In this video, Megan McDonough interviews Barbara Fredrickson, a leading scholar in the field of positive psychology and the originator of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. During the conversation, we’ll explore prioritizing positivity at a time when the heaviness of the COVID-19 trauma impacts all.
Since recording the webinar, Fredrickson and Prinzing went on to complete complete a study of 600 people, looking for how to have a better day during COVID. Here are the results.
Highlights from the Conversation
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson is a pillar in the positive psychology world and the originator of the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. Barbara has been advancing the science of positive emotions for more than 25 years and is currently a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she directs the PEP lab. She’s authored over a hundred peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and her books Positivity and Love 2.0 have been translated into more than 20 languages. In this session, we’re going to explore prioritizing positivity at a time when the heaviness of COVID-19 trauma impacts us all.
Megan: I was reading this morning, as I was thinking about our conversation today, that the Kaiser Family Foundation found some 45 percent of Americans are reporting feeling some degree of mental health distress—and I thought, only 45? I think it might be a little bit higher! How do we reconcile what we’re experiencing with COVID with words like positivity and happiness?
Barbara: Sometimes people who have been trained in mindfulness or become first acquainted with meditation through mindfulness have a negative reaction to loving-kindness, because they think it sounds too too saccharine or too much about wishful thinking or rainbows and unicorns—even in good times, sometimes people react to lovingkindness in that way. And one of the ways that I help people reorient to why you’d want to practice that is that there’s so much suffering in the world. Normally, we suffer not in synchrony, but now we’re suffering in synchrony, so it’s especially relevant. But even if you don’t know how somebody is suffering, you can be certain that they have or are or will—it’s just part of life. So when you think of suffering as part of the human experience, then wishing somebody well in the face of that is a real gift.
One way that people misunderstand positive psychology is they think that the goal is to feel happy all the time non-stop, no matter what, and that is why I like to say that a little bit of knowledge about positive psychology is a dangerous thing! The key to coping with negative emotions is to recognize them as real, accept them, not minimize them, but then join them up with context-appropriate positivity, and in difficult times, that context-appropriate positivity comes in the form of gratitude, love, and compassion. It may not be jumping for joy—we’re just talking about different flavors of positivity.
Megan: I notice in myself that there is sort of a comfort that knowing that I’m not in this alone. The whole world is in this. I can’t go anywhere to get away from this because it’s everywhere, and the scope of it can be overwhelming. I know you did some research after 9/11 that perhaps could help inform us on how we look at this kind of overwhelming event, so I want to talk a little bit about that study and perhaps some learnings that are appropriate for what we’re going through now.
Barbara: I wrote about this in my book Positivity. After 9/11, there was a moment when I was about to dig in to write my first book and it just seemed pointless and then I realized, Oh, that’s just depression talking, it makes you think it’s hopeless or pointless. Like everybody else, I was down. My particular way of finding hope and value is by collecting data because I’m a researcher, and I realized that I had been in the midst of studying a sample of students who we had collected data on before 9/11 about their levels of resilience and individual differences in resilience. That’s what made this a particularly valuable study, is that I had measures on how resilient people were before the tragedy of the terrorist attacks. It gave me a chance to see how resilience would predict how people would respond, and what we learned from that study is that the most resilient people among us are those that experience a whole range of emotions—the negative and positive. Everybody, whether they were resilient or not, experienced anger, fear, sadness, and to about equal measure. There weren’t differences between high- and low-resilient people and how many and how much and how frequent their negative emotions were. Where they differed was that resilient people also felt—side by side with those negative emotions—positive emotions, like gratitude and hope and inspiration. All of the positive emotions that were experienced were ones that were appropriate to the situation—gratitude for the safety of your own family, being inspired by how first responders were selflessly addressing it—and these are things that fit the situation now.
From that research, I realized that, in any situation—if we’re not on a ventilator fighting for our own lives, which sadly far, far too many people have been there—but if that’s not the situation we’re in, we can be thankful for our breath, we can be thankful that one breath follows another, we can be thankful, as you said, that we’re not in this alone. But even outside of a pandemic, when we do feel like we’re suffering alone about something, it’s never only you.
Megan: It really does feel that way sometimes—that’s it’s only me who has this!
