Last Sunday, I attended the discussion between neuro-psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg as part of the Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. The topic was how positive thinking influenced the mind. Specifically, they talked about the effects of lovingkindness meditation practice on positive emotions and about the results of Dr. Fredrickson's research, described in her new book "Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive."
The conversation began with the question about the roles of positive and negative emotions. Psychologists have known for a long time that negative emotions are so salient and effective in seizing our attention because our survival has depended on them. The fear of a tiger, the disgust at the sight of rotten food - those negative emotions have been there to protect us. But why do we need positive emotions and how can we experience them more often? This is the inquiry of the positive psychology.
Dr. Fredrickson's research points out that positive emotions tend to broaden our focus, enabling us to discover more tools and solutions to life's challenges and ultimately making us more resourceful. When we experience negative emotions, our focus is narrow. This tunnel vision precludes us from switching perspectives and seeing creative solutions. Positive emotions let our minds open, or "bloom." In Dr. Fredrickson's study, the lovingkindness meditation practice has been shown to increase the frequency of positive emotions. In the lovingkindness mediation, you gather your attention around words and phrases of love and peace that you repeat rhythmically and direct to yourself and others. Those participants who saw a bigger increase in positivity from the start of the program also showed more benefits after three months of practice. In the long term, positive emotions result in more resilience and life satisfaction.
All emotions are transient. The point is not to try to be positive all the time, but rather to increase the frequency of positive emotions. Dr. Fredrickson discovered that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones makes people more resilient and creative in meeting life’s challenges and achieving their goals. You can find out your ratio and get other online tools at Dr. Fredrickson's website http://www.positivityratio.com. As Sharon Salzberg beautifully said, what counts is the willingness "to begin again," to redirect the mind towards more positive alternatives.
An interesting question was raised during the Q&A about the cross-cultural variance with regard to positivity. Culture influences what we consider a positive experience. For example, in cultures where individualism is praised, people feel positive when they stand out and accomplish something on their own. In collective cultures, feeling connected to a group, fitting in, may be more important to increase positive emotions. Reflecting on my own cross-cultural experiences, I wonder if the broad focus also facilitates cultural adjustment. It would be interesting to see studies on this.