Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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The Good Life: Positivity



The Good Life: Positivity


"Positivity feels good" states Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, author of the new book Positivity, Crown, 2009. The HeartMath program and psychologists such as Fredrickson are expanding our understanding of this essential life force. Positivity is freely available to us to improve and bless our lives. Although positive thinking is part of this message, the concept of positivity is far more powerful and profound than just thought. The joy, the wonder, the sparkle, the hope, and the inspiration of positivity will change your life for the better. And we all need it! Stress and bad news abounds. Our beautiful world seems on the edge of disastrous global warming, ceaseless wars and economic peril. Don't look to newscasters for loving or charitable words. Sensationalism and hatemongering seem to be the new norm.


Fredrickson's message correlates with the information in my previous article, "Lead with your Heart." Just think about the fact that, according to the HeartMath project, the number of neural connections going from the heart to the brain is actually greater than the number going the other way! Their website states that, "the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain." The heart, the seat of our emotions, is a wonderful and powerful source of life energy.


And by the way, did you know that Darwin's last book, The Descent of Man, does not endorse the evolutionary "survival of the fittest" for mankind? To the contrary, Darwin observed that cooperation was vital to the evolution of man. He highlighted the importance of the Golden Rule as follows, "the social instincts -- the prime principle of our moral constitution -- lead over our evolution to the golden rule "as ye would that others should do unto you, do ye to them likewise."  (See David Loye, Darwin's Lost Theory, Ben Franklin Press, 2007)


We know that love, social cooperation and all the positive emotions do make us feel good, so why aren't we all living in blissful happiness?  As Fredrickson points out, positivity is more fleeting and transient than negativity. Negative emotions have their root in the fight and flight syndrome, necessary when we face danger but producing chronic stress when continuously activated by the problems of modern life. The skill we must learn is to actively let go of our negative reactions as soon as possible and reach out to positive emotions. That may mean putting aside, as soon as possible, our frustration, anger, blame, bitterness and depression and actively focusing on the positive side of life. The HeartMath skill of breathing peace and love into the heart, is extremely helpful in making this transition. Fredrickson describes the "positively ratio" as the "amount of your heartfelt positivity relative to the amount of your heart-wrenching negativity."


Fredrickson's research points out a crucial distinction between positive and negative reactions: whether your life is a "downward spiral or upward spiral." We must reach for positivity in a 3-to-1 ratio over negativity. Although we experience frustration when we feel our transient positive emotions slipping away from us, we now know that we can live in the warm glow, happiness and satisfaction of a positive lifestyle by achieving a 3-to-1 positivity ratio.


Yes I mentioned "happiness." Fredrickson avoids this word for several reasons. Happiness may imply a personal, even selfish, concentration on self gratification, whereas positivity involves good works as well as good feelings. The positivity mindset is also intrinsically moral, with good feelings engendered by helping others as well as self.  The idea of the survival of the fittest can lead to self-centered greed, competition, envy and jealousy. True positivity leads to cooperation and sharing which improves one's own life as well as others. Another possible problem with the concept of happiness is that it may be confused with physical pleasure. Pleasure is great but does not contribute to a positive and productive lifestyle. While we may love the pleasure of an ice cream cone, once consumed we're often left with a dissatisfied feeling of wanting more, more, more.


Fredrickson's book also describes some of the life-enhancing aspects of positivity. For example, we know that the cells in our body are replaced at a rate determined by our physical and psychological health. While positivity actually promotes healthy cell growth, negativity results in cell decay. And even your brain functioning changes according to your cumulative emotional states. Neuroplasticity means that your brain is rewired as you develop new habits of thinking, positive or negative. Positivity does not by itself usher us into a brave new world. But Fredrickson demonstrates how positivity increases resilience to help us deal with inevitable life problems.


Fredrickson points out the choice between "languish or flourish?" The positivity lifestyle adds value to the world while also increasing personal feelings of joy and contentment. Fredrickson's research shows that positivity "broadens and builds", opening hearts and minds to becoming more receptive, creative and resilient. And yes these are just the qualities we need to survive and flourish in these darker days.


You may be thinking that positivity is just one of those pollyanna theories, whereas the "put your nose to the grindstone" philosophy is necessary for success in life. If so, take note of the fact that research demonstrates just the opposite. Fredrickson states that a meta-analysis of almost 300 studies demonstrated that positivity produces life success in many areas including vocational, health, marriage and family life. Fredrickson discusses the apparent conflict of positivity with the "protestant work ethic" which extols hard work and competitiveness while fearing positive impulses or pleasures as distracting or even sinful. Obviously work can contribute to positivity when practiced in cooperative and heartfelt manner without competition or aggression.


Fredrickson describes 10 forms of positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interests, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. Fredrickson emphasizes that positivity must be sincere, with insincere or pretend positivity even causing personal conflict and negative health consequences.


Although some of us are born positive and optimistic, we all can learn to be more positive. Fredrickson describes how we can monitor our thinking to increase positivity. I agree. I tell my clients, and I follow my own advice, to regularly ask yourself what's good or positive about life situations, even difficult and stressful life events.  A "so what" attitude can also be good advice. Confronting a problem with "so what" may help you decide if assertive action is necessary or whether frustrations can just be ignored.


You may consider yourself to be a positive thinker but wonder why you aren't reaping all these positive benefits.  Fredrickson has found that 80% of the people she's tested have less than a 3-to-1 positivity ratio, averaging around 2-to-1. Fredrickson provides a website ( to help you record and calculate your positivity ratio. In other words, your life may be more positive than negative but not positive enough for you to really flourish. Frederickson's book, and of course other self-help books, provide many strategies to improve your positivity. Therapists or life coaches trained in positive psychology can also be of assistance.


I've been researching a particular form of meditation (Loving Kindness Meditation) as a life-changing intervention, and I was pleased to see that Fredrickson also advocates this form of meditation.  Results show that this meditation increases both self-directed and other-directed love and compassion. I've added an article about this meditation to this website.


This month, this year, and the rest of your life, open your heart, love yourself, love others and love mankind.