Speaker 1: Okay, this morning I have the pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson. Dr. Fredrickson is a Kenan Distinguished Professor and Director of Positive Emotions and Psychopsychology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she holds appointments in psychology and the Kenan-Flagler School of Business. She earned her undergraduate degree from Carleton College and her doctorate from Stanford University and has held faculty positions at Duke and the University of Michigan.
She received numerous honors for her research in positive emotions, including the American Psychological Association’s inaugural Templeton Prize in positive psychology and the Society for Experimental Social Psychology’s Career Trajectory Award. Her work has received more than 15 consecutive years of funding from the US National Institute of Health. She’s the coauthor of a leading introduction psychology book and a book Positivity, written for people like us. This morning Dr. Fredrickson will be presenting her talk Why Care About Positive Emotions based upon two decades of scientific research on why positive emotions are foundational to understanding how humans thrive and grow. Welcome, Dr. Fredrickson.
Dr. Fredrickson: It’s great to be here, and it’s true you can’t see much of anything of you guys with these lights going, so I’ll take it on faith that people behind the first row are actually looking. Why care about positive emotions? Well, I learned some interesting things at last night’s park bench celebration, and is that the authors of The Agile Manifesto are widely regarded as having really nailed human nature. Working in the science of human nature, in psychology, I’d have to concur. I think there’s some really foundational, universal truths written into that manifesto. It’s really heartening to see how much your industry has embrace a seemingly universal truth when you see it written and when you feel it in action.
What’s kind of interesting is in psychology there’s a similar sort of movement that happened around the same timetable as the agile movement. Actually, in 1999, I was involved in writing the manifesto for this new movement of psychology, which is positive psychology. Now, the positive psychology manifesto is not nearly as good as The Agile Manifesto. Next time I’m involved in writing a manifesto I’ll know to make it short and have a good beat. It was just far too long, ours is not quoted, it can’t fit on a poster, so I learned a lot from you guys, thank you.
What agile as a movement and positive psychology as a movement have in common is a faith and trust in individuals and in teams, and in the inherent goodness and creative potential of individuals working in teams and individuals themselves, and whole organizations. Foundational within positive psychology is a focus on what helps people be resilient, that’s the term that’s used most often in psychology. But the definition of resilience is being exquisitely attuned to the nuances of the situation, agile. The bedrock focus on adaptiveness and agility is common to both. Now, the science of positive psychology really drills deep to try to find what are the factors that enable individuals, teams, whole organizations to thrive and be successful. What I want to turn to now is some of my work on positive emotions, which I think are at the center of what enables people to be agile and to thrive.
I just want to take a second to acknowledge that sometimes taking a whole hour to talk about positive emotions can seem kind of frivolous, especially when you’re thinking about all the other world events that are going on around us, people still facing unemployment and all the stresses of wondering where their next mortgage payment is going to come from, and with the stock market crash of yesterday, who knows where we’ll be, how long this is going to be continuing. We’re also continuing to place our young people in situations like this where they literally don’t know what’s coming around the corner. Even our most resilient and agile soldiers, the Navy SEALs are also at risk. Then there are the big environmental issues, global warming, natural disasters and trying to solve the problems on how to get aid to the people who need it when they need it, and then last spring, with the radiation fallout of natural disasters. Then I thought how are you guys trying to solve all of these problems? Sometimes it’s really frustrating as you’re sitting at your computer, working on ways to integrate other people’s problems into solutions.
Now, in these kind of moments, situations like jump for joy, happiness can seem a little misplaced, or not quite attuned to what’s going on in the current circumstances, the current context. But I want to remind you that positive emotions come in many different flavors. This jump for joy moment that might be a particularly American version of positive emotions is just one of many flavors. There are also very much quieter positive emotions, like feeling deep in your bones grateful for your current circumstances, or for the assistance to others, or just feeling completely attuned with your current context, feeling serene and just like everything is right with the world, sharing a laugh with a friend or a child, being inspired by a great leader. I think it’s kind of interesting in the last few years we’ve had to go further and further back in history to find the great leader that people can be inspired by across a whole room. Most of all, the most common form of positivity is the kinds of positive emotions that we share with other people, loved ones in our lives and people we work with every day.
I want to share with you two core facts about positive emotions. The first is that they open us. Allow me to get a little poetic for a moment or two. Imagine that you are this water lily, and it’s early in the morning and your face is deep inside those petals, and your petals are really tied up around your face. If you can see anything at all from that vantage point, it’s really very little, you just see a beam right in front of you. But as the sun rises, things begin to change and those delicate blinders are removed from your face. Your world literally expands, your perception of the world literally expands.
Now, what I’m here to emphasize is that this isn’t just poetic language. I’m not just talking about flowers. Brain science shows that positive emotions expand people’s awareness just like as if you were this flower and the sun is rising. When I wrote my book Positivity, I used to use daylilies for this. The benefit of being invited to speak to lots of different audiences is that you learn things from horticultural experts in the audience who told me that, “Daylilies don’t do what you say. Water lilies do, but daylilies don’t.” So if you see a version of my book that talks about daylilies, just know that I have been educated since then, it’s water lilies.
