The power of positive thinking

Positive thinking fundamentally changes the way the human brain works, helping us to broaden our focus and allowing us to see the big picture.

Meet Dr Barbara Fredrickson: a leading authority on the science of positive emotions. She is an American university professor, incoming president of the International Positive Psychology Association and world-renowned researcher in the field of positive psychology.

She has written two books, Positivity and Love 2.0, and in 2010 was invited to brief His Holiness the Dalai Lama on her research. She was in Australia in June for Happiness & Its Causes.

People think of happiness as an overwhelming, positive emotion and are often disappointed if they don’t feel that. But can happy feel neutral?
Yes, positive emotions are much more subtle than negative emotions. Research tells us that what matters most is the frequency of positive emotions, however mild, not their intensity. Even ordinary events in everyday life can be recurrent sources of emotional uplift, even if the feelings they engender are very slight and fleeting.

Are there any common disruptors that you see as having a fundamental impact on positivity and, by extension, human happiness?
Most positive emotions require a feeling of safety. One poignant disruptor to feelings of happiness is that people do not perceive the true safety in their daily lives. In ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, we overlook the safety that characterises the here and now.

I read an interview in which you describe positive emotions as being a shared experience. Can you explain this a little further?
Some (but not all) experiences of positive emotions are ‘co-experienced’ with others. In such circumstances, it’s as if one positive emotional state rolls through two or more brains and bodies at once, like an ocean wave, creating a synchrony between and among people in inner experiences, facial expressions, body postures, and even inner biochemistry and neural firings. These shared experiences of positive emotions, what I call ‘positivity resonance’, serve as consequential health behaviours.

Have there been any findings over your years of research that have challenged your own personal beliefs?
I used to think that the emotion of love was only about the caring and tender feelings we hold for our inner circle of loved ones. The data on the benefits of co-experienced positive emotions challenged me to rethink love, and cast it as positivity resonance, even experienced between strangers who interact just one time. This is the subject of my 2nd book, Love 2.0.

How do you define positive emotions and what are the benefits of experiencing them?
Positive emotions are momentary experiences of uplifting, pleasant states – like gratitude, joy, serenity, inspiration, and the like. As it happens, these pleasant states, as subtle and fleeting as they are, fundamentally change the way the human brain works, helping us to broaden our focus and allowing us to see the big picture. These expansive mindsets are consequential in that they help us to discover and build new resources and capabilities.

The digital age has given rise to a new era of social isolation and disconnectedness. How does this impact our ability to share positive emotions and love?
Whatever activities we engage in habitually, shape our future propensities. This is based on neuroplasticity. Research suggests that the more we interact face to face with others, the more we develop a biological propensity that supports social engagement. By implication, when we forego interacting face to face, we may be eroding our biological capacity for social connection.

Can people really change their thought patterns, and what does it take to do so?
Yes, they can. Meditation practice is one reliable means for doing so.

Tell us a little about how shared positive emotions can strengthen relationships?
I see shared positive emotions as the nutrients that support the health and strength of our relationships.

What is coming up next for you?
I continue to carry out randomised controlled trials on the benefits of loving-kindness meditation and am now investigating the impact they may hold for people who endured early-life adversity and by consequence are at increased risk for chronic illnesses of all sorts.

Where can we find you?
If you’re curious to learn more, please visit

Dr Barbara Fredrickson is a positive psychologist, author and advocate for the power of positive thinking. 

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