Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Fredickson’


March 10, 2020

This title of a book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney has a chapter titled Optimism: Belief in a Brighter Future. It begins, “Optimism ignites resilience, providing energy to power the other resilience factors. It facilitates an active and creative approach to coping with challenging situations….Optimism is a future-oriented attitude, a confidence that things will turn out well.” They believe that good things will happen to them, and that with hard work, they will succeed.

Shelly Taylor and other psychologists have identified two styles of optimism: dispositional optimism, which is also called trait optimism, pervades the individual’s outlook and tends to be stable from one situation to another; and situational optimism, in which the individual may feel hopeful and expect a favorable outcome in one situation but not in another. Even under adverse circumstances these people manage to build on whatever small glimmer of optimistic thinking the can find.

The authors make the point that blind optimism does not work. They note that optimism as a resilience trait does not mean blindly ignoring life’s problems or viewing the world through “rose-colored glasses.” Realistic optimists pay close attention to negative information that is relevant to the problems they face. However, they do not remain focused on the negative. They tend to disengage rapidly from problems that appear to be unsolvable; they know then to cut their losses and turn their attention to solvable problems.

Diane Coutu discusses the importance of playing close attention to negative information in the context of business success: “That’s not to say that optimism doesn’t have its place: In turning around a demoralized sales force, for instance, conjuring a sense of possibility can be a very powerful tool. But for bigger challenges, a cool, almost pessimistic, sense of reality is far more important…Facing reality, really facing it, is grueling work. Indeed, it can be unpleasant and emotionally wrenching.”

Psychologist Sandra Schneider writes that realistic optimism is qualitatively different from the blind variety: “A realistic outlook improves chances to negotiate the environment successfully, whereas an optimistic outlook places priority on feeling good. But are realistic and optimistic outlooks necessarily in conflict?” She points out that in many cases, optimism and realism don’t conflict, but “there remain ‘optimistic biases’ that do involve self-deception, or convincing oneself of desired beliefs without appropriate reality checks.” Justin Kruger and David Dunning write that it tends to lead to “an underestimation of risk, an overestimation of ability, and inadequate preparation.”

Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf is a most remarkable case. She believed that her own brand of optimism was the product of years of deprivation. After suffering what was called “brain fever” when she was 19 months old, she suffered five years suffering “outbursts of passion”, screaming, daily (and sometime hours) temper tantrums and fits of violent and uncontrollable behavior. Fortunately in 1887 a most remarkable individual entered her life, Anne Sullivan. She taught Helen to understand letters and words, traced her hand and then to read Braille. Her progress was so rapid and extraordinary that within a few years she became a “phenemon,” reaching widespread publicity and meeting with world dignitaries, including Alexander Graham Bell and President Grover Cleveland.

After four years of study at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, she applied to Radcliffe College. Keller was informed only a day or two before the entrance exam that the mathematic portion would be given in a style of Braille unfamiliar to her, so that she had to learn an entirely new set of symbols over night. She wrote,”I do not blame anyone. The administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making my examinations, nor did they understand the peculiar difficulties I had to surmount. But they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.”

A portion of her essay “Optimism” follows:
“Most people measure happiness in terms of physical pleasure and material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have set on the horizon, how happy they would be! Lacking this gift or that circumstance, they would be miserable. If happiness is to be so measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep.”


“A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him. I know what evil is…I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism then does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, and make that Best a part of my life.”

One could easily call Helen Keller the most resilient person who has ever lived, so she constitutes proof that optimism does increase resilience. Barbara Fredrickson has developed what she calls the broaden and build model of positive emotions. She differentiates the functions of negative and positive emotions and notes that negative emotions such as anger, fear, and disgust help us to survive by preparing us for danger. They do this by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which increases physiological arousal. This “fight-flight” reaction narrows your visual focus and tends to restrict our behavior to those that are essential for attacking or fleeing.

Fredrickson also notes that positive emotions, in contrast, have been shown to reduce physiological arousal and to broaden our visual focus, our thoughts, and our behavior. Experiencing positive emotions results in an accompanying broadening of attention and behavior. Consequently, their thinking tends to become more creative, inclusiive, flexible, and integrative. Experiments have shown that inducing a positive mood (by showing participants a funny movie, or reading them a funny story) increases people’s scope of attention, their ability to solve problems actively, and their interest in socializing, and in strenuous as well as leisurely activities. So by broadening attention and action, positive emotions can contribute to our creativity, physical health, relations with family and friends, our ability to acquire new knowledge, and our psychological resilience.