Okay, so I want to, again, emphasize that this is an idea that’s been scientifically tested, it’s been published in a range of specialty journals and general science journals in psychology and neuroscience. These are based on randomized, controlled studies where we introduce positive emotions to one group of people by random assignments, by showing them puppies, silly penguins, serene scenes. These are ways that we, in a laboratory setting, inject positive emotions, and we compare those to other people who are randomly assigned to see something very neutral.
Other ways that people inject positive emotions in a laboratory setting, just because sometimes people are curious about this, is to give people an unexpected gift. The most common one that’s been used is a gift of candy, wrapped up tightly in cellophane, so that you know it was the gift and not a sugar high that’s responsible for any of the effects. Because it’s really important that people don’t eat the candy but they get it as a gift. By flip of a coin, people come into psychology laboratories and they either get this gift before completing some cognitive tests or as a parting gift on the way out. So we look at the effect of getting the gift and the feeling that that creates on people’s responses. Other studies use music, picking upbeat music and comparing that to neutral tones or sad music.
I just want to give you a picture for some of these kinds of experiments. This is one that comes from my own research laboratory that really started tests of these ideas, that positive emotions expand people’s awareness and open their mindsets. This is one where we asked people, they viewed a number of items like the one that I’ll show you, they’re asked to identify which of these two comparison figures on the bottom most resembles the target figure on top.
Now, there’s no right or wrong answer with that, but if you choose the triangle made of triangles you’re looking at similarities in the global configuration. If you choose the square made up of squares, you’re looking at similarities across the local detail elements. What we found is if we randomly assign people to experience a positive emotion before they do this series of choices, they’re far more likely to pick the triangle made of triangles. They’re more likely to connect the dots and see the bigger picture rather than just focus on the local detail elements compared to people who experience a neutral emotion.
Some other work that comes from other people, a lab at Brandeis has done eye tracking. What they have used in this study is that classic bag of candy test where they, by random assignment, gave people a bag of candy either before or after they looked at images like this, just an array on a computer screen with photos on the periphery and one in the middle. What they found was that, if the bag of candy came after, if there was no positive emotion, almost 90% of the time people spent their visual attention on the baby in the center. But if you give them the bag of candy, they spend equal amounts of time looking at all three babies. They look around the scene more and take in more information. The babies on the side are just as cute as the baby in the center, just as deserving of your attention I would argue, but people just don’t see the babies on the side unless they’re feeling good.
My favorite study to show this idea that positive emotions expand people’s awareness comes from a recent brain imaging study out of University of Toronto. Here, what these researchers did, is capitalize on recent advances in cognitive neuroscience that show us that there are certain areas of the brain that are specialized to see human faces, and there are other areas of the brain that are specialized to see environments or places. So there’s a face area of the brain and a place area of the brain, and they exploited that knowledge in this study by having people … Oh, this is one where they randomly assign people to hear pleasant music or neutral sounds, and then they ask people to say is this face male of female. Nobody ever got this task wrong, it was really easy.
They were told to just look at the face, tell me whether it’s male or female. Ignore everything else, so ignore what was surrounding the face, which was a place. What these researchers found was that, when people are experiencing neutral or negative emotions, they followed those instructions perfectly well, they just focused on the face. The way these neuroscientists know that is because only the face area of the brain showed activation. The place area of the brain did not reflect the fact that the real estate ads were flipping every once in a while. It’s as if people just zeroed their attention just on the focal task, and the patterns of blood flow in their brain confirmed that they weren’t even seeing the contextual surround.
Totally different when people were listening to pleasant music. When people were listening to pleasant music, both the face area of the brain and the place area of the brain were showing activation in step with changes in the images. It’s as if, under the influence of positive emotions, our brains work differently. We literally can’t help ourselves from seeing contextual features. That’s what allows us to be agile, and nimble, and responsive to context. This, again, very subtle experimental manipulations. People were either feeling neutral or listening to some mildly pleasant, upbeat music, and blood flow in the brain is totally different.
Okay, so that helps explain why the other experiments have shown that people have a better memory for details when they’re recalling positive emotional experiences compared to when they’re recalling neutral emotional experience. This is why the park bench group could recall so many of those details from 10 years ago, perhaps, those were the ones infused with positive emotion, but people have better memory for details.
Now, this is an ancient idea. This is a quote from the 13th century, Rumi wrote that, “There is a way of breathing that’s a shame and a suffocation that really narrows you down. And there’s another way of expiring,” Rumi called it a love-breath, “That lets you open infinitely.” What we’re finding in modern psychological science has certainly been pointed to as a perhaps universal truth many centuries earlier. What we can’t support of what Rumi says here is the infinitely part. We can show that positive emotions expand people’s awareness. We have yet to do the study that says you can expand it infinitely. So there are some differences between what philosophers wrote centuries ago, but it’s reassuring to see this commonality come out in lots of different areas.
Okay, I want to just briefly touch on all the different ways that this fact, this core fact that positive emotions expand people’s awareness, and the scientific support for that idea, how does that matter? Where else does that come into play? Well, for one, people see more possibilities when they’re experiencing a positive emotion than when they’re experiencing a neutral emotion, or certainly more than when they’re experiencing negative emotions. When people are feeling neutral or negative, there’s only like one of two signposts on that sign, but people come up with more possible ideas about what to do next, what’s next.