Barbara: That’s when negative emotions conspire to do—they hijack your brain and make you think you’re all alone in your misery, but joining in positive emotions make you realize ah, yes, every couple has relationship problems, everybody’s more likely to fight right now, everybody’s more likely to go to their worst coping habits right now. We said 45 percent of people are feeling stress but alcohol sales are up 70-some percent, you know—that’s a lot of unacknowledged mental health issues, I think. That’s people digging into their worst habits to cope. So, what positive emotions, by broadening our awareness, can help us realize is, hey, we’re not alone and we do have something to be grateful for because one breath follows another and this too shall pass.
Megan: [When it comes to] the stories we tell ourselves, and what we’re saying yes to and what we’re saying no to, there’s often more to the story than what might initially come up. And what struck me about that story that you just told is when you were writing Positivity, or thinking about it, and 9/11 happened, your first thought was, Why bother? and you said to yourself, Oh, that’s depression talking. We don’t recognize in our own head what those different voices are, and there may be more to explore. How do you do that for yourself? Do you just recognize it now because you’ve been working with this stuff so often? Any tips?
Barbara: It took me days to recognize that. I’ve studied emotions my whole life and it still can sometimes take a quite human length of time to come up with the other stories. But I also was 25 or 20 years younger, and in the decades that have intervened, I feel like it’s quicker for me to get to the hopeful thought that there’s more—that if I step back a little bit, I bet there are some other aspects to this.
Megan: The practice of doing that builds a practice to do it again—that’s the whole broaden-and-build theory. You’re building the resources to keep coming back and doing this. You talked about hope … I jotted down this morning the phrase that came up in one of our other webinars after the New York Times article with the phrase “tragic optimism.” I think sometimes what happens is our brain gets stuck on a word like happiness that doesn’t feel quite right or maybe the word positivity, we don’t quite get it in the grasp of this, but there’s something about tragic optimism—that paradox. Of course, Viktor Frankl wrote about that that specific term and he defined it as the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inexplicable, inescapable pain, loss, and suffering, which again comes back to individual suffering or this worldwide suffering that you just can’t get away from; it’s part of the human experience. I’m curious if you have any more insights on sort of that paradox from the latest research of holding the whole of optimism and tragedy together.
Barbara: That’s it, that’s part of the very definition of what hope is. Sometimes people use the word hope in light or probably emotionally inaccurate ways, like, I hope I find a parking place.
Megan: When I was driving I would use that, but now I don’t care!
Barbara: My good friend, the late Chris Peterson, used to call that “little hope” and then there’s “big hope” or that is more what Victor Frankel’s talking about. One of the earliest emotion scientists who very much influenced my thinking on hope and optimism was the late Richard Lazarus, and his definition of hope is seared in my brain. There are a few scholars whose exact sentences are seared into my brain and this is one of them, and it’s that hope is fearing the worst but yearning for better. It’s the joining of those, because you wouldn’t have to yearn for better if you weren’t fearing the worst. Whereas with some other positive emotions, the next most likely emotion would be another positive emotion, for hope, the next most likely emotion is despair. It’s like fearing the worst and knowing there’s no escape. One of my former doctoral students ages ago did some research on this, on [the idea] that being able to see a better possible future is what allows somebody to feel hope again. Yearning for better presumes you can envision it’s not going to be like this always and forever, that things can and will change, and if we put our efforts toward it, we can change that towards the better, that we have some agency to bring about that better future. That’s a really important motivator or fuel that comes with hope. The reason that we can benefit from trying to self-generate hope in situations that seem really dire is because it unleashes all kinds of motivation to do things.
Megan: I just noticed the most amazing thing as I heard you talk. First of all, it touched me very deeply. I think I’ve heard you say that before, but somehow when I hear it today, it lands a little bit differently. This definition of fearing the worst, yearning for better, that’s really the whole human experience about wanting to grow, to develop all of these possible selves that we lay out in our minds when we’re lying in bed at 2:00 in the morning trying to figure out what the future holds. I realize as I was hearing you talk that I was getting a felt sense of hope just by hearing you describe it. I want to actually pause on the concept of it and ask why even the simple thing of hearing you talk about it changed my felt sense internally as an embodied person. So, thank you first of all for that, and then what I’d actually like to talk about is why even talking about it changes an internal, embodied state. What just happened?
