Our book, Smarts and Stamina, has at least two roots in positive psychology. One is that positive emotion is a primary driver for sticking with healthy behaviors to make them into habits. Another is that people need to create their own sets of habits by experimenting until they find what works for them. That’s why we give 50 different activities and suggest that people play with them until they find what fits.
Barbara Fredrickson’s IPPA 2015 KeynoteSo imagine my delight to hear Barbara Fredrickson’s Sunday morning keynote at the IPPA World Congress about the connection between positive emotions and healthy habits.
Fredrickson started by reminding us of the connection between behavior and health. Of premature deaths, 40% can be attributed to behavioral choices that could have been made differently, just as 62% of cancers are attributable to behavior. This is a major challenge of our times, to help people make the behaviorial choices that raise the odds of good health.
She then reiterated something we all know: willpower is not enough to get people to adopt the habits that they already know are good for them. Willpower gets depleted over the course of the day. If you have to make yourself exercise and you wait until after work, chances are you won’t have enough willpower left to resist skipping your workout, “just for today,” day after day. Similarly people find it most difficult to resist unhealthy food in the evening.
Fredrickson stated something we’ve all observed in ourselves: Enjoyment motivates. But why? That’s a question she’s been exploring in her lab. She brought up the concept of spontaneous positive thoughts. Things we are passionate about just pop into our minds. She suggested that these thoughts can be an index to the non-conscious motives that drive our behavior.
Below see the picture she built up over the course of her talk. Start with wellness behaviors in the inner loop. Let’s use physical activity as our example of wellness behaviors. To the extent that physical activity generates positive emotions, positive thoughts about physical activity pop spontaneously into our minds. These thoughts are signs of underlying non-conscious motives, which cause us to continue physical activity. In the outer loop, the positive emotions build awareness, flexibility, and passion for the activity. Then there’s the red arrow between the two loops: passion for the activity can enhance the degree to which wellness behaviors generate positive emotions. These two loops can lead to an upward spiral of lifestyle change.
Let me give it to you in Barbara Fredrickson’s own words, from her chapter in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology:
“Overtime,“liking” a given activity—the situated experience of positive affect—precedes and produces cue-triggered “wanting” for that same activity—which in turn motivates decisions to repeat that activity, even nonconsciously. Through such dopaminergic Pavlovian learning, cues associated with past pleasant experiences gain nonconscious incentive salience and become intrinsically alluring as if covered in eye-catching glitter dust.” ~ Barbara L. Fredrickson
Fredrickson explained it to us using Robert Vallerand’s term, harmonious passion. For example, when physical activity becomes a harmonious passion, people have more spontaneous positive thoughts about being active. That makes it easy for them to select physical activity when they have choices about what to do next. Then they experience positive emotion while being active, so their harmonious passion for exercise grows. That’s broaden and build in action. Spontaneous positive thoughts lead to actions that generate momentary positive experience, while the harmonious passion is the resource that is built.Prioritizing Positive Emotions
People put different priorities on experiencing positive emotions. Those who prioritize positive emotions highly put more work into experiences that bring them positive emotions, and they also tend to get more benefit out of them. Looking at wellness behaviors, Fredrickson has found that having higher scores on prioritizing positivity correlates with lower waist size, greater willingness to participate in strengths training, more enjoyment of meditation, and more benefit from meditation.
Though more work is needed on the connection between positive emotion and healthy behavior, perhaps enough is known to suggest a shift in the way we work on building healthy habits for ourselves or for our families, coworkers, and clients. Instead of relying on guilt, Fredrickson’s research suggests that it might be more helpful to search for ways to experience enjoyment in healthy behaviors. The specific behaviors that lead to enjoyment are likely to be very different for different people. Perhaps giving ourselves permission to prioritize positive emotion highly might be a first step toward healthier habits. Let’s adopt an exploratory mindset to find what works for ourselves when it comes to building harmonious passions for moving, eating well, meditating, and other health-supporting behaviors.
Positivity in Action
Imagine my surprise when I observed this cycle in action in the Orlando airport. I grabbed something to eat and asked a stranger if I could sit at her table, since most of the tables were already occupied. We exchanged a few remarks, and then she said that she was sorry to eat and run, but she needed to clock more steps before her plane.Then she went on to say that her girl friends had talked her into joining a social circle that compared steps every day. Since she joined, her number of steps has been steadily climbing, from about 3500 at the start to over 10,000 practically every day.
With great zest, she described the fun she has, comparing notes with her girl friends, looking forward to their daily comments and encouragement, and thinking of new ways to get more steps. The change has been easy for her. She parks at the back of the parking lot. She walks to different bathrooms. She takes her dog out in the evening for long walks. In the airport, instead of reading, she walks from one end to the other and back. What’s more, her sleep has improved so that she no longer wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about her job. Finally her eating has improved. The temptation to reach for unhealthy foods has just diminished.
Talk about the Smarts and Stamina sleep-food-mood-exercise connection! What an example of the upward spiral theory of lifestyle change that Barbara Fredrickson is studying!
Believe me, I did not prompt this women to say anything, except that I asked her which device she used to count her steps. She pulled her FitBit 1 off her bra strap to show me, and I’ve put the idea on my birthday list. Now I need to find some friends who will help me get the fun started.
Britton, K. H. (2011). What is passion? Positive Psychology News.
Catalino, L.I., Algoe, S. B., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2014). Prioritizing positivity: An effective approach to pursuing happiness? Emotion, 14, 1155-1161.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Kok, B. E. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2015). Evidence for the upward spiral stands steady: A response to Heathers, Brown, Coyne, and Friedman (2015). Psychological Science OnlineFirst, 1-3. DOI:10.1177/0956797615584304
Shaar, M.-J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.
Barbara Fredrickson and images of her slides courtesy of Shannon Polly
Walking together courtesy of milena mihaylova