People are more creative, this has been shown for decades now in experimental studies and has now been decidedly linked to this fact that we’re able to see more, our peripheral vision literally expands. That accounts for the benefits to creativity. If you see more, you connect the dots, you can make your next move a more creative one.
More resilience, and again, resilience is the closest concept to agility within positive psychology. Some of my own work from a decade or so ago pointed to the uncanny ability of positive emotions to help us down regulate negative cardiovascular activation, sort of that goes with negative emotions, and also helps people cope with adversity and bounce back. Those can be from laboratory stressors or real-world stressors. We actually did a study surrounding the events of September 11th and found that people, in the mix of all the things they felt after September 11th, were also able to feel grateful, inspired, hopeful, those are the people who grew the most and had the least amount of depression.
Better performance on exams. There are a dozen or so studies with school kids asking them just to think for one minute of a happy memory before they take their end of grade tests, and they score better. This actually, as a parent, affects what I do with my own kids on exam day. I just teach them to think about that happy memory right before you go into the bubble sheet test.
Better medical decisions. There’s a very famous study in psychology where they use that bag of candy technique and they gave it to physicians who were solving a complex internal medicine case. As judged by other physicians, those physicians who got the bag of candy beforehand came up with better decisions, more integrative, brought in more of the information.
So why does that work? Well, there’s a series of studies that have come out of my own lab that suggest that, in a general way, positive emotions unlock our other focused thinking. Normally, in a normal state, you could say that people are in this sort of cocoon or self absorption. Most of their thoughts are thoughts about themselves. When people are experiencing positive emotions, that changes. They still have a lot of thoughts about themselves, but they also have a lot of thoughts about other people and how they might connect and relate to other people.
In particular, there’s this idea that in relationship with friends, coworkers, romantic partners you can characterize the relationship as the extent to which we include the attributes of the other person as attributes of ourselves. The technical phrase for this is inclusion of the other in the self. You see more connection, more overlap between you and close others. We’ve done a series of studies to show that when you just inject some positive emotions into people’s mindsets they are more likely to see the great extent of overlap between themselves and others.
Better perspective taking, people are better able to take the perspective of another under the influence of positive emotions. They come up with more ways to help, and they’re able to see beyond categorical differences between themselves and another. This is a study we’ve done on race bias. It’s very common for people to see another person of a different race as a member of that racial category, not as an individual. We find that that goes away completely under the influence of positive emotions, people are just as good at recognizing individuals across racial lines as recognizing their same-race individuals.
More trust, people expand their circle of trust to include a wider range of people. They come up with better negotiations, more win-win solutions to complex issues. I think this really points to why agility, in terms of dealing with customers and hearing people’s ideas really work.
Now, I want to tell you some of this most recent understandings and breakthroughs about the way positive emotions effect people’s mindsets, is that when you have not just positive emotions, but shared positive emotions, and not just shared positive emotions, but shared with eye contact, face-to-face sharing of positive emotions, something different and even more astounding, I think, emerges. What happens when you mix positive emotions and eye contact together? Well, what we are finding is that a biobehavioral synchrony between two people emerges when you share positive emotions and eye contact, that, literally, two people kind of move to the same hidden beat and start to act as one.
Some examples of this, in my research lab we’ve looked at the extent of which two people, who were strangers when they first entered the laboratory room, they partake in this get-to-know-one-another task, the extent to which their nonverbal behaviors start to mirror each other predicts how much they really felt attuned and connected, and that they really got along really well and had a great rapport afterwards.
Now, here’s some great work out of developmental psychology that has shown that behavioral synchrony is so important in relationships. The relationships that they’ve studied the most are infants and their parents. Now, in the old days, this work used to always be infants and their mothers. This generation of work is infants and their mothers and infants and their fathers, so everything I’m about the say next applies to fathers as well.
What they’ve found was that when infants and their parents show this very tightly attuned, positivity sharing, they’re sharing their positive emotions, they’re making eye contact, they’re making touch contact, there’s also synchrony in oxytocin in both infant and parent, mother and father. These were dyads, infant and mother, and then infant and father, but the effect is there for both. That behavior isn’t just synchronized, the neuropeptide oxytocin, which has been dubbed sort of the bonding hormone, or the cuddle hormone, or the phrase that I like is the calm and connect hormone … It’s more than a hormone though, it’s a neuropeptide because it’s released and acts in the brain as well. But anyway, behavioral synchrony also leads to this neurohormonal synchrony.
There’s a neural synchrony that goes on with any conversation. Recent neuroscience perspectives suggest that conversation itself is a single act performed by two brains, and that a speaker and listener are engaging with one another, they’re showing a mirrored pattern of blood flow. That suggests that listening and speaking are activating very much the same thing and, again, putting people sort of on the same page, acting as one.
For those of you who might recall this moment of the mind-meld, this is kind of like that. Positive emotions, face-to-face, plus eye contact leads to a miniature version of a mind-meld. But I’d say Spock got it wrong, because Spock’s, of course, had no emotions, right? And he is not making eye contact, so he got the key foundational pieces wrong. But the idea of this intersubjectivity, or this way in which there’s two minds and bodies kind of acting as one, well positive emotions are the doorway to that.