Barbara: Emotions are remarkable in that they they’re not just words that go through our our minds. Emotions by scientific definition involve both mind and body, and so they’re not triggered by just a stimulus response with the environment, like when your doctor tests your reflex on your knee and you kick. They’re not automatic in that way. They require under most circumstances that we have a story we’re telling ourselves, we’re making sense of our current circumstances, and when we make sense of something in a new way, that’s going to generate an emotion. Sometimes we make sense of something in a new way, and it’s a negative meaning that brings negative emotions, and other times we make sense of something in a new way and it sparks a positive emotion.
Given the global hardship that we’re all facing, sometimes as individuals and sometimes as witnesses and sometimes as family members, there’s so much to make sense of: How are we going to get through this, how are we going to cope and support one another? Even being reminded how hope starts can be a source of hope. One of the first evolutionary takes on the emotion of hope was that it’s a uniquely human emotion because the thinking is is that other animals don’t have as much ability to [project into] the future as humans do. We have all this cognitive capacity and with that we can imagine the future—we can time-travel to a future possible self and that is ultimately an existential crisis, because we can imagine that we’re going to die. Right now, we’re imagining that a little too closely and vividly, and it’s difficult to cope with [knowing that] we or our loved ones might be in danger. Early in the pandemic, I went for a walk in the woods and I was dealing and coping in my own way by trying to observe really where I was, and it was like, There’s a squirrel, there’s a bird, there’s an insect, there’s a snake … It wasn’t any threat whatsoever and I thought, they’re all blissfully unaware of this human tragedy that’s unfolding, at the pace of a mudslide sometimes, or a slow mudslide sometimes. We are taking it in each piece at a time and it’s really hard information to accommodate and make sense of. … [It helps] just being reminded that there’s still a possibility for hope.
The anthropologist who had this evolutionary theory of hope was called Lionel Tiger. He wrote that we have this tragic ability to imagine our own demise and so if that were ever-present in our minds, we’d never get up in the morning. Why would you? You’re gonna die, you’re gonna die eventually, and that’s what depression is—a disorder primarily of the positive emotions not being in place to help motivate us towards life. So the positive emotions, this argument goes, evolved to be an antidote or complement to our ability to forecast negative things in the future, and that gives us the sense to access our own agency, our own ingenuity, to try to live to be our best. So, it’s not an accident.
Megan: I just want to recognize for people that I didn’t have to work at hope right when you were explaining something—I engaged in hope naturally. It wasn’t something I forced, it was by being open to what you were saying, being elevated by someone else that elevated my hope.
Barbara: That’s a good example of how it doesn’t have to be an explicit, conscious story that you tell yourself. That is one way that we interpret situations; another way is just seeing and recognizing an interpretation even at a non-conscious level. It didn’t require digging the emotion up, and that’s because people co-experience their emotions, especially the positive emotions. Positive emotions are much more likely to be in the moment and synchronize people. That is the the primary focus of my second book, Love 2.0, is that positivity in particular resonates between people. Since I wrote that book, we’ve done a quite a number of studies to show that people co-experience positive emotions much more than they co-experience negative emotions. Meaning, in the same second, in the same moment, our physiology becomes more in sync, our subjective experience becomes more in sync. So even if I’m describing something that makes me hopeful, it’s going to make a listener feel hopeful, too.
Megan: Let us hope they are, because it makes me happy to think of having a network like an ever-expanding wave of hope through everybody listening, because as you become the thing that lifts hope in me, then someone else is lifted, and that’s a positive contagion for all.
[A listener] is asking a question and I think it’s an important one: She asks, Why do you have to fear the worst in order to have hope?
Barbara: What’s intrinsic in that definition of fearing the worst and yearning for better is that fear of the worst motivates the yearning. Now if the fear of the worst wasn’t there, it would be a different flavor of positivity. It would be excitement, it would be inspiration, it would be enthusiasm. It’s just that when that positive stance is paired with fearing the worst, then it becomes hope, because hope is more future-looking than many of the other positive emotions. It’s not like tragedy is always required for positive emotions, but for certain variants of positive emotions, they spring up in the shadow of tragedy. In this particular scientific definition of hope, tragedy is part of it. The way people use the word hope in real life and everyday conversation might map on to what scientists would describe as a different form of positivity, like enthusiasm or vision or creativity.
