Review of "Positivity"

By Barbara Fredrickson
Random House Audio, 2009
Review by Roy Sugarman, Ph.D. on Nov 16th 2010

Alice Sommer: "I was born with a very, very, good optimism. And this helps you. When you are optimistic, when you are not complaining, when you look at the good side of our life, everybody loves you". (Ms Sommer is celebrating her 107th birthday this month.  She is a holocaust survivor and a musician).

 Barbara Fredrickson has spent 20 years studying positivity, and Martin Seligman comments on the cover, saying that she is the genius of the positive psychology movement. The book is intended for the layman, not the serious scholar, but much of it will be interesting to those who already know some of the things Positivity means, and doesn't mean. Positivity has run a gauntlet of being vilified as a hippie version of feel-good Hollywood-style aphorisms, but has sought to derail such accusations by resorting to hard science.  Fredrickson makes reference to herself as a hardcore scientist, but at times writes with a strong sense of religiosity that brings this perilously close to a self-help book laced with flowery ventures into expansive language that might support critics of the approach.  Finally, she asks us to choose which works better for us as metaphor, religion or science.  Clearly, she has done this deliberately, to attract a wide audience of those looking for help, and those looking to learn.

Seemingly for the layman then, Fredrickson lays the groundwork by explaining that positive thinking or smiley faces are only a tiny part of it.  Not a ho-hum construct, or physical pleasure, or vague sense of happiness, positivity does not equate to happy or happiness.  Joy, gratitude and love are more stable elements of positivity, together with other elements of the philosophy.

For instance, in examining men who have had recent heart attacks, research shows that the absence of real positivity poses a serious, ongoing risk for future ischemic attacks, many of which are silent, and predicted by, for instance, an absence of constriction in the orbicularis muscles around the eye that should accompany a genuine smile.  Those in the study who habitually smile without the genuine emotion being expressed around the eye actually experience mini-infarcts while being negative.

 Joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, awe and love are listed as the ten positive emotions and the drivers, or levers that switch positivity on.

 Although she notes these are individualized, she believes that the increasing focus of science on these makes them credible sources of positivity, and the fact that are subject to personalized interpretation means we have to know what triggers these, and uniquely, what they in turn trigger in ourselves. One would have to engage in self study, in Chapter 11, a portfolio can be built up for personal application.

The relationship between good and bad is not linear, and Fredrickson describes the need for a 3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity, as a tipping point exists.  One side of the fence or the other leads to a rapid descent on one hand into contagious negativity, or contagious positivity.  Contagion is not just for others, but for other positive feelings as well.  So a one to one ratio does not exist, and total positivity, or a reference to this as Pollyanna views, does not exist in the vocabulary of positivity either, it's a series of events where the person deliberately turns to rose colored lenses, not bifocals, but focused on the search for joy, gratitude, hope, and so on, rather than allowing automatic negative thinking and feelings to dominate.  They will be there, but they can be overwhelmed and nullified.

Since we can (neurotically) envision all possible calamities, we can also choose to see better outcomes for ourselves, and work towards those, not avoiding the bad.  As Montaigne said, he had lived though many disasters, both big and small, most of which never happened at all. So simulating the best outcomes is part of using the prefrontal cortex to choose behaviors now that benefit, not avoid, future outcomes.

Despite the likes of Dan Gilbert and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who have commented positively on their colleagues' book, there are many points, which in the DVD audio book are magnified, which may annoy some listeners.  The author is fairly indulgent in selling us on what the book and positivity will do, with very lengthy prose, rather than getting to the meat of the science of it, rather than demonstrating its heuristic value in a more compelling way, and rather than directing us to the website or promoting the 3:1 differentiator, all of which occur further down the line, leaving us to hang on for some time to discern substance from metaphor. Again, her closing words ask us to choose between religion and science in this, which I find unsettling, given my bent towards the hard science of it as promised.

In this way, the CD copy magnifies Fredrickson's quasi-religious prose, countering her clear and most impressive history of research with a mantra like discussion of the ten positivity elements noted above. She repeats herself, and also skims over the research, leaving us with a belief that this is a self-help book which is less compelling as a scientific work than it purports to be, prompting her view that we can see this book one of two ways, and that is our choice.  Certainly the effect of narrating the book supports the religion rather than science metaphor, her book, and listening, rather than reading, it gets 'fluffy'. 