This is the term that I’m working with in my own research lab, is that positive emotions lead to this great opening of, expanding of awareness, but shared positive emotions lead to this biobehavioral synchrony and positivity resonance. I’m trying to come up with the right metaphor for this. This is the one that I’ve been working with, is that when I was a kid I had a piece of furniture like this, and you could kind of sit in the middle and put the mirror around in front of you, and you’d see not just one reflection but you’d see a whole ton of reflections.
You could think of just seeing a single reflection as like this great benefit of positive emotions. When positive emotions are shared and they start to resonate between people with this biobehavioral synchrony, there’s a whole lot more going on. We’re in the process of really trying to nail, like you guys nailed human nature, the specifics of what is the yield of positivity resonance. We have some clues, and I’ll turn to some of that in a minute.
I just want to pause here and say that what the science of positive emotions points out is that we’re not just dealing with the same old story that you’ve heard time and again that positive emotions help you see the world through rose colored glasses, or allow you to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. I’m not saying that those views are wrong. Or, how was the phrase? There’s nothing wrong with those, but I just value this other perspective better. Thank you, learned a lot from you guys.
It’s not just the old story, but positive emotions also expand our awareness in ways that allow us to see the big picture. Here is why the big picture matters, being able to see the big picture allows us to deal with those real-world big problems that require us to be able to see context, to be able to be agile and resilient and deal with all the different permutations and problems that the world gives us, because the world is not simple. We need to see the big picture, and positive emotions are our key to being able to do that.
Okay, there’s a second core fact about positive emotions that I want to share with you in the time that we have left. That is that, in addition to positive emotions expanding our awareness, positive emotions also transform us for the better. Even as you’re sitting here this morning, we know from medical science that new cells are growing within you. Some cells are dying, some cells are being born. There are certain things that … This is not the same across all cells. Your taste buds will turn over in a matter of hours, your bones in a matter of months. But, averaging all those together, scientists have argued that 1% of your cells change over each day. So that’s another 1% tomorrow, another 1% the next day, and that could be 30% by next month. By next season, on average across all of those cells, you could see yourself as totally brand new self.
Now, the pace of cell renewal doesn’t just follow a predetermined genetic script. It’s responsive to your actions and your behaviors, and to some would say, your emotions. One thing that definitely drives it is your activity level. If you’re more sedentary, that’s a slower pace of cell renewal. If you’re more active, it’s a faster pace. Some have argued that emotions operate similarly, and that the emotions that you feel today accumulate and compound, especially if it starts to be a trend over time, in ways that change, literally, who you are at a cellular level a season from now.
My lab has been engaged in trying to document what are the long term effects of a steady diet of positive emotions in people’s lives, especially what happens when we increase our daily diet, not just of fruits and vegetables, but also of positive emotions. Tackling this question scientifically, I realized that really what you need is not a bag of candy, or a short little video clip that shows puppies or penguins, or some pleasant music. The only way that you’re going to have lasting effect in people’s lives is to really look at increasing positive emotions as a lifestyle change. I’ve come to liken it to a bit like moving a river. If you want to change people’s habitual positive emotions day in and day out, it’s very much like moving a river. It is more possible than moving a mountain, but not something that you do in a whim or without continual reinforcement.
That actually led me to join another movement within psychology, which is a turn towards what’s been called contemplative science, or a scientific look at the effects of meditation. In particular, the kind of meditation that my research lab has focused on, is one that is an ancient one, goes back 2,500 years, and it focuses on kindness and cultivating feelings of warmth, tenderness and kindness, first towards people that you may know, people in your inner circle, and then extending those feelings to yourself, and then to people that you feel kind of neutral about, and then to people that kind of irritate you, and then eventually to all beings on earth. This is a form of meditation that goes by many names. It’s called Metta in Pali. It’s called Maitri in Sanskrit. It’s often translated as loving kindness, loving kindness meditation or sometimes just kindness meditation.
Through the research that we’ve done tested the effects of randomly assigning some people to learn this meditation technique and others not, that we can increase people’s positive emotions over a span of a number of weeks. Now, the increase in positive emotions is not whopping. You’re not going from the most dour person in the world to the most upbeat person in the world, but there’s just a subtle and reliable shift across a wide range of positive emotions, actually. Here we see that, compared to our weightless control group in this study, those who learned to meditate showed an increase over seven weeks.
This finding just allowed us to get in the door to test the other thing: What happens if people increase their daily diets of positive emotions? How do people change? What we learned is that that increase, that subtle shift in positive emotions accounts for a wide sweeping range of changes in people where they’re building their resources. Another way to put it is they’re becoming better version of themselves, they’re becoming more resourceful. In particular, we find that people are better able to be mindfully aware of their current circumstances.
Again, see the resemblance to the resilience and agile mindset? People are better able to focus on what’s happening in the present moment, they’re more mindful. People also report that their connections with other people are more supportive, trusting and warm. People are also better able to deal with changes in circumstances. They kind of become masters of their environment and be resilient and agile in the way they’re dealing with change. People even reported fewer aches, pains, headaches, colds, stomach problems and that sort of thing.