Megan: Thank you. I do think that there’s a general felt sense of the word hope and then there’s the definition. There has to be some kind of push to juxtapose a possible future that’s better than the one you have now.
Barbara: Right, it’s like I could go down this path and that wouldn’t be so great, so that’s kind of fearing the worst path even if it’s not a total tragedy, but it’s maybe I can do something different and better, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be as deep of tragedy as we’re experiencing right now.
Megan: Yes, this is sort of on the extreme level. [Another listener] asks, Is hope without action or commitment, just wishful thinking?
Barbara: It’s a good question. Yes, I guess so. With every emotion comes what, in scientific jargon, is called a thought-action tendency. So emotions don’t just color our experience, they orient us to act in a particular way. Sometimes that action is more mental, like changing your priorities. That’s what savoring contentment is—I should have more of this in my life. So sometimes even if there’s not outward action, there are important changes going on. But part of any emotion is this tendency to want to act in a particular way, whether it’s cognitive action or physical action. The reason emotions aren’t fixed action patterns or reflexes is that we don’t always engage in that action, because we’re wise enough to know that the urge doesn’t always mean that it’s the right thing to do. Like when we’re mad and we want to hit somebody, [we say], no, that’s probably not the best solution, so let me think more creatively on that. Sometimes people cut their hope short by not taking action, but in the best of circumstances, hope is going to inspire some effort towards a better future. Now whether it’s enough effort is a matter of taste, I think—there’s no judging whether the effort somebody took to try to create a better future was sufficient or enough, but if it’s completely not acted on then they could just be wishful thinking.
This is one reason why I suggest that positive emotions are fitting, especially in a time like now, is that they need to be contextually appropriate. The misuse of positive psychology is kind of like, you know, “La la la, I’m gonna feel good no matter what” and that is more of wishful thinking. I call that in one of my books “eyes-closed positivity.” It’s like, I’m not going to take in where I am, I’m just going to force myself to feel good. There is really nice research by experimental psychologists to show that forcing yourself to feel good despite the negative is just a recipe to feel worse. We can’t use our positive emotions as wallpaper to go cover over something negative. We need to balance or contextualize in ways that fit the situation. When I’m giving a talk I use an image of a person skydiving in a business suit with a big smile on his face. I’m like, what the heck is he smiling for? But he’s got this big smile and a business suit and he’s flying through the air. That’s the kind of image of positivity that unfortunately is out there, and sometimes people associate that with positive psychology, which is a real shame.
Megan: People have lost family members, I’ve lost a family member recently. Whether or not it’s COVID related, we have death and sickness, and certainly, it’s heightened now, so there is a level of grief not only of losing loved ones but grief of what we lost as a possible expected future. How does positivity fit in with grief?
Barbara: It’s again, if we’re not turning away from the losses that we have, the loss of a possible future, what you had planned for 2020 and what you don’t get to do in 2020 …
Megan: My whole calendar for 2020 had everything laid out and everything says canceled, canceled, postponed, and then I wrote on the top, Why bother planning? Why bother?
Barbara: Well right now, planning is really vexing, but the deeper losses of losing a family member or facing one’s own risks that keep us so constrained—as long as we’re not turning away from those, we can always step back a little bit. Now you don’t always feel in the midst of grief like stepping back a little bit but it’s possible, and at the right moment we might find the a little corner where we can say, who can I hold close right now or who can I call or who will care about what I’m going through or what I’m fearing? And so there’s room within. Grief is a long process and so many emotional ups and downs in it, mostly downs, but there can be some ups where you recognize that you’re still breathing, that you have people to connect with about this, that you’re not in it alone, and that this too shall pass—and I mean that: However tragic this situation is, it’s once-in-a-lifetime for us obviously, but as a human civilization, you know, it’s not new. So we can know that it is new to us as individuals but it’s not new to us as a human society.
