“POSITIVITY: Top Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life”
©2009 by Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD
We think angels fly because they have wings.
“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”
— G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy
In this season of gratitude and gifts, I’m grateful to Barbara Fredrickson for her gift of Positivity, a handy guide to the art of not getting hijacked by emotional clunkers. This groundbreaking book’s subtitle, Top Notch Research Reveals the 3-to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, is accurate on both counts. Fredrickson offers up ideas that are useful in anyone’s everyday life, and they’re backed by rigorous research.
She lists gratitude as one of ten forms of positivity. Along with the others—joy, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love—gratitude has been shown through neuroscience to help us be more creative, more open, more able to focus, more willing to take risks, and more adept at leading more satisfying, successful lives. I don’t know about you, but I want that!
“Positive emotions—like all emotions—arise from how [we] interpret events and ideas as they unfold,” Fredrickson writes. Or, as Shawn Achor puts it in his book, The Happiness Advantage, “It’s not necessarily reality that shapes [you], but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality….”
And therein lies the rub. Like most human brains, mine is masterful at interpreting events with the worst possible spin. I say “like most” because neuroscience has shown that we humans are hard-wired to pay five times more attention to negatives than to positives. Paying more attention to the rustling in the bushes than to the beautiful sunset was an essential survival tactic, so it stuck through evolution. In today’s relatively safe world, though, giving more emotional weight to an insult than to a compliment releases unnecessary cortisol in the brain, which has all kinds of damaging effects on our brains and our bodies.
Being positive isn’t the same as being disengaged and mindlessly cheerful (ick). Positivity is about transcending circumstances and events to engage in emotionally healthy responses to life. It’s about being resilient, or, as Fredrickson says, having “exquisite emotional agility.” It’s about having a choice in how we respond to life’s knocks and bruises.
In Positivity, Fredrickson shares insights and gives us tools to help us develop the skill of tinting our personal lens a more generous shade of rose. It starts with making different choices. Consider how you might avoid gratuitous negative influences in your life. You don’t need to be friends with a neighbor or colleague who’s a chronic naysayer. You don’t have to watch the nightly news, or follow every horrific story that makes the rounds on the internet.
When you do have to confront something that stirs negative emotions (and who doesn’t?), it’s not helpful to spin an elaborate yarn about all the (often far-fetched) negative implications and consequences. When you disappoint yourself, instead of dwelling on it, take a moment to consciously bring to mind the small accomplishments that might tip the balance toward feeling good, not bad, about yourself.
For a taste of what you’ll find in this excellent handbook to happier, more creative and more satisfying living (and to measure your own positivity ratio), visit www.positivityratio.com. Your brain, not to mention your friends and family, will thank you for it.
Music is one of my favorite ways to yank myself out of a negative spiral. What’s yours?