Now, this first study that we did on the effects of this kind of meditation actually was the largest study of meditation that had been done at this time. We had about 200 volunteers from Compuware in Detroit, actually. We randomly assigned them to either learn this meditation or not. All the measures were self-report measures, and that’s one of the downsides of that work that we’ve basically taken on in our more recent work.
But the bottom line of this kinds of studies is that positive emotions really change who we are. A steady diet of positive emotions at home, at work, in our daily life literally transforms who we are and allows us to become the better versions of ourselves. To step away from flowers and butterflies for a minute, this actually is also a change that we’re now exploring at the cellular level. Most recent work ongoing in my laboratory is to look at the effects of this kind of meditation on changes in gene expression in the immune system that may account for the changes in self-reported health that we have seen.
A study that we’ve done just recently also tries to go beyond the self-report health benefits to look at really what’s a biological change that might be associated here. We were very interested in the functioning of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is your tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brainstem to your heart, and to a number of other stops in your body. One of its jobs is to be sort of the calming device in your body. Because you all know the fight or flight response when your computer crashes or whatever else happens, and your blood pressure and heart rate rise, it’s your vagus nerve that allows you to eventually calm down after that. It also has a job of regulating people’s heart rates beat by beat.
The strength, or the vigor, or the health of people’s vagus nerve is often talked about in terms of vagal tone. Like muscle tone, high vagal tone is a good thing. How it is shown is that, basically humans have a very high heart rate naturally. It’s a little bit higher than it needs to be, so when we’re exhaling, if your vagus nerve is high vagal tone, your heart rate slows down a little bit with each exhalation. Then it speeds up again when you inhale, and then it slows down again when you exhale. That subtle arrhythmia in heart rate is a healthy index of vagal tone. Which is a good thing, because it’s been viewed as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, having low vagal tone, and high vagal tone is associated with better regulation at a physiological level, better glucose regulation, better cardiovascular regulation. So it’s definitely been a predictor of good health.
Outside of physical health, within psychological health, having high vagal tone is also associated with being able to regulate your attention, regulate your emotions, and regulate your behavior. If you know somebody at work who has kind of toddler-like outbursts over upsets, you can maybe guess that there might be low vagal tone going on there. Where the people who are the best copers are the ones who have higher vagal tone. So high vagal tone is good for physical health and for social situations as well, in terms of being able to regulate your social behavior and your emotions.
Okay, so what we found is that, in the most recent study, this positivity resonance, this ability to share positive emotions with another person, increases people’s vagal tone. Now, this is a study where we randomly assigned people to either learn this loving kindness meditation, that’s the LKM, or not, they were in a weightless control group.
We measured their resting vagal tone before they were ever randomly assigned to either of these groups, and then again three months later, after they kind of had got a grasp of this technique. They’re not meditation experts, at any rate. These are normal people who had no background in meditation, they just took a first course. Three months later their vagal tone, this biological index of mental and physical health, shows improvement. The active ingredient that led to that improvement was this positivity resonance, or this ability to feel connected and attuned to other people.
I just want to point out that there’s a dynamic going on here, that we’re decidedly being able to link two positive emotions. Now, in psychology, most often you’ll hear about downward spirals, downward spirals of shame or depression. That’s basically the pessimistic thinking that goes along with feeling depressed or upset with the current circumstances, narrows people’s thinking and actually promotes further depression. So there’s a downward spiral where there’s reciprocal feedback going on between those two states. Narrowed rigid thinking, ever worsening mood can lead to clinical levels of depression. That’s what psychology has shown over the last several decades.
What we’re now seeing is that there are comparable upward spiral dynamics that definitely show the same sort of reciprocal feedback, where the expanded open mindsets of positive emotions actually help seed further positive emotions, and they kind of help people grow and change for the better over time. These momentary effects accumulate and compound and transform people for the better, and set people on these upward spiral trajectories of growth.
Now, languish or flourish, one of the things that I’ve argued is that, like all living things, humans, and teams, and organizations can either languish or flourish. Languish, barely holding on to life, hardly getting by, or remarkably resilient, creative, generative, really beautiful, and resilient to adversity … What we’re finding is that the key to whether you’re on the path of languishing or on the path towards flourishing are your day-to-day positive emotions, that positive emotional experiences can light the way towards flourishing. You don’t have to set your goal to be I need to flourish and thrive in life, you can just think I need to feel better today, and in this meeting, and take a much more proximal look. Positive emotions will lead you towards a flourishing, thriving state.
Here’s a quote that I have a complex relationship to. Thomas Merton, a 20th century theologian said, “Things that are good are good, and if one is responding to that goodness one is in contact with a truth from which one is getting something.” Now, as a scientist, this really bugged me at first, “Things that are good are good.” It’s just, ugh, so circular. What could it be talking about?
But if you step back and allow me to get back to that water lily analogy from earlier today, we know that sunlight is critical to the growth of all plants. At some level, plants know this and they turn towards the light and stretch themselves open to take in as much as they can so that they can grow. That’s called the heliotropic effect. Now, what psychology has been showing is that there’s a similar heliotropic effect in humans. When we experience positive things, our minds expand to take in as much as we can so that we can grow and change and build our resources to become more thriving, more agile, more resourceful and to flourish.
