Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Positivity - by Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Fredrickson is a hard-nosed social scientist, who since the inception of positive psychology has often been cited and praised as the originator of the Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions.

In this, her first book, Fredrickson sets out her ideas for the general reader, adding personal anectdotes and speculations to hard data. The book includes a positivity toolkit to help the reader raise their own positivity. Overall, I enjoyed this book and think it is a useful addition to the positive psychology literature. I think it can even tell us something useful about "the good life". But I do have some reservations, which I'll come on to later.

The Broaden-and-Build theory has been concisely summarised by its author as follows:-
"I encapsulate two classes of these benefits into my broaden-and-build theory. First, when we experience a positive emotion, our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, see our oneness with others, and face our problems with clear eyes (a.k.a. the broaden effect). Second, as we make a habit of seeking out these pleasing states, we change and grow, becoming better versions of ourselves, developing the tools we need to make the most out of life (the build effect). And strikingly, these twin benefits of positive emotions obey a tipping point: When positive emotions outnumber negative emotions by at least 3 to 1, these benefits accrue, yet below this same ratio, they don't."
So - when we are positive we become more open and creative (positive emotions broaden us) and we also grow (they build us). But, surprisingly, only when the positive outweighs the negative by more than 3 to 1. Fredrickson is arguing for positivity as a means to the good life - whether or not feeling good is itself the good life, feeling good (in these ways) helps us get in to a state where we are more likely to achieve these and other elements of the good life. This is an important point for philosophers to bear in mind - hedonism (the idea that happiness/pleasure and the absence o pain is the good life) has had a hard time recently but if it's really true that positive experiences are a means to other parts of the good life (creativity, achievement, making a difference) then a refined version of hedonism may appear more attractive.

But note well that Fredrickson does not equate positivity with pleasure. Far from it, she actually excludes bodily pleasures from her definition, since they narrow your focus and meet a survival need - whereas her ten positive emotions broaden your focus and, in the long run, she claims, "matter most" (p. 38)

So what are these top ten positive emotions?
  • Interest
  • Awe
  • Hope
  • Serenity
  • Joy
  • Inspiration
  • Gratitude
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Love
I personally remember these by the acronym

Write to me if you think of a better one!

Now this is very interesting. What Fredrickson has done is suggest 10 emotions which can also be considered as candidate values, as parts of the good life. If it's true that they are good in themselves and also broaden and build us, then their candidacy looks promising. Indeed, I'd like all of these to be part of my life - though there are of course questions about their appropriateness to a particular situation and getting the right balance (bring back Aristotle!). I also wondered whether all of these were really emotions and why some other possibles had been left out (e.g. sense of purpose, sense of meaning, being loved versus being loving, friendship, empathy, compassion). Fredrickson says her ten are "colour people's lives the most" (p. 39) but I wonder how she found this out.

My second problem is similar to the one Eric Wiener expresses in his review. Hard-nosed data has its value, but sometimes it seems to only confirm the bleedin'obvious and on other occasions its difficult to distinguish the author's own speculations from ideas that have firm backing. This is particularly true when it comes to the Positivity Toolkit. The ideas here are all plausible enough - be open, create connections, cultivate kindnes, develop distractions, dispute negative thinking, find nearby nature, learn and apply your strengths etc - and some have solid scientific backing. But this section does come across as a bit of a hotch-potch of techniques rather than a tried-and-tested programme that is guarenteed to raise your positivity.

Which brings me to my third and final issue with the book. One finding that certainly can't be criticised as being mere common-sense is the discovery that there is a tipping point of 3 to 1. If you have twice as many positive as negative experiences you wont start to get the broaden-and-build benefits. They only start accruing above 3 to 1. But what follows from this is surely that we should focus more on reducing negative episodes than increasing positive ones. Suppose I have 3 negative episodes a day and 6 positive ones. My positivity ratio is 2 - not high enough! But to get it up to 3 I either need to add 3 more positive ones or have 1 less negative one - so the effort should be in reducing negative episodes. .It seems kind of ironic that a book on positivity has this implication - should we actually be spending more energy on using techniques such as that advocated by CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) than on those aimed at increasing positivity?

Overall, though, I'd recommend this book. Fredrickson has a jaunty style, comes across as basically human and likeable (not always the case in social science books) and does provide a lot useful tips as well as an authoritative account of her own research.

Read On

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Monday, February 09, 2009

The Experience Machine: your chance to take part in a famous thought experiment

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Mindful Way through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindal Seagal & Jon Kabat-Zinn

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Monk who sold his Ferrari Robin. S Sharma



I didn't like this best-selling personal development book at all when I first read it.

