European positive psychology conference in Copenhagen: Barbara Fredrickson 'How positive emotions work, and why' (fifth post)
Last updated on 29th July 2010
I was at the 5th European Conference on Positive Psychology last month. I wrote a series of four blog posts about it, but in the second I commented "I'm running out of time for this blog post. The second talk was also great - "How positive emotions work, and why" by Barbara Fredrickson. I've mentioned Fredrickson's work a number of times on this blog. See, for example "Three good books: "Positivity", ... " and "Barbara Fredrickson's recent research study on loving-kindness meditation". I was looking forward to hearing her speak and the talk was even better than I'd hoped for. In fact these first two 45 minute talks by Keyes and Fredrickson for me justified the whole effort and expense of coming to Denmark for this conference. I could have gone home now satisfied with having plenty to think about and work on. I won't say any more about her lecture just now and I'll blog about it more fully in the next couple of weeks".
So how was Barbara Fredrickson's presentation? I found it inspiring. As she says on her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab website (PEPLab), the main purpose of their research team at the University of North Carolina is to answer the question "What good is it to feel good?" From her talk and much research, the answer is clear "Feeling good is really helpful in a whole series of ways". Barb made a series of key points. 1.) Positivity opens us. She used a lovely metaphor of positive emotions acting on human beings like sunshine acts on flowers - we open in the sunlight of positive emotions & we have an inner "heliotropic" orientation towards them. As the PEPLab website states: "One central hypothesis, drawn from Fredrickson's broaden-and-build theory, is the broaden hypothesis. It states that discrete positive emotions broaden the scopes of attention and cognition and lead to a widened array of thoughts and action impulses in the mind. A corollary to this hypothesis is that negative emotions shrink these same arrays. Several recent studies from our lab provide converging support for this hypothesis." The recent Schmitz et al Journal of Neuroscience paper "Opposing influences of affective state valence on visual cortical encoding" highlights the very physical reality of this "opening". They write " ... we examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging whether the opposing influences of positive and negative states extend to perceptual encoding in the visual cortices." The researchers found that they did, with positive emotions literally and very organically changing how open we are to visual information. Barb argued that this opening effect extended very widely to include more possibilities, more creativity, more resilience, better performance, better problem solving, more oneness/trusting, and better negotiating. Big claims - but with a good deal of research justification.
She went on to state 2.) Positivity transforms us. She felt this aspect of positive emotions was less well understood, because it took time to evolve. My lecture note jottings say "We can think of positive emotions like nutrients ... it's so important our overall long term experience of positive emotions ... like exercising better". Barb has particulary explored this "shifting the river" aspect of positive emotions through research on loving-kindness meditation. I have blogged fairly extensively about this - see, for example, the first post "Barbara Fredrickson's recent research study on loving-kindness meditation". This particular compassion focused approach to building positive emotions & subsequent wellbeing resources links also with the fine research emerging from Jennifer Crocker's University of Michigan work - see "Recent research: egosystem & ecosystem". Interestingly Barbara went on to talk about the possibility that some positive emotion benefits might be mediated by increases in vagal tone. The vagus nerve is emerging in diverse research studies as a possible area of importance. Vagal nerve stimulation is used for treatment resistant depression. Early life stress affects subsequent vagal activity. Lowered vagal tone has been associated with both social anxiety and generalized anxiety/worry problems. While relaxation methods and massage seem to increase vagal activity. The name "vagus" comes from the Latin word for "wandering" and its anatomical course certainly links it to so many body organs and body functions. Increasingly it looks as though changes in vagal activity - for example through positive emotions - are likely to have major effects on multiple body systems including stress, mood, heart, digestion, inflammation, and immune function. As an aside, the vagus controls voice muscles - maybe one of the reasons why the sound of a person's voice can tell us so much about them and affect us so much.
I'll write more about Barbara Fredrickson's talk soon.