The messages that come through, namely 1) positivity feels good 2) positivity changes how your mind works 3) positivity transforms your future 4) positivity puts the brakes on negativity 5) positivity obeys a tipping point 6) you can increase your positivity, and finally that, with one of her past students, that the ratio of 3 positive to 1 negative emotions provides the means of increasing positivity, is weakened by the distance in between, hence I think her repetition of many themes often. Her anecdotes are very lengthy, and a summary of each chapter would be so helpful after many diversions in the prose.

The next four chapters however are intended to provide relief by reference to the science of positivity. Chapter 4 invites us to broaden our minds. Rich metaphors about being blooming sunflowers, or day lilies are put forward. We are supposed to broaden ourselves and turn to positivity as if a heliotrophic effect, but of course humans are more drawn to avoidance of danger and the maximization of reward, which is commented on, and a valuable target for the science of positivity. 

The 'broaden' effect is one of Fredrickson's targets in research.  She describes a simple experiment in which one completes a list of things one might want to achieve, after initially examining the back of the hand, or after imagining an inspiring event or two. The one is a neutral event, the other a more positive event, and generates a longer list, in an analogous laboratory experiment, she conducted.  Positive emotions thus open the focus of our attentional systems, but this is limited by being in a benign situation, rather than a threatening one. The problem, to be dealt with here, is that avoidance of threat seems to trump positivity and prevent us maximizing reward. Certain models have proved the case of harm avoidance, reward maximization, and it seems to me that positivity is a great way to manage the one to achieve the other, given the admitted fragility of positivity, and the effect then of negativity in the environment which can be overwhelming. Hence, I imagine Fredrickson's disdain for the Pollyanna view.

At the end of disc two, one is well introduced to the elements of positivity and a host of somewhat flowery metaphors, which perhaps reflects on the creativity of the author, but does remove one from the underlying science.  Positivity we understand broadens the scope of the mind, and thus creativity, as the Toronto studies show.  Positivity has also been shown to influence bargaining in the desired direction, bringing more options to view, or changing the way physicians integrate information.  Positivity and the tendency towards more open seeking of problem solving solutions are thus also connected, as is trust.

There are thus implications for relationships, if our views of ourselves can be broadened. Once again, later on, revelations, almost a series of religious epiphanies, are a little distracting for some, like myself, who are looking for more of the one, and less of the other, less "flowery" stuff in her terms, somewhat diminishing for me the value of the quantitative research we were promised in these chapters, and rather lengthy to listen to.  Research is after all something Fredrickson touts as her strength, as she says at times that the patients' stories mean more than numbers can, which is contradictory. To me, as a clinician, the patient's stories are compelling, but we approach them as rigorously as we can, and research is after all between groups, and says nothing of the individual.  Fredrickson appears mesmerized by the client stories, and I tended to lose track of what she meant by 'broadening'.  Again, her repetition of themes helps. 

The next chapter is said to be "more inspiring". This is a chapter on how we are improved by positivity.  From broadening, we are now to build. A case study is used to show the value of the insights and the positive revelations that came to this client in a meditation, and her web surveys, done on Fredrickson's website, reflected this. This is pointed out as analogous to the fact that our body's cells change every 90 days or so. Again the words transformation, profound, reverence and other rather more spiritual content comes in. The survey's responses are of course subjective reviews as to how clients rate their experiences of the day gone by, and predictably change here.  The subjectivity of "Nina's" epiphany is linked to a research situation at her company conducted by the author and students, and meditation is shown to have somewhat miraculously transformed every aspect of her life with a "peace and loving kindness", that gave Dr Fredrickson tears of joy and goose bumps despite her being a "scientist to the core", leading her to believe in the power of oneness and giving her inspiration to relax on attempting to address her own failed fertility, "letting go of the numbers" when she and her husband were "tripping on love", had sex and conceived. Her babies were thus born out of positivity, and she gave this information to her friends, who also conceived, and although she admits this was not scientific, she promises that she will one day research this, and hence her resonance with Nina, who goes on to have twins despite her own apparent infertility. There are a plethora of changes that attend Nina's transformative "stunning" experience, so much: this story is not in isolation as Dr Fredrickson notes, "Success stories abound". This is not presenting her science, but her at times personalized beliefs and Dr Fredrickson agrees that positivity is not alone in influencing such outcomes, so one is left not quite understanding what caused Nina's oneness with the universe, an epiphany-like transformation that most clinicians would regard with well founded skepticism, not negativity.  While I am sure this is appealing to many of her readers, I am unsure if the purpose of this book is to convince by science or by anecdote. Again, the author, much later on, will tell us we can choose, despite her assertions early on that her bent was scientific, which does come through more clearly later on.