Megan: There’s a larger context, thank you for that Barbara, I like that. [Another listener] asks, I imagine my parents dying every time I hear they’re going to the supermarket or something risky. Who would have thought first of all going to the grocery store was risky, but apparently now it is. Is that anticipatory grief?
Barbara: The useful part about fear is that it inspires us to be as cautious as possible. When people become new parents, their like fear circuits get amplified and we started envisioning every possible danger our baby could get into—you’re thinking about light sockets and dangers and …
Megan: You can’t open any cabinets because I don’t have the safety locks on them!
Barbara: Right, and new parents sleep more lightly because they’re alert to possible dangers and once your kids are older you can sleep deeply again! And this concern about our parents going to the grocery stores is very similar. It’s like there’s a new set of dangers and so that fear is contextually appropriate. It’s that kind of fear that makes me you know wipe off every product with my antiviral wipes.
Megan: I want to highlight that because it’s not about getting rid of the fear—fear has a purpose and it’s here for a reason. It’s when we let it get out of control or it begins out of control and all-consuming that the problem exists, but it’s there essentially for something that’s needed.
Barbara: Right, so if you know that your parents are taking appropriate precautions in going to the store and trying to reduce in every possible and practical way the transmission of the virus, and you’ve communicated that you care that they do, then that might just be a matter of reminding yourself they know what to do. I’ve shared with them my concern about them going that frequently, maybe they could go less frequently, or something. … We’re all going to face some elevated risk here because we all need to get our food somewhere. Even at the bare minimum, we need to do that.
Megan: Yes, that’s called life—we need to eat, we need to go grocery shopping, unless we have a farm in back, which apparently a lot of people are growing their own produce now! [The questioner] also asked if you’re teaching online classes.
Barbara: Yes, I haven’t started a new thing but I got Happify to offer my track on their platform for free. I don’t have it off the top of my head but if you look for it at Happify.com/Frederickson you could probably find that. They made mine and a handful of other tracks free just for this current situation. I’d also like to point out that my Coursera course is free unless you’re looking to get a certificate of achievement to send to a university. If you search Coursera and Frederickson you get to my course on positive psychology. I have to acknowledge it’s not all of positive psychology—I teach positive psychology as seen from my research lab, so if there’s one criticism of it, it’s that I only talk about my own research.
Megan: You’re allowed to do that in your class!
Barbara: That’s why people would want to take a class from me versus one from anyone else, so lean into that, right? You know, more than 200,000 people have taken it worldwide and I love the stats that I’ve been shown on how many people in emerging economies have taken that course. That’s what I love about Coursera is that people can take it all over the world with very little technological requirements.
Megan: That’s that positive ripple, and you’re so good at that and why we love you! [Another listener] asks an interesting question: How do you define feelings versus emotions?
Barbara: Emotions are, as I mentioned, a mind and body experience, an experience that is this transient state that cascades through our brains and bodies, and that cascade has multiple components. One of them is the changes in physiology—heightened heart rate, sweat gland activity. Another one is that action urge that I’ve talked about. Another one is how it changes what shows up on our faces or how we carry our skeletons, and one of the components is the subjective feeling. The subjective feeling is kind of the color of consciousness. So how feeling relates to emotion is that emotion is a multi-component process or state in which feeling the conscious experience is just one part. A lot of times people will use emotion and feeling interchangeably, that’s okay to do that in regular life. As a scientist though, we draw the distinction between emotions as having multiple components—one of those components is feeling and, again, the others are what shows up on your face, what shows up in your body, the action urges you want to do, and so on. How it changes your voice can be another one. It’s a really good question and I really appreciate the chance to geek out!
Megan: I am curious about the fact that we all experience that emotional tone individually, like we build our own sense of what a particular emotion is like for ourselves. There would be some commonalities in facial expression but our felt sense from the inside of these emotions varies from person to person, yes?
Barbara: Definitely, they vary from person to person. There are some common threads in those experiences, like the experience or valence that it feels good or feels bad, that’s one ingredient in the feeling state but it’s not the only ingredient. It’ll come with, this feels good and it reminds me of this other time when this happened, and so there’s a take on emotions that says every feeling state is constructed by how it makes our bodies feel right now in the present, and linking that to our stories of the past and fusing those together are the ingredients—the past and the physical present that come together to create an emotion.
