Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discusses her new book, Positivity, that focuses on what positivity is and why it needs to be heartfelt to be effective.

Fredrickson’s research challenges deeply held assumptions within social psychology.

book coverTraditional social science tended to focus on negative emotions that are directly linked to urges to act — emotions necessary for human survival in crisis situations. Preserved through forces of natural selection, negative emotions help narrow our ideas about possible action, such as fight or flight. When danger looms, your cardiovascular system switches gears to redirect oxygenated blood to your large muscles so you’ll be prepared to run. Your adrenal glands also release a surge of cortisol to mobilize more energy by increasing the glucose in your bloodstream. The urge to flee that comes with fear infuses your whole body.

When scientists tried to pinpoint specific actions with positive emotions, the urges were not nearly as specific as fight or flight. And the psychological changes with positive emotions were not as apparent as those linked to negative emotions. So “feeling good” came to mean “not feeling bad.” And feeling bad was what needed monitoring.

Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build theory, based on what she identifies as thought-action tendencies, represents a profound difference in how researchers today view emotions. Positive emotions broaden the momentary thought-action repertoire. By opening your heart and mind, positive emotions allow you to turn away from automatic (everyday) patterns of behavior and pursue novel, creative and often unscripted paths of thought and action.

When people are in a positive mode, they act more effectively in their lives. Typically, they are more creative, more motivated to act toward high performance and more helpful toward others. When they experience positive emotions, people are more alert and their cognitive ability is sharper. With this increased ability they are able to create more unusual and varied possibilities for action. Positive emotions broaden people’s attention and their intellectual and social resources. When a person feels good about herself, she feels that she can take on the world and actually has more resources to do so.

To learn more

Fredrickson challenges us to choose hope over fear. To be open, be curious, be appreciative, be kind and above all, be real. What gives you more joy? What makes you come alive?