European positive psychology conference in Copenhagen: Barbara Fredrickson 'How positive emotions work, and why' (sixth post)
Last updated on 3rd August 2010
I wrote last week on "Barbara Fredrickson 'How positive emotions work, and why' (fifth post)" and the initial two key points she made in her talk - 1.) Positivity opens us, and 2.) Positivity transforms us. Today's post discusses the second half of her talk and her three further key points.
The third was 3.) Positivity transforms relationships. She mentioned a recent research study by Algoe & colleagues "It's the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships" and linked work in press. She described how expressing gratitude in a way that reflects thoughtfully and appreciatively on the giver can be particularly helpful for the relationship. She gave an example of a woman "Sally" giving a man "Harry" a guitar. She suggested that if Harry thanked Sally saying how pleased he was by the gift and describing all the fun things he was looking forward to doing with the guitar, that this would be fine but limited in its effects on Sally. However if Harry thanked Sally and used the opportunity to appreciate her with generosity and insight then this could be much more precious. So for example he might say something like "This is so sweet of you. I didn't realise you'd picked up on how much I wanted to start playing guitar again. I think you're a star for being so perceptive and loving. And I think you're such a good influence on me, and on other people too. I really appreciate how kind you are and how that helps me make more of my life." This kind of perceptive appreciation, Barb said, leaves Sally feeling better about both herself and the relationship. There are certainly reports from several other research teams showing how positivity nourishes relationships. Examples include Srivastava & colleagues' "Optimism in close relationships: How seeing things in a positive light makes them so", Assad et al's "Optimism: an enduring resource for romantic relationships", Klapwijk & Van Lange's "Promoting cooperation and trust in "noisy" situations: The power of generosity", Stinson et al's "Deconstructing the "reign of error": interpersonal warmth explains the self-fulfilling prophecy of anticipated acceptance" and the whole thrust of Crocker's fine work at her "Self and social motivation lab". In fact Barb's next point 4.) Positivity lights our path seemed to continue this overlap with Jennifer Crocker's work with the comment that positivity is often linked with a high degree of other focus. It's certainly something I say often to clients coming to see me struggling with anxiety (and depression), that distressed states are often characterised by a high degree of self-focus (typically critical and frightened) whereas healthy states are typically characterised by task or other focus. It links with the "Bus driver metaphor" and with much of the criticism of the self-esteem literature.
The last of the five key points was 5.) How much positive emotion is enough? Here Barb highlighted her research on the benefits of having a high positive:negative emotion ratio. Possibly the key paper here is the 2005 publication with Losada "Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing", which underlines the value to individuals, couples and groups of having a positive to negative emotion ratio of between 3:1 and about 12:1. As Fredrickson & Losada wrote "Human flourishing is optimal functioning characterized by four key components: (a) goodness, indexed by happiness, satisfaction, and superior functioning; (b) generativity, indexed by broadened thought-action repertoires and behavioral flexibility; (c) growth, indexed by gains in enduring personal and social resources; and (d) resilience, indexed by survival and growth in the aftermath of adversity. Each of these four components will be linked to positivity ratios at or above 2.9". I've mentioned her book "Positivity" before and her "Positive to negative emotions" questionnaire is downloadable from the "Emotions, feelings & personality" page of this website. Her own "Positivity ratio" website gives more information and access to a free personal charting option where one can track one's positive:negative emotions ratio over time. Interestingly in this talk, Barb also emphasised the importance of some "negative" emotion. She pointed out that emotions are a bit like a sailing boat. The mast and sails are the positive emotions, but the keel is the negative emotion. We need access to negative emotional reactions to help us navigate, especially in tough times. Again there are similar findings with couples and in organizations. There needs to be space for constructive disagreement. Too much routine positivity isn't ideal - although for 80% of the population the problem is likely to be too low a positive:negative ratio rather than too high a ratio. As Barb concluded - it makes so much sense to build positive emotions more. She suggested one be careful about faking it - be open, appreciative, curious, kind and real. And she concluded with the old story:"One evening an old Cherokee told his grandon about a battle that goes on inside people. He said 'My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.' The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, 'Which wolf wins?' The old Cherokee simply replied, 'The one you feed'." Anonymous