Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Barbara Fredrickson opened the first full day of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association conference with the question, “Why is it important to prioritize positivity?”Background: Why care about Positive Emotions?
Fredrickson reminded us of what’s known about emotions: they are micro-moments, lasting seconds or perhaps minutes, like waves lapping a shore. To try to hold on to a particular positive emotion is like trying to grab hold of a particular wave and not let it go.
But having more positive emotions does expand our awareness and openness to experience. Fredrickson reported on work with Melissa Gross where they put little sensors on people’s bodies and then evoked different emotional states. With upbeat, joyful, even serene emotions, there is more expansion of the torso and peripheral vision expands. They also found that postures are contagious. Seeing someone else with an expanded torso tended to cause people to expand their own.Fredrickson characterized positive emotions as nutrients that contribute to resilience, heart health, and immune health. The relationship between positive emotions and good health is an indirect one that she characterized as an upward spiral. To read the figure to the left, think of each arrow as a probabilistic link with some drop off. For example, for the arrow between Positive Emotions and Positive Meanings, there can be a drop off for positive emotions that do not contribute to greater meaning, and thus not to spiraling toward greater health.
Cautions about Positive Emotion
Dr. Fredrickson warned that positive emotions need to match the situation. Research by Oettingen and colleagues suggests that unrealistically positive fantasies about handling difficult situations can lead to positive emotion in the present but greater likelihood of depression in the future. Mauss and colleagues have suggested that excessively focusing on happiness can lead to constant monitoring of happiness, “Am I happy now?” This can lead to more depression.
In the delicate art of pursuing positivity without becoming unrealistic or too focused on personal happiness, she reminded us of James Gross’s model of emotional regulation strategies. In his words, emotional regulation “refers to how we try to influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express these emotions.” Gross describes five strategies for regulating emotion briefly explained here, but more fully explained in his book chapter in the references.
- Situation selection: taking action to put ourselves in situations that are more likely to lead to emotions we want to have
- Situation modification: taking action to change the way we experience a potentially upsetting situation, such as turning an embarrassing moment into a joke
- Attention deployment: Redirecting attention within a specific situation. I do this when I recite poetry to myself in the dentist chair.
- Cognitive change: Changing the way we interpret a specific situation. Interpreting a negative situation as non-permanent and non-pervasive is a type of cognitive change.
- Response modulation: Changing the way we experience a particular emotion, such as hiding anger or taking a few deep breaths to calm down.
Fredrickson pointed out that these are listed in decreasing order of effectiveness. Thus it is more effective to select situations that lead to positive emotion than to try to will oneself into feeling positive about inherently unpleasant situations.
What does it mean to prioritize positivity?Prioritizing positivity means selecting situations that are more likely to lead to positive emotions. So for example, check out the to-do list to the right. This young person included Play! in addition to spelling, math, and rehearsal. Some people focus only on what needs to get done, while others prioritize positivity by also including activities that are likely to lead to positive emotion.
Lahnna Catalino has led studies in Fredrickson’s lab on how much people prioritize positivity. The short survey to measure positivity prioritization includes questions such as
- I look for and nurture my positive emotions.
- What I decide to do with my time outside of work is influenced by how much I might experience positive emotions.
- My major decisions in life (e.g., the job I choose, the house I buy) are influenced by how much I might experience positive emotions.
They also measured actual experience of positive emotions and the degree to which people value happiness. They found that people that scored high on prioritizing positivity tended to have more positive emotions, while those that excessively valued happiness tended to have fewer positive emotions. In a study of one-time exposure to meditation, Fredrickson’s team found that those that scored high on prioritizing positivity were more likely to practice, suggesting that people that prioritize positivity are more likely to make the effort to make it happen.
This made me think of the first promise in David Pollay’s latest book, The 3 Promises: Find Joy Every Day. Do What You Love. Make A Difference.. Perhaps the first promise brings the other two within reach.Fredrickson reflected that prioritizing positivity is not a stable personality trait. It can be increased with intention and practice. For example, in a recent study, one group read a short passage about the value of prioritizing positive emotion while a control group read an article that mentioned positivity as many times (to control for priming) but without mentioning prioritizing. The study group was more likely to savor a positive experience, such as lingering longer looking at a beautiful picture. In another recent study, they found that loving-kindness meditation tends to increase positivity prioritization. (The studies mentioned in this paragraph are so recent that I couldn’t find citations. I hope they will show up soon on Dr. Fredrickson’s publication page.)
Over the long term, people that prioritize positivity have more positive experiences which lead to more spontaneous positive thoughts. With intention, these positive thoughts can be linked to behaviors that are good for us, as I described in my report on Dr. Fredrickson’s IPPA presentation last summer.
A Closing Micro-Intervention suggested by Dr. Fredrickson
Instead of wishful thinking about the future, put actions on today’s to-do list that bring you joy.
Author’s Note: My husband always has a to-do list, and he has told me over and over that I should always pick the highest priority task ready to run, and if I don’t know what the highest priority task is, the highest priority task is to figure it out.
I confess that I have trouble running my life this way. Sometimes I do things that may not be time critical because I feel they’d give me a few minutes of fun or joy in the middle of the day.
But then, he’s the person that puts “Have fun,” “Relaxation,” and “Do something to help somebody else,” on his to-do list.
So perhaps this is another instance of people reaching the same goal in highly individual ways.
References and additional reading
Britton, K. H. (2015). Upward spiral seen in an airport (an IPPA report). Positive Psychology News. This article explains the relationship between spontaneous positive thoughts and good health habits.
Catalino, L.I., Algoe, S. B., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2014). Prioritizing positivity: An effective approach to pursuing happiness?. Emotion, 14, 1155-1161.
Catalino, L. I. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Tuesdays in the lives of flourishers: The role of positive emotional reactivity in optimal mental health. Emotion, 11, 938-950. A paper for which Dr. Catalino received the 2012 Chester A. Insko Best Publication Award at UNC-CH.
Watch the PEPLab publications page for research by Dr. Fredrickson and her team. We hope they soon update it to include the 2016 papers that Dr. Fredrickson mentioned in her talk.
Ford, B. Q. & Mauss, I. B. (2014). The paradoxical effects of pursuing positive emotion: When and Why Wanting to Feel Happy Backfires. In J. Gruber and J. T. Moskowitz, Positive Emotion: Integrating the Light Sides and Dark Sides. Chapter 20.
Gross, M. M., Crane, E. A., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Methodology for assessing bodily expression of emotion. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 34, 223-248.
Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24, 1123-1132.
Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Portnow, S. (2016). Pleasure now, pain later: Positive fantasies about the future predict symptoms of depression. Psychological Science, 27, 345-353.
Pollay, D. J. (2014). The 3 Promises: Find Joy Every Day. Do What You Love. Make A Difference.. Sterling. Link to the PPND review by Sean Doyle.