighty percent of us don’t reach that crucial tipping point of the 3:1 ratio.  Barbara Fredrickson has definitely convinced me that its something well worth striving for.
 
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