The Open Heart study was where Nina experienced one of many 'eureka' moments that the author writes about.  The same language techniques are used around describing how her team set about "skyrocketing " the chances of demonstrating the variance that a main effect conveys viz: random assignment .  As a self confessed "measurement junkie" she looked at meditating with an "open heart" and its effect on building a person.  The numbers were "stunning". In rejecting the null hypothesis, they spent 80-90mins per week listening to guided meditations, which "opened their hearts". Third week results began to emerge, and rose, on most measures of positivity.  Negativity did not decrease.  Fredrickson notes here that if we do not already "love the particular marriage of science and positivity" she is offering, then she has to do something more to "win you over".  Extracting "joy juice" improves over time, as the numbers suggest, outpacing the hedonic treadmill, as the "meditation is routine, or ever changing".  Overall, I find such language persuades me to identify this side of Dr Fredrickson's views as more religion than science, but these stories are the annotation to the dry science she has spent her life gathering. This data now proves:

Positivity is generated or injected with bigger bang for the buck in terms of positivity gained.  Positivity is higher over periods when meditation has been done, even if two weeks had passed beyond the workshop they did, even without daily meditation.  Social interaction did help boost this, but it wasn't critical. Slow and steady improvements made people grow their resources, with measured mental gains in that there was more mindful attention, psychological gains in that they were more accepting of themselves and others, social resources gained in their relationships and social support, and physical resources improved in that they were healthier, all of which I guess was on self report.  People judged life to be more fulfilling, and meaningful. All of these were caused by increases in positivity as the active ingredient, as with no meditation there was no positivity, and no growth.  Resource building is thus about building resilience, to be tapped when needed.

Being more "open" and more "accepting" transforms your life, this is the message.  The attributes of positivity are again listed and discussed.  The opening is for the moment, allowing us to take in aspects of ourselves and others more clearly.  Sharing positivity conveys a desire to build something, creating a social fabric that weaves the individual into the rest of the world.  Objective findings are now linked to levels of stress related hormones, and higher levels of growth and bonding hormones, diminishing inflammatory responses to stress, lower BP less pain, fewer colds, better sleep, less likely to have diabetes, stroke, heart attack.  Hugs are implicated here, as "heart to heart hug".  This may not comfort those who are alone, or lonely, have a life of failure behind them, and no one to hug.

No discussion of positivity is complete without examining how some survive, namely, how they maintain their resilience to events such as 911. This is a "bend without breaking" phenomenon, referring to an inner "wellspring of positivity" which the author believes links to resilience.  Negativity is not denied, it simply doesn't dominate, as mentioned above, so it helps reverse the course of the downward spiral.  The term zoom in is also overused, but here as elsewhere refers to a drilling down into deeper levels of targets for research.  Positivity may even undo negative effects on heart recovery following stressors.  Serenity and amusement were predictors of good cardiovascular response, and speedy recovery. This relates to emotional responsivity, not an ostrich phenomenon, and they let go of negativity quickly.

In terms of resilient brains, there is an fMRI study which has "turned heads" in the scientific community.  Threat was given as a visual cue for a disturbing image to follow, half the time it did, another cue was always a precursor for non-threatening events.  Faster recovery via the insula mediated response was demonstrated, but orbitobasal area brain responses were related to worry, and delayed recovery responses.  These responses were related to positive personality styles. All responded equally to negative images, with great emotional agility related to those with positive styles. Worry less, rebound quickly, is the neurological picture.  The focus is on the now, not the what-ifs.  They are quick to know the difference between good and bad, and focus on the openness that comes with positivity, seeing the big picture but focusing on the now. We then return to the positivity ratio, in regard to building resilience, and its tipping point, in Chapter 7.  Her husband in a drab and dreadful hospital bed, fed with a GI tube, all galvanized her to create a better view for instance, by providing potted plants, pictures of the family, the home, favorite beach scenes, all awaiting his return, and his favorite pillow and MP3 player and meditation tapes, as well as community support are described and discussed at length on the way to chapter 7, and non-linear dynamics.


