Barbara Fredrickson: Positive Emotions Transform Us

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The second core truth about positive emotions
is that they transform us for the better. They bring out the best in us. Now one interesting
fact about all living things and for all of you sitting here today while you’re sitting
here today new cells are being born within you. Scientists that have estimated that on
average across all different body systems you could say that people replace one percent
of their cells each day. That’s another one-percent tomorrow about thirty-percent by next month
and next season one-hundred-percent; that’s one way of looking at it. Now. certainly that
differs across, taste buds change faster than bones, but still on average we’re turning
over like that a lot. And maybe it’s no coincidence that it takes
three months or so to learn a new habit or to make a lifestyle change; maybe we need
to be teaching our new cells we can’t teach an old cell new tricks perhaps. But one of
the things I think is even more exciting is that the latest science suggests that the
pace of cell renewal and the form of cell renewal doesn’t just follow some predetermined
DNA script, that our emotions affect that level of cellular change.
And so that’s an idea that’s completely consistent with the broader lesson within my work is
that positive emotions in broadening our awareness or opening our awareness over time change
who we are in the future. Now, what this suggests is that if we increase our daily diet of positive
emotions maybe we need as many as the fruits and vegetables mark which keeps going higher
and higher all the time if we increase our daily diet of positive emotions we change
who we are. We change our ways of being in the world in important ways.
Now one of the things that I’ve come to realize is that changing people’s trait or characteralogical
positive emotions can be done but it’s not easy. It’s akin to making a lifestyle change.
I think the best metaphor for this is moving a river. It’s more possible than moving a
mountain but it’s not something that you can do just on a whim and just you know, flip
a switch and it’s changed. It’s something that you do with continual reinforcement and
effort. And with that in mind actually Sonja Lyubormirsky’s
work suggests that it takes as much willpower for a lifestyle change effort and control
as does lowering your cholesterol or losing weight. Okay, but with that in mind I was
very much inspired by some of the newest research on meditation to look at how people might
use meditation to elevate trait or characterological positive emotion. And in particular I’ve become
interested in a form of meditation called loving kindness meditation, sometimes called
meta, and what it does is it asks people to cultivate that warm, tender feeling that you
already have towards a loved one or even a pet and really learn to self generate that
emotion and direct it towards yourself and direct it towards people you normally wouldn’t
feel that toward, a neutral person or people you have difficulties with and eventually
to direct it to all people and sentient beings on earth.
Now, what I’ve learned from my research on love and kindness meditation is that positive
emotions can change. This is what I call move the river slide, that positive emotions as
people learn this technique over the course these are novice mediators, over the course
of eight weeks, their positive emotions subtly shift upwards. It’s not a whopping increase
but it’s statistically significant and it yields really important changes in these people’s
lives months later. What we learned is that as people’s positive emotions increase, their
day in day out positive emotions that you could describe as their trait positive emotions
as they increase it builds resources. One of the resources is built is people’s
mindfulness, their ability to stay in the present moment and attend to subtle differences.
Their close and trusting warm relationships with others are improved over the course of
three months; these are things that we measured before they took the meditation workshop and
then couple weeks after it ended and we see improvements there. We see improvements in
people’s resilience their ability to bounce back from difficulties and effectively manage
their environmental challenges. We also see reductions in people’s headache aches, pains,
stomach pains, or self-reported health symptoms and in our newest study we’ve actually found
changes in heart rate variability that suggests that we’ve increased vagal tone.
So what I want to argue with this work is that positive emotions transform us for the
better it’s like that butterfly coming out of its cocoon. If we increase our daily diet
of positive emotions we come out three months later being better strong more resilient more
socially connected versions of ourselves. And what I’ve, where I’m going in my future
work is to look at how that is happening just at a level that we recognize in our behaviors
that we can self report on questionnaires but also how it’s changing us at a cellular
level, how these increases in positive emotions cascade forward and literally change the way
our genes are transcribed and shape who we are at a really fundamental basic level.
One thing that is true of all of us just like all living things: we can all either languish,
barely holding on to life or flourish becoming ripe with beauty and possibility and remarkably
resilient to hard times. And one of the things that we found is that the degree to which
people experience positive emotions in their lives predict whether people will be languishing,
flourishing. And one way to think of this is that we don’t have to get up in the morning
and think “I don’t want”, or “I want to languish today,” “I want to flourish today.”
We need to be thinking about the micromoments and follow the light of the positive notions.
Let positive emotions and positivity light our way to the path of flourishing.

 

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