Megan: And maybe that’s part of the problem with the words that we use, like happiness and positivity, because when we say those words, we each have our own construction that’s non-scientific, that’s not for a research paper to be published. [It’s] our own experience of the words that are in conflict with the reality of today. I think someone else asked us that question about holding the whole, holding the paradox. We’ve talked a little bit about it, but I’m wondering if some of that is just the way we’ve constructed in our mind’s eye what it means, what positivity means to us, and what happiness means to us, and the construct of holding the whole.
Barbara: People talk about positivity and happiness so much that we can forget that these are linguistic challenges to try to put words on these ultimately ineffable states. There’s a quote—I can’t remember which poet this is, but I’ve cited the phrase often enough that I should know—that emotions are like that pinnacle in mountain climbing where words turn back because there’s not enough oxygen, but our experience keeps going higher and higher. Words can’t handle it. And we tend to forget that there’s an existential gap between what we feel on the inside and what we can communicate in words and that’s why people dance, that’s why we have creative arts to try to express the things that words have a hard time with.
Megan:There is something that happens during that dancing state that is well beyond words. Do you want to speak for a moment about what are some of the values of some of these practices that are not cognitive, not trying to label, just building experiences for experience’s sake?
Barbara: Right, right. So often we go through our days with this idea of what things do I need to achieve, what’s my to-do list—and you know, I have one for the day which I am way behind on but this is so much fun!
Megan: It is fun! I enjoy being with you, Barbara.
Barbara: I often argue that we need to have a to-feel list as well as a to-do list, with things like dance, experiential, creativity. These things can be really important routes to experiencing the feelings that we want to feel—being in nature or spending time connecting with a friend. I think what activities arouse positive emotions in us are very unique and so one of the keys in positive psychology is understanding what is it that brings joy to you, what is it that brings a sense of inspiration to you, and then prioritizing those activities. We know some of those, obviously we can expose ourselves to new things that often bring us to good places. The problem is that we often don’t give ourselves time in our day in our list of things to do to feel a certain way, and so those movement practices I think are just super fast-track ways to get to feel particular ways. You’re working with the postures and the openness and buoyancy, which are again part and parcel of what emotions are, and adopting those postures and movements is a way to jump-start the emotional state. So putting yourself in certain contexts, doing certain activities or engaging in the actions and postures and facial expressions of positivity, can be an on-ramp, let’s put it that way.
Megan:I think it’s a fast-track to feeling good. [One of our listeners] is mentioning that we had Kelly McGonigal on last week, who wrote the book The Joy of Movement and she talked about how people who are more empathetic are better at imagining the future and their future self. Have you heard that before?
Barbara: One of the things that reminds me of is that if you’re empathizing with somebody, you are kind of co-feeling with them and so one way that you might imagine a future is that you know whatever they’ve been through is a human experience that you might one day experience. But also, even just in a very proximal sense, there’s some research to show that people who are really closely following along and listening to another person, their neural firings precede the other person’s.
Megan: That’s amazing really, when you think about that.
Barbara: Yes, listening isn’t just following along, sometimes listening really closely and empathizing is anticipating and getting it right so it requires empathy to listen closely and co-feel with people. I think that forecasting happens at multiple levels.
Megan: She was wondering if that means that they’re better at hope, too—is there any correlation between being more empathetic and more hopeful if you can actually see those possible signals?
Barbara: I would think so, because most of the positive emotions tend to support one another, you know the more hope you feel, the more inspiration you feel, the more love you feel. That’s the cool thing about these upward spirals, is that they they propagate themselves, like each emotion takes it as its job to recreate itself in the next, even though they’re short-lived. Negative emotions tend to get you stuck in that one emotion in your head, thinking that you are alone, so downward spirals are really narrow and insular. Upward spirals tend to be open and permeable so that if you feel one positive emotion you more likely feel another one and you’re more likely to see your connections and common humanity and unity with other people.
Megan: Well, this hour has flown by my friend. I could do this for three hours straight, actually maybe longer. It’s always a joy to chat with you, I always learn so much. It’s just fun connecting and having conversations about this work in a very real way, so thank you for that.