Scientific evidence points to importance of positive thinking

As psychologists turn their focus to positive emotions, a growing body of research is showing that positivism has knock-on effects that can help humans flourish in all areas of life.Lynne Malcolm meets leading positivist scholar Barbara Fredrickson and gets some tips on how to enjoy life more.

There was a time in the science of psychology when emotions were considered too ephemeral to study. Later, psychologists focused only on negative emotions such as anger, grief or disgust. Now the growing field of positive psychology is focusing on positive emotions, which it seems can strongly influence our level of happiness and lead us to flourish both physically and psychologically.

Professor Barbara Fredrickson is a social psychologist from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and has been a researcher in human emotions for the past 25 years. She suggests that positivity is the mindset that helps produce emotions such as joy, amusement, happiness, serenity, gratitude and inspiration.

Negative emotions really hit us like a sledgehammer. They are really much more intense and attention grabbing than our positive emotions, which are comparably more subtle … we have an ingrained negativity bias.
‘I think of positive emotions as nutrients. In the same way that we need to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to be healthy, we need a variety of positive emotions in our daily experience to help us become more resourceful versions of ourselves,’ she says.

‘What seems to be unique about positive emotions is that they expand our awareness so that in the moment that we are experiencing positive emotions—and they are very fleeting states, they last from seconds to minutes, not hours, weeks and years—our peripheral vision expands, our ability to take in more of our surroundings and connect the dots and see the big picture is facilitated, whereas neutral states tend to narrow our mindsets and then negative emotions narrow our mindsets even further, so that having more moments of that open mindset help us connect with others and build our relationships, it helps us build our resilience, it helps us build our physical health because we become more energetic.’

Fredrickson’s research attempts to investigate positive emotions scientifically. We know certain things about the brain physiology of positivity from medical imaging, but the data doesn’t describe the full experience.

‘So there’s the subjective phenomenological sense, and you can see this in non-verbal behaviour, the openness that goes with positive emotions in terms of the open mindset, and we also see that in how people carry themselves,’ says Fredrickson.

‘With positive emotion there’s more of an easiness in the torso, and I think that’s consequential because other people can pick that up and it’s a safety signal for others that this person is safe to approach. There’s ways in which openness both characterises the mindset and the posture and certainly the face too, because when someone’s face is more relaxed and smiling, that grabs our attention very quickly and it is, again, another safety signal.’

Fredrickson and her colleagues study positive emotions in the lab in a range of ways.  They get precise measures of people’s subjective experience through a series of ratings and surveys and they also measure bodily responses such as heart rate and respiration changes.

One recent study focuses on increasing daily levels of positive emotions. Subjects were randomly assigned to learn techniques that could help them self-generate positive emotions on a daily basis.

Over six or seven weeks, the subjects were taught the ancient technique of loving kindness meditation. This meditation is related to mindfulness practice, but instead of focusing attention on the breath, attention is turned to a set of classic phrases: wishes for wellbeing for yourself and others.

‘The drumbeat of the practice is phrases like “may you feel safe”, “may you feel happy”, “may you feel healthy”, “may you live with ease”,’ says Fredrickson. ‘The practice is to direct those warm heartfelt wishes to oneself, to people who are already in your inner circle, but then to expand that to people that you might feel sort of neutral about in regular everyday life and try to warm up your sentiments towards people you may have no particular feeling for, then to extend that to an ever-widening circle.

‘We found that this changes the very fundamental rhythms of the heart, so that we see more heart rate variability. We are looking now at changes in gene expression in the immune system, and we’re able to look at the extent to which increases in day to day levels of positive emotions predict physiological changes and psychological practical changes like resilience, social connection and so on.’

Read more: The global happiness research aiming to make the world smile (and live longer)

Fredrickson and her team have also done some research on the relationship between positivity and the way people relate to each other. They found that our ability to recognise individuals is facilitated by the temporary experience of positive emotions.

It’s well-established that most people are very good at recognising the faces of individuals from similar ethnic backgrounds and less good at recognising individuals from other backgrounds. However, Fredrickson and her colleagues found that when people are under the influence of positive emotions,  that ‘race bias’ disappears altogether and people are just as good at recognising individuals across racial lines.

‘It’s like the things that tend to divide us, like race and cultural differences, temporarily slip out of view, and people are much more likely to see the collective and “we” rather than “me versus you”.’

Sadly, Fredrickson’s research also demonstrates that it’s not always the easiest for human beings to look on the bright side.

‘Negative emotions really hit us like a sledgehammer,’ she says. ‘They are really much more intense and attention grabbing than our positive emotions, which are comparably more subtle. …we have an ingrained negativity bias.

‘But there’s another asymmetry; positive emotions are actually more frequent than negative emotional experiences … so those are two different asymmetries: an asymmetry in intensity that favours negative emotions, and one in frequency that favours positive emotions.’

Fredrickson argued in a 2005 paper co-authored with Marcial Losada that there is an ideal ratio of positive to negative emotions, outside of which human beings will fail to flourish. They argued that if your ratio of positive to negative emotions is greater than 2.9013 to one, you will flourish both physically and psychologically.

This positivity ratio theory was immediately controversial, and was discredited by Nicholas Brown et al in a 2013 article published in the journal American Psychologist. Brown’s chief criticism was that the maths used in Fredrickson and Losada’s paper, taken from the field of fluid dynamics, was not correct or appropriate.

Fredrickson has since accepted that the mathematics on which the positivity ratio was based was wrong, however she stands by the rest of her positivity research and maintains that it is highly likely that there is a tipping point in relation to positive emotions and wellbeing.

According to Fredrickson, certain things tend to universally help us to feel more positive.

‘One is spending more time with people; whether people are introverted or not, we found that everybody feels more uplifted and alive when they are social than when they are alone.

‘We [also] that people who prioritise positivity when they make their choices about how to arrange their day seem to benefit from more positive emotions and grow and become better versions of themselves over time through these broaden-and -build effects. This is something that can change as people learn about the scientifically shown benefits of positive emotions, help people take positive emotions more seriously, like this is part of my health and wellbeing, not just icing on the cake.

‘If we take positive emotions more seriously and schedule our days so that we know there’s certain events, like if I see this friend or go for a run in nature or spend time on my favourite hobby, those things bring me joy. If we prioritise those in our days, we do better.’

However, there is still a sceptical view of positive psychology. Being positive can sometimes seem forced and insincere. Fredrickson suggests that this is one of the most difficult things about positivity.

‘A little knowledge of positive psychology is a dangerous thing because people think that they can be happy just by deciding to be happy and that it’s just a simple manoeuvre, and it’s not so simple,’ says Fredrickson. ‘There are ways to deceive yourself into thinking that you are happy, or being obsessive about being happy. There is some work to show that people who value happiness too much, it just backfires. It’s a delicate art, learning how to facilitate the genuine positive emotions.

‘That’s why I think that some of the better approaches are more other-focused; focusing on the wellbeing of others and being kind and compassionate to others is less likely to lead us into that self-deception state. There are ways to do this pursuit of happiness that are successful and lead to genuine positivity, and there are very easy ways to do it wrong. It’s trickier than it seems.’

Source: Linne Malcolm