That’s what I’ve called the broaden and build effect of positive emotions. This is the scientific theory that all of my work has been based on for the last 20 years or so. It’s rooted in the principles of evolutionary psychology, and it basically argues that positive emotions in the moment expand our awareness. Those moments of expanded awareness accumulate, and compound and transform us for the better, build our resources.
I want to just take a little bit of another turn towards prescription, because what I’ve given you so far is a detailed scientific description of what positive emotions do, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you how to live your life differently when you go back to work, or back to your team, or back home, so I want to also turn to prescription a bit. The big question is how much is enough. How much positive emotion do I need to inject into this team meeting in order to have a good result?
It’s helpful to be above three to one, so it’s very much like the tipping point between ice, which is rigid and hard, and kind of painful sometimes, and water. All you have to do is raise the ambient temperature above zero degrees celsius and you turn a block of ice into water. There may be a similar dynamic going on in humans, where if we raise the ambient emotional tone of our days above three to one, that we move from languishing in life to flourishing in life.
Now, this is where I don’t have time to get into where did this number come from. It actually comes from looking at the complex dynamics of flourishing individuals, marriages, and teams. I want to say that it comes from mathematical modeling, it’s been tested against empirical data, so the three to one is not just a number sort of like Pi, it’s actually based on mathematics and data. So if you’re curious to learn more chapter seven of my book has the story of it. I don’t have time to get into it now, because it is a longer story. But as a prescription to think through daily life, three to one is a good kind of nutritional guideline. You don’t need to meet it in every meeting or every day, just over the long run it can be helpful.
One of the things that I really appreciate about the three to one ratio is that it suggests that the path to thriving, the path to flourishing is to not have a ratio of three to zero, it’s a ratio of three to one. That negativity is actually necessary for thriving as well, to kind of face adversity and have it affect you is equally important to thriving and being agile and flourishing.
I think, actually, a sailboat metaphor fits really well here. You can take the mast going up as positivity, the keel down below as negativity. If you sail, you know that even though it’s the mast that carries the sail, that allows you to capture the energy of the wind, you can’t sail without the keel. The boat would just flip over or kind of move aimlessly through the water. The keel is what allows you to stay attuned to the current circumstances and address adversity head on.
I used this analogy in an audience in Australia a couple years ago, and a gentleman in the audience who was an avid sailor said, “Yeah, and you know when the keel matters most is when you’re headed upwind.” When you’re facing adversity, that’s when the expression and recognition of genuine, warranted negativity is really helpful. Okay, so this is not just all about butterflies and flowers and sunshine all the time.
How to get to that three to one ratio, I just want to give you a few bits of evidence-based guidance from positive psychology that has emerged. This would be one view of positive psychology that I do not endorse. It’s not at all helpful to make your motto be be positive. It creates toxin insincerity. It’s actually harmful to your heart. To mask negative emotions with a yellow smiley face version of positivity causes as much damage as excessive negativity.
Better mottos to have, rather than be positive, is to, what I would say, would be to lightly create … This is the feigned positivity is toxic slide I should have showed you. There’s a quote that helps me make this turn better. A Sufi proverb suggests that, “There wouldn’t be such a thing as counterfeit gold if there were no real gold somewhere.” In a way, our culture is obsessed with this yellow smiley face, be positive kind of motto. You can take from that that there is a grain of truth to that, that it’s not all a hill of beans, that there is some real gold in there somewhere.
So how do you get to the real gold? Better mottos would be to lightly create the mindset of positivity, and that would be be open, be appreciative, be curious, be kind, and above all be real, recognize negative circumstances when you’re in the midst of them. Now, a lot of these are pretty obvious as to why they would yield more positive emotions, they’re pretty self-explanatory.
I just want to take a second to focus on be open. Why would being open to the current circumstances yield more positive emotions? Because if the current circumstances are awful, maybe they’d just yield more negative emotions. Now, the reason why be open is so powerful is that, statistically speaking, most moments that we find ourselves in are benign and actually good for us and nourishing. Our minds are sponges, though, for the negative information. But most bad things that we worry about in our minds haven’t happened, they’re fears that we have about the future.
So most often, we’re so often worried about bad things that happened in the past or anxious about bad things that might happen in the future that we completely miss that in-the-present moment. Nobody’s putting pins in your eyes, and you’re actually working on an interesting problem, or learning an interesting new idea, but oftentimes we’re so preoccupied with the past and the future that we miss the sources of goodness that are happening right now. So being open to the present moment is a great way to unlock a lot more positive emotions in people’s lives.
Now, I just want to close with my take on an old Native American saying. It goes like this, “One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is negativity, it’s anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame and hate. The other is positivity. It is joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love.” And the grandson thought about it for a minute and asked his grandfather, “Well, which wolf wins?” And the old Cherokee replied, “The one that you feed.” So, with that, I’d just like to thank you for your kind attention, and be happy to take any of your questions if you have them. But anyway, thank you so much.
Speaker 3: [inaudible 00:54:17] take questions.
Speaker 1: There should be student volunteers around with microphones, so you can raise your hand. Quickly, before we get into the questions, Barbara’s book is in the bookstore. Will you be signing any? That’s the question.
Dr. Fredrickson: I’d be happy to, yeah.
Speaker 1: Okay. When do you leave today?
Dr. Fredrickson: I’m here until noon.
