Book Review: 'Positivity' by Barbara L. Fredrickson

By Eric Weiner,
who is the author of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World."
Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive

By Barbara L. Fredrickson

Crown. 277 pp. $24.95

If our words, and not only our eyes, are windows to the soul, then what dark souls we must possess. We have many more words at our disposal to describe negative emotions than positive ones. During down days we might say we're feeling sad, blue, down in the dumps, despondent, morose (the list is endless, really), while during life's brighter moments we describe ourselves as joyful, content or -- that old standby -- happy. Slim pickings.

Barbara Fredrickson intuitively understands this linguistic imbalance, so she has dressed up an old but seldom-used word: positivity. What is it exactly? Fredrickson first tells us what positivity is not. It is not happiness, a word she finds "murky and overused." Positivity, she writes, "reigns whenever positive emotions -- like love, joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, and inspiration -- touch and open your heart." That sounds an awful lot like old-fashioned happiness to me, but I understand the need to repackage insight.

Positivity, Fredrickson assures us, is not warmed-over New Age mumbo jumbo; her conclusions are based not on mere hunches or personal epiphanies but, rather, on science. Specifically, the "science of happiness," or "positive psychology," as it's also known, a burgeoning field that lends empirical credibility to a subject that philosophers have pondered for centuries.

Fredrickson, one of the pioneers of this field, knows her stuff. She is a sure-footed and compassionate guide to positive psychology's many findings. Indeed, the best nuggets stem from Fredrickson's own research into what she calls the "broaden-and-build theory." Simply put, positive thinking opens our minds. Positive thinkers literally see more of the world around them and are more likely to find innovative solutions to problems.

Fredrickson makes a convincing case that feeling good is good for you. People imbued with "positivity" are healthier, more productive and generous. They bounce back from adversity more quickly, make better managers and live longer. Fredrickson expounds at length about the "sweet fruits of positivity," but it's roughly 150 pages before she turns to exactly how we can partake of that sweetness.

Feeling good, it turns out, is a lot more complicated than you might think. Most of us experience positive emotions more frequently than negative ones. The problem is that negative emotions are stronger than positive ones; they make a greater impression on us and stick around longer. So we need a lot more positive feelings to overwhelm the negative ones -- 3 to 1 is the magic formula, according to Fredrickson.

In the end, Fredrickson's prescriptions for boosting our positivity are not especially surprising: Cultivate kindness, connect with nature, meditate, reduce your diet of negative news (which is nearly all news these days). But, alas, as historian Will Durant said, "Nothing is new except arrangement." Good self-help books don't tell us anything we don't already know. They just tell us in a way that sounds new and therefore resonates.

Fredrickson's approach, though, is to bombard us with studies and scientific findings. Her material is occasionally fascinating, but it can be mind-numbing after a while. Indeed, this book shines most when Fredrickson, a self-confessed "data junkie," puts down her spreadsheets and writes as a fallible human being. She reveals smatterings of her life: trying to cope with her husband's life-threatening complications after surgery, attending the funeral of a close relative on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks. "Positivity" would have benefited from more of these genuine, human moments.

Like many practitioners of positive psychology, though, Fredrickson doesn't trust any insight unless it involves a double-blind study and lots of numbers. What she fails to point out is that the "science" of happiness is not a science the way, say, physics is a science. It relies heavily on people's self-reports of their feelings, which, while more reliable than you might think, is not the same as measuring milliliters in a test tube.

Yet the fuzziness of her data doesn't prevent Fredrickson from writing breathlessly about the discoveries that positive psychology has unearthed. In fact, many of these discoveries are common sense wrapped in the parlance of social science. For instance, Fredrickson writes, "People who flourish function at extraordinarily high levels -- both psychologically and socially." Last time I checked, that was the definition of flourishing. Or, she says, "Positivity can loosen negativity's grip on your mental outlook." Frankly, I don't need a book to tell me that, but that might be my negativity talking.

Some of Fredrickson's conclusions ring true but hardly seem fresh. For instance, she writes, "Whether you experience positivity or not depends vitally on how you think." Norman Vincent Peale said essentially the same thing half a century ago in his 1952 classic "The Power of Positive Thinking." Peale's wisdom was based on his faith, not science, but that renders his words no less relevant -- or uplifting.

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