Keep Stoking the Positivity -- Our Future Depends On It

Pleasant emotions like hope, inspiration, joy, and well-earned pride literally open us. As the blinders of negativity fall away, we take in more of what surrounds us.
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In a presidential campaign marked by bitter and often gratuitous negativity, Barack Obama campaigned on hope, painting the possibility of a better future. Millions across the U.S. and abroad were moved by his message. Even amidst economic crisis and international turmoil, a shared sense of hope lifted and opened people's hearts, seeding their better dreams. And with Obama's decisive win on November 4th, hope erupted into effusive joy. For millions of his supporters, dreams came true. "Yes, we can" morphed into "Yes, we did."

Those highs will fade. Life goes on. Our daily routines - commuting, work, buying groceries, paying bills - eventually flatten such emotional peaks into foggy memories. Sobering us up further, we're told that economic times will get worse before they get better. Millions face or fear joblessness, lost homes, and more.

We need positivity, the complex web of causes and consequences of positive emotions, now more than ever. Not just to sugarcoat bitter news or distract us from gloom. We need positivity because we're different people when we're under its influence.

Pleasant emotions like hope, inspiration, joy, and well-earned pride literally open us. As the blinders of negativity fall away, we take in more of what surrounds us. We see both the forest and the trees. We appreciate the oneness that binds us instead of the barriers that divide us. Even race becomes irrelevant.

But that's not the half of it. Positivity's mental openness fertilizes just the sort of creative and integrative thinking that hard-to-find solutions and compromises are made of. With the throng of problems facing our nation and our new president, we sorely need this expansive thinking. In addition, when we think broadly we discover and build new skills, new alliances, and new resilience - which make us better prepared to handle future adversity. Even mild positive emotions, experienced regularly, set people on discernable trajectories of growth, making them better off next season than they are today.

Science suggests that when we experience genuine, heartfelt positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative emotions, we cross a psychological tipping point on the other side of which we function at our very best.

Knowing the importance and promise of positivity is one thing. Being able to cultivate it on demand is another. Although Barack Obama's rousing speeches inspired us with the sweet taste of positivity - along with its signature blue-sky thinking and open-arms oneness - we shouldn't wait for his next speech to stoke our own fading embers of positivity. Tools developed and sharpened by the science of positive psychology allow us to self-generate positivity whenever we choose - even during these trying times. Indeed, positive emotions are the heart of what allows people to bounce back from hardship and become stronger than ever. That's a psychological resource even a dejected McCain supporter could rally around.

Many of positive psychology's science-tested tools hinge on the stance we take toward our current circumstances. Are we truly open to what is? Do we savor and celebrate the good? Do we see adversity with clear eyes that resist stoking catastrophe? Do we connect with others earnestly and with kindness, offering up our best selves? When we adopt these stances, we considerably raise the odds that positive emotions will bloom.

Keep in mind that positivity is a feature of moments, not a permanent veneer. If it were permanent, we'd risk becoming hapless fools, unable to tell the difference between a bridge and a bridge to nowhere. What's more, positivity's benefits accrue only when it is genuine. Fake or forced positivity does as much damage as negativity.

Recall the emotions you felt when the news hit the night of November 4th that Obama had roared past the necessary 270 electoral college votes. For millions, that night marked the best they'd felt in years - buoyant, alive, hopeful, brimming with possibilities. Collectively and in unison, we felt something powerful. That's because positive emotions - even in hues far milder than experienced that night - fundamentally change our biochemistry and our worldviews. In time, they can even change who we are - helping us become better versions of ourselves. And while it often seems that our emotions rain down on us as unpredictably as the weather, we each have far more control than we realize over what we feel and when. So, as the highs of making history begin to fade, we must all continue to stoke the embers of our positivity. Our future depends on it.

Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D. is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well at the author of Positivity (Crown, 2009).

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