Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Positivity - by Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Fredrickson is a hard-nosed social scientist, who since the inception of positive psychology has often been cited and praised as the originator of the Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions.

In this, her first book, Fredrickson sets out her ideas for the general reader, adding personal anectdotes and speculations to hard data. The book includes a positivity toolkit to help the reader raise their own positivity. Overall, I enjoyed this book and think it is a useful addition to the positive psychology literature. I think it can even tell us something useful about "the good life". But I do have some reservations, which I'll come on to later.

The Broaden-and-Build theory has been concisely summarised by its author as follows:-
"I encapsulate two classes of these benefits into my broaden-and-build theory. First, when we experience a positive emotion, our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, see our oneness with others, and face our problems with clear eyes (a.k.a. the broaden effect). Second, as we make a habit of seeking out these pleasing states, we change and grow, becoming better versions of ourselves, developing the tools we need to make the most out of life (the build effect). And strikingly, these twin benefits of positive emotions obey a tipping point: When positive emotions outnumber negative emotions by at least 3 to 1, these benefits accrue, yet below this same ratio, they don't."
So - when we are positive we become more open and creative (positive emotions broaden us) and we also grow (they build us). But, surprisingly, only when the positive outweighs the negative by more than 3 to 1. Fredrickson is arguing for positivity as a means to the good life - whether or not feeling good is itself the good life, feeling good (in these ways) helps us get in to a state where we are more likely to achieve these and other elements of the good life. This is an important point for philosophers to bear in mind - hedonism (the idea that happiness/pleasure and the absence o pain is the good life) has had a hard time recently but if it's really true that positive experiences are a means to other parts of the good life (creativity, achievement, making a difference) then a refined version of hedonism may appear more attractive.

But note well that Fredrickson does not equate positivity with pleasure. Far from it, she actually excludes bodily pleasures from her definition, since they narrow your focus and meet a survival need - whereas her ten positive emotions broaden your focus and, in the long run, she claims, "matter most" (p. 38)

So what are these top ten positive emotions?
  • Interest
  • Awe
  • Hope
  • Serenity
  • Joy
  • Inspiration
  • Gratitude
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Love
I personally remember these by the acronym

Write to me if you think of a better one!

Now this is very interesting. What Fredrickson has done is suggest 10 emotions which can also be considered as candidate values, as parts of the good life. If it's true that they are good in themselves and also broaden and build us, then their candidacy looks promising. Indeed, I'd like all of these to be part of my life - though there are of course questions about their appropriateness to a particular situation and getting the right balance (bring back Aristotle!). I also wondered whether all of these were really emotions and why some other possibles had been left out (e.g. sense of purpose, sense of meaning, being loved versus being loving, friendship, empathy, compassion). Fredrickson says her ten are "colour people's lives the most" (p. 39) but I wonder how she found this out.

My second problem is similar to the one Eric Wiener expresses in his review. Hard-nosed data has its value, but sometimes it seems to only confirm the bleedin'obvious and on other occasions its difficult to distinguish the author's own speculations from ideas that have firm backing. This is particularly true when it comes to the Positivity Toolkit. The ideas here are all plausible enough - be open, create connections, cultivate kindnes, develop distractions, dispute negative thinking, find nearby nature, learn and apply your strengths etc - and some have solid scientific backing. But this section does come across as a bit of a hotch-potch of techniques rather than a tried-and-tested programme that is guarenteed to raise your positivity.

Which brings me to my third and final issue with the book. One finding that certainly can't be criticised as being mere common-sense is the discovery that there is a tipping point of 3 to 1. If you have twice as many positive as negative experiences you wont start to get the broaden-and-build benefits. They only start accruing above 3 to 1. But what follows from this is surely that we should focus more on reducing negative episodes than increasing positive ones. Suppose I have 3 negative episodes a day and 6 positive ones. My positivity ratio is 2 - not high enough! But to get it up to 3 I either need to add 3 more positive ones or have 1 less negative one - so the effort should be in reducing negative episodes. .It seems kind of ironic that a book on positivity has this implication - should we actually be spending more energy on using techniques such as that advocated by CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) than on those aimed at increasing positivity?

Overall, though, I'd recommend this book. Fredrickson has a jaunty style, comes across as basically human and likeable (not always the case in social science books) and does provide a lot useful tips as well as an authoritative account of her own research.

Read On

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