Speaker 1: Okay, so this break would be a great time if you want her to sign the book. Okay, so questions, raise your hand and then …
Dr. Fredrickson: Keep in mind that I can’t see you, so just get the mic and then I’ll hear you.
Speaker 4: Hello? Over here.
Dr. Fredrickson: In the back, okay, got it. Thank you.
Speaker 4: Question regarding the value of eye contact.
Dr. Fredrickson: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Speaker 4: How is that impacted by the increasing movement for work at home and telecommuting?
Dr. Fredrickson: Right, right. So how does work at home, telecommute fit in here? I think that it’s something that we’re going to need to pay really close attention to, is how frequently we can do the work at home, telecommute and still maintain the connections that we have with teams. I think that teams that have their face-to-face time are going to survive different members going off to work at home better, and that you should kind of have that time in the hive and kind of reconnect with face-to-face time. Or we might find that we need to have better ways to create simulated eye contact.
I mean, to have cameras that allow us to look at the same thing at the same time and look at each other, that may work. I don’t know. I mean, I think those tests have yet to be done as to whether you’re getting the same biobehavioral synchrony through mediated eye contact versus face-to-face eye contact. Because we don’t know how much of the body is necessary to be co-present in order to set off that biobehavioral synchrony. Those are great questions for where we need to go next.
Speaker 5: Your don’t be positive slide-
Dr. Fredrickson: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Speaker 5: I want to ask a follow-up question about that. That follow-up question is, with what I do … I help marketing leaders understand how they need to change from old marketing to new marketing because the old marketing isn’t working. Most of them are in denial and they fit that happy face thing. What’s your advice for how to engage with people that are in that fake state of happiness to engage them into the conversation of what needs to happen? Whether that be a marketing process, or whether that be an IT problem, what’s your advice on that?
Dr. Fredrickson: One of the main mantras of positive psychology that’s actually very fitting with The Agile Manifesto is three words: Other people matter. That is that even though our outcome that we’re interested in is thriving, and positive emotions are a way to get there, if we go straight for positive emotions we get all that insincere stuff. But if we back up and think how do we listen better, how do we understand another person’s wishes better, how do we meet people where they are and address their needs. That is a better way to get to leveraging towards experiencing positive emotions.
It’s kind of one of those things where if you want to see a star in a night sky, a faint star, you don’t look right at it, you look sort of near it or not directly at it. If you look directly at it it’ll be in your blind spot. You can’t get to it sincerely. Positive emotions are like that. I talk about this in my book as the levers that you can pull to unleash genuine positive emotions. It’s helpful to not look at the emotions, but look at those levers. Those levers are often ways of framing the situation, ways of seeing a situation differently. Focusing on other people is a great way to do that.
Speaker 6: I have a question.
Dr. Fredrickson: Where?
Speaker 6: Over here in the back.
Dr. Fredrickson: Oh, okay. Thank you.
Speaker 6: Is any of this being used in practice in psychological counseling or psychiatry in any form?
Dr. Fredrickson: Yes, definitely. One of the things I forgot to mention as a parallel between the agile movement and the positive psychology movement, they’re both about 10 years old, positive psychology has caught on like wildfire within psychology and has even, I think, created an interesting challenge of there are more practitioners in positive psychology than there are scientists working on it. There’s tons of people practicing it in mental health coaching, in therapy, and in wellness coaching. It’s really taking off there, so it is being used in counseling, in coaching, and education, all kinds of settings. The application of it has really taken off like wildfire. I think it’s because people, again, they’re able to recognize a seeming universal truth that this positive stuff matters when they experience it and see it in action.
Speaker 7: I’m curious if you’ve researched humor and laughter as a positive emotion.
Dr. Fredrickson: Yeah, definitely. My research lab has looked at the effects of laughing alone versus laughing with other people and found some interesting preliminary data. There’s a really excellent theoretical paper on why laughter evolved that connects my work on the broaden and build theory with mirror neurons, and then this other view that laughter … sort of an alternative view that laughter and smiles … We traditionally think of them as a way to express your own emotions but, increasingly, scientists have found that actually the function of laughter is not just to express what you feel, but to draw out positive emotions in the other person.
That actually certain kinds of laugh are more emotion eliciting in others than other kinds of laugh. Like voice laughter is much more likely to yield an emotional response in the other versus a stifled laughter where you just kind of grunt and snort instead of actually letting a laugh out. So there’s some very interesting work that links up this biobehavioral synchrony to laughter. I’m actually plotting my next studies around using that a bit further, so great questions.
Speaker 8: Hi.
Dr. Fredrickson: Any more?
Speaker 8: Yes.
Dr. Fredrickson: Oh, okay.
Speaker 8: You showed us a graph of the difference of … I think you had people doing loving kindness meditation for, what was it, a month or two, and you showed the control group versus the difference. Could you talk a little bit about the magnitude of the change? It was significant, but what does it mean in somebody’s everyday life to be up .2 or whatever that amount was.
Dr. Fredrickson: One of the things that I think is really remarkable about those finding is that it’s a very subtle effect. People are filling out a survey every night to indicate what is the greatest amount of each of 10 different positive emotions that they felt that day, gratitude, serenity, inspiration, awe, all of them, and it goes from zero to four. What we did was take the average of all those 10 different emotions every day, average them across the week, and that’s what I reported there. So the scale ran from zero to four, and there was a shift, I think it’s like from two to 2.5, or 2.5 to three, so it’s not big at all. It is statistically reliable across our whole sample, that’s the critical thing.
