I interviewed positive psychology pioneer Barbara Fredrickson on her views of psychology as a science, why it’s important to study positive psychology, what are her favorite topics to study, and what are her primary sources of positive emotion.
Barbara: Positive psychology is both a movement and a science. The movement involves absolutely anyone who is interested in evidence-based approaches to improving well-being, either for themselves or for their community. I invite you to join this movement! The core of the positive psychology movement, however, is science. As we’ve all seen, advice about happiness abounds. Positive psychology’s emphasis on science is what can help you sort out which advice is based on sound evidence, and which is misguided or bound to be ill-fated.
Seph: Many people are unaware that positive psychology is a science. What is positive psychology?
Seph: Why is it important to study positive psychology? What are the benefits?
Barbara: You know that saying ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’? That’s so true of positive psychology. Our latest research tells us that the pursuit of happiness is a delicate art. Certain approaches to seeking happiness are now known to backfire, whereas others are effective. My positive psychology course on Coursera, Positive Psychology, will help you discern what works and why. Studies show that people who put what they learn about positive psychology into practice become happier, more resilient, more satisfied with life.
Seph: A common misunderstanding is that positive psychology is the same as positive thinking. What are the differences, and what can be done to prevent this inaccurate perception?
Barbara: Positive thinking is just one small part of positive psychology. Plus, as an approach to well-being, positive thinking only helps you to the extent that it yields one or more positive emotions. The problem with positive thinking is that it sometimes just stays up “in the head” and fails to drip down to become a fully embodied experience.
Seph: How did you first become interested in positive psychology?
Barbara: I began studying human emotions more than twenty years ago. At that time, almost every scientist working in this area was studying one of the negative emotions, like fear, anger, anxiety, or depression. I wondered why no scientists cared to explain why we humans sometimes feel upbeat and pleasant. I liked the idea of charting new terrain. It’s been a fun intellectual puzzle. There’s so much to discover!
Seph: What is your favorite topic of research within positive psychology and why?
Barbara: My all-time favorite topic in positive psychology is the study of positive emotions. I’m fascinated by how pleasant experiences, which can be so subtle and fleeting, can add up over time to change who we become. I’m especially excited these days about investigating how positive emotions change the very ways that our cells form and function to keep us healthy.
Seph: Positive psychology is often talked about as if it’s somehow separate from traditional psychology. What’s your view on this?
Barbara: Positivity psychology is part and parcel of psychology. Being human includes both ups and downs, opportunities and challenges. Positive psychology devotes somewhat more attention to the ups and the opportunities, whereas traditional psychology – at least historically – has paid more attention to the downs. In my view, however, there is no meaningful dividing line between the two. A full understanding of human nature requires an integrative view.
Seph: What makes you smile inside and out and why?
Barbara: Taking delight in my family, my time in nature, and in the chance to do work that I find endlessly fascinating and rewarding. My smile grows even bigger when I think about how lucky I am to have such delights be part of my everyday life.
Source: Positive Psychology Program
All of Barbara Fredrickson’s papers are available on the PEPLab web site.
Her Coursera course, Positive Psychology, will run from February 9, 2015 until March 26, 2015 and is open for anyone in the world to take.
She has written two books for the general public:
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.