Chapter seven demonstrates how the ratio of 2:1 versus 3:1 is insufficient to generate wellbeing, confirming Losada's mathematics on groups that the positivity ratio, in individuals, couples and individuals, distinguishes languishing versus flourishing, in the 3:1 ratios of individuals, up to 5:1 in happy marriages, 1:1 in unhappy. Schwartz developed his own, Boolean research.  Depressed people have ratios lower than 1:1, and those in successful treatment, 4:1, but a lot of patients barely elevated theirs, 0.7:1  Flourishing comes with positivity ratios above 3:1.  Negativity bias is thus stronger, but less frequent in a daily existence, the positivity offset.  Positivity ratios can get much higher, but it's akin to hitting your head on a ceiling.  This is a compelling chapter.

Part two is devoted to raising your positivity ratio, beginning with a quote, from all people, from Mao Tse Dong. The positivity self test is described on a 0-4 scale, available online. See which is her two minute test and where she gathers data: Some are positive items, eg awe, grateful etc, some are negative eg angry, ashamed etc, and you can be given the ratio online or calculate it yourself, as per her instructions.  This ratio is not easy, with 2:1 being pretty average I guess, but changes by the hour, or day, or less, depending.  Giving the presence of negativity, attention is paid here to it, as negativity basis, bad being stronger than good, and ratio is part of increasing positive to negative ratio, so you want to work there, as Ch 8 sets out.  So like good and bad cholesterol, one wants a good ratio.  Appropriate negativity keeps us grounded, but gratuitous negativity is not healthy, eg snapping at a staff member, or dwelling on an off the cuff comment.  The techniques of psychotherapy are discussed here, as they pertain to diminishing negativity.  Watching the news might undermine this, as might a tv game, or failing to dispute negative appraisals.  The mindfulness of Cabot-Zinn is also introduced, along with other psychologists such as Seligman and colleagues. Day reconstruction can also expose negativity landmines for instance.

Coming back to an earlier mention, the need to control media consumption means balancing the need to know versus journalists' tendency to sway the balance towards believing the world is a really bad place.  Those who ignore TV input are largely more accurately aware of how the world is balanced, and less prone to unkindness and violence as a solution. Thinness, sexuality, beauty and race influence expectations and set levels of normality, making some of us have unrealistic perceptions of how we should be or look. We ingest toxic messages without reading the label or buying only organic media, to coin a metaphor. Choosing media online is a way of scanning for necessary evils, and avoiding them.  Sarcasm and gossip are likewise best avoided. Lots of advice is given upfront. Self evaluation asks the question if we feed others' negativity, locating hidden assumptions for instance, making you less open, curious or warm to others.  Curiosity and openness appear linked.

Chapter 10 continues the task of directing us how to increase positivity. Slowing the pace is one way to do this, with references again to opening the heart and so on, a little difficult to understand directly.  Heartfelt is not used in the same way exactly, but goes into Positive Psychology at this time. Seligman of course was the founder, arguing that a disease model had been adopted by psychology, as with Wellness programs, a heavy approach to reducing negativity and its attendant damage. Calling forth positivity had been neglected in a curative approach. Euthymia was not hedonia in other words.  This means moving beyond alleviating suffering to promoting flourishing.  This was a place for the author to direct the rest in moving forward. The chapter continues with some social and individual directions towards openness and positivity in self and others.