But even more critical than that is that that little shift, just that little divergence, predicts changes in vagal tone from beginning to end and changes in self-reports and all those other resources. I’m not so impressed that we can shift people’s positive emotions just up a little bit. That wouldn’t impress me just in and of itself. But what impresses me is that that little shift sets off these other changes. One important thing is that it’s a steady increase over time that allows these upward spiral dynamics to take off.
I think that psychology is a little behind on this, looking at complexity science, because we typically tend to think of all effects as linear, like we need a big effect here to yield a big effect there. But here we’re seeing a very small effect, a very minor effect in people’s positive emotions leading to a really important dynamic that literally is changing the way their hearts beat on a daily basis three months later.
I don’t worry so much about that being a small shift, it’s actually very hopeful. You don’t have to go from who you are today to someone you don’t even recognize, you just need to maybe feel a little more inspired everyday, or a little more grateful everyday. It suggests that this transformation is well within our reach. Good question.
Speaker 6: I have a question here. Here.
Dr. Fredrickson: Where is it coming from?
Speaker 6: No, over there. Over here.
Dr. Fredrickson: Ah, okay, sorry. Thank you.
Speaker 6: Sometimes managing a team, or you’re being part of a team, and you come to a point where, being real, right now the project is going down the drain, you’re about to lose the contract and everyone is feeling negative. At this point, how do you inject these positive emotions into the team and into yourself?
Dr. Fredrickson: Right, right. When all hell breaks loose how do you stay real and stay positive? Well, I think the first piece is to stay real, to stay acknowledging the bad aspects of the situation like look this happened, this happened, this happened, and then reflect back what are we learning here, what are we learning from the unexpected bad outcomes, to try to reinforce that. Also, I think a key thing is to do whatever we can to resist pointing fingers and trying to find a scapegoat for the bad things that are happening, to recognize that probably that bad outcome was a surprise to everybody on the team, and to validate people’s contributions despite the bad outcomes. I mean, whenever we’re creating something new we’re taking risks. You’re not taking enough risks if you don’t fail, so I think just bringing that perspective of we’re working right on the edge, we’re going to fail sometimes, this is one of those times.
I actually was involved in a project looking at the role of this positive perspective, the ability to generate positive emotions in serial entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs fail a lot, and the ones who are able to rebound and found another organization and start again are the ones who have built teams where failure was, in a way, a sign of success. It helped them build rapport, and connections, and networks. Then they take those resources and scramble then in a different way for the next venture. Again, positive emotions are really key to being able to bounce back. I think just recognizing it in that situation is really useful. Thank you for the question.
Speaker 9: I have a question.
Speaker 10: And I have a microphone … Oh.
Dr. Fredrickson: Which-
Speaker 10: Just real quick.
Dr. Fredrickson: Okay, I can see Superman back here. I can’t see another mic.
Speaker 10: I was just curious about studies on the impact of group dynamics when, let’s say, one person who generally is … let’s say they have genuine positivity, and so if there have been studies on what that does to the physical and neurology of the rest of the group.
Dr. Fredrickson: Definitely, there have been studies on that. It’s very interesting to show … And there are actually been some computer simulations of what happens in a team. If one person changes, how much does the rest of the team change? But definitely, one person’s positivity can infect and energize the rest of the team, especially, what has been studied, is the positive emotion expression of leaders. Leaders have a disproportionate effect on the emotional tone of the rest of the team, in part because they have the microphone more often. Their emotional tone and energy definitely effects the rest of the team to a greater extent. But that doesn’t mean that anybody can’t become that leader. If they take the lead and express what they’re feeling about a situation that, in a way, is taking leadership into your own hands. Being emotionally expressive of positive emotions can really have a big effect that way. Thanks.
Speaker 3: We have time for one more question.
Speaker 9: Over here.
Dr. Fredrickson: Oh, back here.
Speaker 9: Has there been much study in looking at the impact of different cultures in this? For instance, some South Pacific cultures looking people in the eye is considered to be an aggressive gesture. How does that work in creating this positivity?
Dr. Fredrickson: Right, right. This work on the eye contact mixed with positivity is so new that I haven’t seen really good work looking at that piece across cultures, of the intersection of biobehavioral synchrony, culture and positive emotions. But you raise a really good question there. My hunch though is that, in a context that you view as safe … Safety is a really important precondition for positive emotions to be expressed, so if people aren’t feeling safe in their circumstance then that eye contact would be viewed as threatening. But if safety is met, needs for feeling safe, and there’s eye contact, then there’s this great potential to emerge.
Here I think there is a potential human universal in there because of the developmental research that we see with kids’ eye contacts with parents, and having that attentive caretaker is hugely important for that child’s development. All the way to adolescence and beyond, people have found it affects their cognitive abilities, their school outcomes, their empathy, and so on, for decades later, having a responsive, attuned parent. I do think that eye contact is universally important, but that first piece about what makes people feel safe is going to be very culturally dependent. Thank you. Thanks for your great questions.