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I've got some Negativity about Barbara Fredrickson's "Positivity" - is that an oxymoron?
on May 4, 2011
Okay, don't get me wrong: I'm not a grumpy sourpuss intent on raining on the parade of Positive Psychology books published in recent years. I'm actually a mental health professional, a big fan of positive psychology, and I offer workshops to people on bringing positive psychology principles and tools into their lives. Fredrickson is an accomplished researcher, and her writing is pleasing at times. However, her main thesis (that we should strive to experience 3 positive emotions for every 1 negative emotion) is vague and impractical, and her recommendations for how to do so are better and more comprehensively stated elsewhere (such as in Martin Seligman's Authentic Happines or his more recent work, Flourishing). Given the avalanche of positive psychology books raining down on the unsuspecting public nowadays, one must be discerning in which ones to read and purchase, and while this is not a bad book, I didn't find it to be the most helpful or well-written one - especially in contrast to Seligman's magnum opus "Flourishing", which was, unfortunately for Fredrickson, published at nearly the same time.
The strength of the book is in the early section, where the author explains her theory of positive and negative emotions, and describes her list of the 10 positive emotions that we would all benefit from having more of in our lives. Fredrickson asserts that negative emotions aid human survival by narrowing and limiting what we perceive as our range of actions, while positive emotions aid survival by "broadening and building" our options for actions. For example, the negative emotion of "fear" of, say, a predator, limits our idea of possible actions to "run for your life". In contrast, a positive emotion such as "curiosity" might broaden our options for action into "searching for a cure for cancer", or a positive emotion such as "love of beauty" might build into a hobby such as painting watercolors or writing poetry. This is a wonderul theory that is a lasting contribution to the field. Fredrickson identifies 10 salient positive emotions and writes a paragraph or two describing each one on her list, that includes: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love. A minor criticism of this taxonomy of positive emotions is that the list is somewhat arbitrary, redundant, and culture-bound according to Fredrickson's contemporary, upper-middle-class lifestyle (e.g., we don't see such positive states as "modesty" or "humility" or "courage" or "piety" listed, for example). Indeed, we could all benefit from contemplating these positive emotion-states and striving to put more positive emotion and less negative emotion into our lives.
Fredrickson next asserts that we need to experience three positive emotions for every one negative emotion in order to reach a "tipping point" at which we create in our lives an "upward spiral" of connection, resilience, and happiness. She derives this ratio from her professional collaboration with a mathmatician who spent years studying businessmen and women in professional teams, and concluded that when team members treated each other in a positive manner three times as often as they treated each other in a negative manner, the team achieved success. I found her transfer of this obscure ratio to the realm of human happiness to be unwarranted. After all, how can misfortunes in one area of your life be neutralized by precisely three positive experiences in other realms of your life? How, for example, can an individual possibly calculate, say, "I was sad yesterday because my girlfriend broke up with me, so today I need to (1) read some poetry, (2) savor the taste of a good meal, and (3) offer succor to another downtrodden soul to make up for it?" Yet, Fredrickson actually recommends that the reader keep a daily journal in order to attain the 3 to 1 "positivity ratio" that is the core message of the book. Though it cannot be disputed that putting positive experiences into your life is good for your mental health, I found the "3 to 1 Positivity Ratio" to be at a minimum unconvincing, and perhaps even obsessive-compulsive and ludicrous.
The remainder of the book is a review of some of the tools of positive psychology (E.g., develop hobbies, dispute negative thinking, re-connect with nature, experience gratitude, meditate, etc.) that are probably better described in other positive psychology books. Then there is final exhortation to be positive and monitor your ratios. Practicing meditation, which Fredickson herself does with a passion, is an ongoing, major recommendation of this book. If you don't practice meditation and are not inclined to start, then I guarantee you will find this book moderately annoying or worse by the time you have finished reading it.
As if I haven't already been harsh and cruel enough to Fredrickson - who is, after all, a very intelligent, very accomplished, and good-hearted person and probably undeserving of detached criticism of her book - I must add a final concern. One gets the impression that Fredrickson has lived a rather privileged, fortunate life, and that one cannot personally know true happiness unless one has suffered setbacks in life and survived. In a paradoxical way, Fredrickson suffers from the lack of suffering in life, and it does come through at times in giving her exhortations ("meditate ... savor the taste of good food ... go on vacation") an air of elitism and superficiality. Her central example of demonstrating resiliency is surviving her husbands hospital stay (at one of finest hospitals in the country) after his ulcer surgery developed complications. She nervously frets that he was not assigned a hospital bed with a view of nature out his window, but rather a view of another nearby building, and she worries that not having a view of nature will prolong his recovery; she stays by his bed from 10 am to 5 pm each day and worries about getting child care for her young child. She wears a six-inch key around her neck the whole time as a magical talisman to ensure his recovery. Such a histrionic anecdote is not going to impress readers who have suffered far larger losses and setbacks in life.
I hope I haven't offended the many fans of this book, and that I have fairly identified some of the strengths of the book. I would recommed an interested reader turn first to the other works on the subject that I have cited above.