There are many healthy memory post on optimism. The can be found by entering “optimism” into the search block at


August 28, 2019


Positivity is the title of a book by psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D. The subtitle is “Discover the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.” Do not be put off by the hype. This book offers guidance on developing a more positive outlook on life

Readers of the healthy memory blog should know that a positive outlook is key to both mental health and physical health as well as a fulfilling life. Healthy memory blog readers should also be aware that we humans have a negative bias, which leads us to a negative outlook. This can be good if it forewarns us of danger, but, for most of us, at least danger does not loom around every corner.

Our negativity is further exacerbated by the nature of the news, which tends to feature negative articles, as well as the internet, which can further exacerbate negativity.

Indeed, the current president of the United States campaigned on fear and negativity and continues during his presidency to promote fear and negativity among his base (nazis and white supremacists) to increase, in his mind, his chances of winning reelection.

Six important facts about Positivity follow:

Fact 1. Positivity feels good. This alone could justify being positive as that the simple state of being positive is a pleasant experience.

Fact 2. Positivity changes how your mind works. Positivity does not just change the contents of your mind, trading bad thoughts for good ones; it also changes the scope or boundaries of your mind. It widens the span of possibilities that you see.

Fact 3. Positivity transforms your future. Although good feelings will forever be fleeting, over time, positivity literally brings out the best in you.

Fact 4. Positivity puts the brakes on negativity. In a heartbeat negativity can spike your blood pressure, but positivity can calm it.

Fact 5. Positivity obeys a tipping point. Dr. Frederickson writes, the most stunning and practical fact to emerge from the science of positivity is that its effects are nonlinear. Effects that are virtually nonexistent at one starting point grow disproportionately large at a different starting point. A tipping point is that sweet spot in between where a small change makes a big difference.

Fact 6. You can increase your positivity. You have more to say than you think, just as does the potential for life-giving positivity.

Positivity broadens and builds. Positivity opens us. The first core truth about positive emotions is that they open our hearts and our minds, making us more receptive and more creative.

Positivity transforms us for the better. This is the second core truth about positive emotions. By opening our hearts and minds, positive emotions allow us to discover and build new skills, new ties, new knowledge, and new ways of being.

Outside In: What You See Is What You Get

August 12, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. There is impressive research that shows that “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life. In a large study of 941 Dutch subjects over ten years, the most upbeat individuals, who agreed with statements such as “often feel that life is full of promise,” were 45% less likely to die during the long experiment than were the most pessimistic.

Research reveals that the cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus confirmed that what happens to us, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to our well-being than how we respond to it. Psychologist Barbara Fredickson says that if you want to get over a bad feeling, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.” This does not mean that when something upsetting happens, we should not immediately try to force ourselves to “be happy.” First, Fredrickson says you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how we honestly feel about what occurred. Then we direct our attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light.

Unfortunately, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

With the exception of these anhedonic individuals, Fredrickson says, “Very few circumstances are one hundred percent bad.” Even in very difficult situations, she finds, it’s often possible to find something to be grateful for, such as others’ loving support, good medical care, or even our own values thoughts, and feelings. Focusing on such a benign emotion isn’t just a “nice thing to do,” but a proven way to expand our view of reality and lift our spirits, thus improving our ability to cope.

William James said wisdom is “the art of knowing what to overlook.” And many elders master this way of focusing. Many studies show that younger adults pay as much or more to negative information than to the positive sort. However, by middle age their focus starts to shift until in old age, they’re likely to have a strong positive bias in what they both attend to and remember.

Research has shown that older brains attend to and remember emotional stimuli differently from younger ones. In one study, compared to younger people, they remembered twice as many positive images as the negative or neutral sort. Moreover, when the experiment was repeated using fMRI brain scans, the tests showed that in younger adults, the emotional center, the amygdala, reacted to both positive and negative images, but in older adults, only in response to positive cues. The author suggests, “Perhaps because elders use the “smart” prefrontal cortex to dampen activity in the more volatile amygdala, their brains actually encode less negative information, which naturally reduces their recall of it and its impact on their behavior.

The final paragraph to this chapter follows: “WHATEVER YOUR TEMPERAMENT, living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time, which would be both futile and grotesque. Rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grown there. Your ability to function comfortably in a dirty, germy world is just one illustration of your powerful capacity to put mind over matter and control you experience by shifting your focus from counterproductive to adaptive thoughts and feelings. In this regard, one reason why certain cultures venerate the aged for their wisdom is that elders tend to maximize opportunities to attend to the meaningful and serene, and to the possibility that, as E.M. Foster put it in A Room With a View, ”…by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”