I thought  that the narrator character was flat and just too unenlightened and dumb. I didn't like the dialogue, which seemed rather corny and cliched. And I didn't think there was too much original in the book - a mixture of classics like Covey, Frankl, spirituality, Jeffers, CBT wrapped up in a somewhat silly and unbelievable story.

Then a few years passed and I liked it a lot better the second time I read it. The amazing this is, I still think all my comments above are correct.  But maybe we should give Sharma the benefit of the doubt and assume that all the "failings" are deliberate. The narrator is dumb, because we are all dumb in comparison with Julian, the monk of the title. Maybe the fact that it is an eclectic mix of wisdom is a great strength. And the story, though it isn't the greatest ever told,just make it   a book you may read for pleasure as well as spiritual enlightenment.

So if you want an easy read which is a more spiritual take on personal development, I'd recommend it - especially if you read it in the right spirit, looking for how it can help you, rather than as a literary critic.

The monk's 7 timeless virtues of enlightened living are:

1.Master Your mind

2.Follow your purpose

3. Practice Kaizen (constant and never-ending improvement)

4.Live with discipline

5.Respect your time

6.Selflessly serve others

7.Embrace the present

Book Review of The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mr Holland's Opus

This 1995 film will be too sentimental for some tastes, but for me this was an enjoyable and interesting movie. It's a modern take on It's a Wonderful Life in that lives which appear unremarkable -even failed - may actually be the reverse.mrhollandsopus

The film takes in a span of over 30 years from the early 1960s to the mid 1990s, a time which sees Mr Holland transform from a young man with ambitions to be a composer to a husband, father and eventually retired music teacher.

Mr Holland never becomes rich or famous, and and at times neglects his family in favour of his "vocation" - teaching and music. A most poignant moment is when he is reconciled with his son - who, ironically, is deaf so cannot appreciate or share his father's music. He dedicates to hin John Lennon's Beautiful Boy - the lines

Life is just what happens to you,
While your busy making other plans

which seems to describe Mr. Holland's situation.

Yet at the end - and this is the movie's ultimate message - Mr Holland realises that by shaping the lives of his students he has done more for human happiness than his music was ever likely to do. Maybe meaning through fame and fortune is to be rejected and meaning through ordinary kindnesses and encouragements are more important.

Of course, teaching is one job where the benefits are sometimes - if not always - clear. Psychotherapy is another such job. But what about other jobs - like banking, IT work and being a lawyer. Do other people benefit from these jobs? Can one bring light into people's lives through any job? And does economics teach us that all these jobs are valuable, even if we don't see the benefits? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I do believe that one of the problems of modern society is that people don''t get to see the meaning they create. The James Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life needed an angel to show him, and Mr. Holland requires a rather improbably grand finale which reunites those he has helped the most.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Blink - Doctor Who and the Existentialists


Don't blink. Blink and you're dead. Don't turn your back. Don't look away. And don't blink. image

 The first time I watched this stand-out episode from the latest season of the British children's science fiction programme Doctor Who, I didn't think  too much about philosophy.  I was far too busy consoling my terrified children.  For some reason weeping angels who send you back in time, ageing or killing your present-day self, were much, much scarier than Daleks or Cybermen.

The second time I saw Blink I couldn't understand how I missed the existential theme the first time around.

The episode's title - BLINK - as in " blink and life will pass you by" - is the first hint.

Then there are the experiences of the characters. After a visitation by the time-stealing angels, all that remains of Sally's friend Kathy are her remains in a graveyard. Billy, a young and sassy policemen, fares little better. One moment he is chatting up  Sally Sparrow with the immortal line

 Life is short and you are hot.

The next time we see  Billy, he is an old man in hospital, on the point of death. As he catches sight of young Sally he laments

Look at my hands. They're old man's hands -- how did that happen?

We know that Billy and Kathy's fate await us all - weeping angels are but an exaggeration of the human condition.

Generally Doctor Who reminds us of the downside of the immortality.  The Doctor lives for hundreds of years and regenerates when his old body gets damaged beyond repair. The Doctor can help us be aware of problems with life going on too long - boredom, too much knowledge, too many memories and the loss of loved ones being some afflictions associated with extreme longevity.

BLINK firmly reminds us of the opposite reality. Life is short - and we have no idea just how short. Life is short -so we need to make the most of it. Life is short - so treasure every moment. 

And remember:

Carpe Diem.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

And - whatever you do - don't blink.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Happiness: The Science behind your smile Daniel Nettle


One of the best brief recent books on the burgeoning science of happiness. Daniel Nettle is a reader in Psychology, but he deals more ably than most psychologists with the philosophical aspects of happiness as well.





1. Comfort and Joy

2. Bread and circuses

3. Love and Work

4. Worriers and enthusiasts

5. Wanting and Liking

6. Panaceas and Placebos

7. A design for living