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.

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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?