Chapter 11 looks further at a new toolkit developed by herself and others arising from deeper self study, one's own Eureka moments. Emotions are of course subject to our own sense of what matters.  Again this depends on taking one's measure of positivity ratio each day. Tool number one in the box is thus to be open, as she reiterates again and again.  This means really being accepting of what is happening or what you are thinking, awareness and acceptance, looking more at sensory experiences than inner thoughts for instance. Cultivating curiosity and acceptance of current experience without trying or wishing for change, it is what emerges as a goal. Openness thus implies acceptance, experimenting with openness.  Tool 2 involves high quality connections with others.  These are life giving patterns of interaction with others, and recharge in a real physiological change (eg Dutton's work), as a result of respectful engagement, helping others succeed, trusting others, and play. Tool 3: cultivating kindness, five acts of kindness each day, which may be costly, but worthwhile and creative. Tool 4:  develop distractions, breaking the grip of a downward pull of rumination, mentioned earlier, and getting away from obsessing over problems, with both healthy and unhealthy distractions possible, avoiding alcohol, food, and other unhealthy distractions.  Tool 5: dispute negative thinking, rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy, with index cards recording the most common negative thoughts we revert to, the voice of ill will. Shuffle the cards, pick one at random, then rapidly dispute it: what are the facts? Shut down menacing negativity. Work through the deck and become a seasoned disputer of negative thoughts. Tool 6: find nearby nature: good weather should propel us to green or blue, trees, water or sky, which boosts positivity. Tool 7: learn and apply strengths, taking Seligman's survey, 240 items which measures 24 character strengths, and how they characterize us  in the top five, from  Self reflection is critical, and the top five given by the toolkit are valuable starters to identify the strengths in a reflective self portrait. Tool 8: meditate mindfully, daily, for about 25mins as described in this section. Tool 9: meditate on loving kindness, as described here as well. This is a form of guided, emotional focus, rather than imagery. Reflection is own a loved person or pet, arousing warm and tender feelings, and then by letting go of the image, and holding the feeling, and extending this inward towards the self, a large hurdle for Westerners. Then it is radiated to others, close, and then wider, to all people and creatures of the earth, globally.  Tool 10: ritualize gratitude, by noticing the gifts around us. Describe why each good thing happened, namely the precursors of good events. Tool 11: savor positivity, needing a source of genuine love, pride etc, and secondly, a willingness to think differently about it now, and then enriching that moment by stretching and amplifying them, tuning oneself to expect good events in advance.  Tool 12: visualize your future; imagining yourself 10 years from now, imaging what has turned out good, if all current dreams came true, achieving one's best possible outcomes, and describing this in detail. Draw out the drivers for life, the meaning of existence, all in a journal, accepting deepest hopes and dreams, providing a mission statement, and putting it to a Eulogy-style test, and creating a 10 year plan to achieve this. Creating portfolios around the 1o aspects of positivity above, in the ten emotions, is also discussed. And so the chapter goes.

Chapter 12 looks at the future, the vital role positivity plays in our lives. Her intention is expressed in weaving the six most important facts she has discovered or collaborated in finding in her careers, and she goes over each as enumerated here earlier on in this review.

 A hugely valuable book, from an expert in her field, which feeds two judgments about Positivity: one, it is based on a clear science, proving its value, and also the idea that it is more religion than fact.  She addresses this, finally, at the end, but saying it is our choice to make a scientific or religious metaphor out of it.  Perhaps her academic work makes these histories, and the resonance with her own life, more attractive to some.

The how-to part, the second section, is much more easily absorbed, with far fewer, lengthy, metaphoric and philosophic overkill, with less of the repetition of phrases, something an editor could have dealt with in an abridged version of the CD.  She did herself, indeed, pick up on her tendency to do this, noting in one part of the book that she reviewed chapters written before and found she had repeated herself, and so cast them away.  I understand that much of positivity is esoteric, but proven, and this could be balanced more in the expert terms, rather than the palliative descriptions and overuse of metaphor. Is this a science, or is this a science of self help, and if both, how do we balance that better, avoiding the trap of being considered light on evidence, and heavy on incense and touchy-feely '60's?

Certainly, the format of the CD collection made this Janus stand out more than a book version would, and I would seriously consider revising the material for this audio purpose, in the book this may be easier to deal with. It is very hard to sustain attention across 8 CD's with these extensive monologues. If you can stand the time and effort, the book is probably a better buy, but for those who do not read that extensively, it may be easier to listen in pieces to this audio presentation of her work and thoughts on the matter, and immerse oneself in the prose. 

Nevertheless, Prof Fredrickson is a master of her field, and even an epistemologically confusing expedition into her work demands the purchasing and use of a work picking highlighter to separate the pearls from the chaff, to mix a metaphor.  The second part of the book is invaluable, and required reading for anyone who wants to live, really live.


© 2010 Roy Sugarman


Roy Sugarman, PhD, Director of Applied Neuroscience, Athletes' Performance


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