In Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., details both how to increase positive emotions in your life along with the gigantic benefits of doing so. What might first appear to be nothing more than a “Don’t worry, be happy” tale is actually more of a life changer.

The Big Ideas

  • Positivity is more than “being happy.” It is a state that can be measured via brain activity, cardiac and circulatory activity and other physiological events including measures of hormones and neurotransmitters active in your system.
  • Every person has a “positivity ratio” that describes the magnitude of positive to negative emotions.
  • We can all use Fredrickson’s science-based approach to increasing our positivity ratio to enjoy a more fulfilling life.
  • A ratio of 3-to-1 is the “tipping point” at which life becomes far more enjoyable.
  • Fredrickson provides dozens of ways to increase your ratio, including on-line tools you can access anonymously and at no cost.

Neutrino’s Nutshell

Barbara Fredrickson had been quietly studying positive emotions since the mid-1990’s along with a few other psychologists. In 2005, she began a study called the Open Heart Study where she explored the effects of meditation on stress. The study generated mounds of data which formed the foundation for her theories on positivity.

Fredrickson divides the book into two parts. The first presents-with scientific rigor-the research supporting the field of positivity. Part Two is dedicated to specific practices you can adopt to reach and move beyond that “tipping point” where your positivity ratio exceeds the magical 3-to-1 number.

Extended Summary

Waking Up to Positivity

“Being happy” is too general a condition for scientists to evaluate. As a research scientist and self-professed “data junkie,” Fredrickson studied the concept of positivity, generating tens of thousands of data points. She found that it has several characteristics. Borrowing her words…

  • It feels good
  • It changes how your mind works
  • It transforms your future
  • It puts the brakes on negativity
  • It obeys a tipping point
  • You can increase your positivity

Positivity: Means, Not Ends

You can experience life in a downward spiral where negativity rules your thoughts, or in an upward spiral where positivity reigns. Both mind-sets are like a whirlpool that carries you where it will: either into sadness and depression or into positive emotions. Fredrickson calls this “languishing” or “flourishing.” You have a choice in how you live and, in a matter of just a few months, can increase your positivity ratio dramatically.

Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory has become foundational in positive psychology. Until she advanced her theory, psychologists thought that all emotions trigger “specific action tendencies.” They believed every emotion had an evolutionary basis that caused us to react to events in specific ways. For example, fear of a predator caused us to flee or fight. Her broaden-and-build theory shows that positive emotions do not follow that rule. Instead “They broaden people’s ideas about possible actions, opening our awareness to a wider range of thoughts and actions than is typical.” For example, being able to experience the positive emotion of joy broadens you to further experiences of joy, as well as other aspects of positivity.

The “build” aspect of her theory showed that while negative emotions such as fear are usually short-lived based on the event one faces, positive emotions build upon one another over time. They give us new resources and ways to face what life hands out – both the pleasant and unpleasant offerings.

Becoming more positive “…opens…our hearts and minds, making us more receptive and more creative to the events life presents.” Fredrickson goes on to say that “Positivity is a means toward better ends, not simply an end in itself.”

For every single negative emotion or experience you have each day, Fredrickson shows you how you can have at least three positive emotional experiences. This is the “positivity ratio” of 3-to-1 we can all achieve.

What Is Positivity?

Fredrickson discovered there are ten emotions that contribute to positivity.

  1. Joy – In-the-moment experiences that uplift you: a warm moment with a friend or a surprise bonus check at the end of the year, for example.
  2. Gratitude – Someone does something for you that is unexpected, kind and welcome. You feel gratitude toward that person.
  3. Serenity – A lower-key edition of joy; a general feeling that everything is going your way; a “savoring” of the present moment.
  4. Interest – You are fascinated by a new idea, a new project at work, “…you can literally feel your horizons expanding in real time, and with them your own possibilities.”
  5. Hope – When you’re facing a negative event, hope “arises precisely within those moments when hopelessness or despair seem just as likely.” You can learn to choose hope.
  6. Pride – happens when you can be credited with “socially valued achievements.” Pride opens you to believing you can perhaps do more, that “maybe you can…” accomplish what otherwise would have seemed impossible or unreachable.
  7. Amusement – We all understand laughter as the outcome of a positive emotion. That emotion is amusement.
  8. Inspiration – “Along with gratitude and awe, inspiration is considered one of the self-transcendent emotions.” It opens us to appreciate at a very deep level an event or thought that lifts us out of our normal self-focused stream of thoughts.
  9. Awe – “…happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale…you feel small and humble.” Awe may be found when in nature and in human interaction when you become “momentarily transfixed.”
  10. Love – is the combination of all these emotions when shared in a safe environment with another person in a relationship. It has many facets that surface at different times, all culminating in the most powerful, all-encompassing positive emotion that exists.

These ten emotions are more than just words or ideas. They are built-in qualities that, when expressed, change our biochemistry, rewire our brains and create a new way of living. These facts are supported by extensive research that’s detailed in Fredrickson’s elaborate “Notes” section at the end of her book.

Broaden Your Mind

“Positivity broadens our mind and expands our range of vision.” It gives us a wider array of reactions to life’s events. We find we have more solutions to problems. It opens us to relate to one another and feed off of the positive emotions of others. It’s contagious: it breeds more openness with others so that solutions to problems become more creative, useful and effective. Positivity creates a sense of oneness with other people, with the world and the universe.

It helps us to see “what is” at any given moment, rather than what we want reality to be.

Build Your Best Future

Fredrickson talks at length about The Open Heart Study and one of its participants in particular, a woman named “Nina.” She struggled with low self-esteem, medical problems and discomforts and burn-out at her tech support job. Learning to meditate transformed Nina to a fully functional human being who no longer suffered from her mental and physical conditions. She made a choice to become positive through guided meditations every day. Mindfulness [Renee: possible internal link to “mindfulness”] became her style of living.

Nina along with 200 other people learned that positivity leads to a better life, a better future. The Open Heart Study has become a cornerstone study in the field of Positive Psychology. Fredrickson provides a daily log for capturing your daily emotional status just as Nina and her colleagues recorded theirs.

Bounce Back from Life’s Challenges

Resilience is one’s ability to recover from challenges. Fredrickson talks about reactions to the 9/11 terrorist attack. She had used the Ego Resiliency Scale, a tool created by scientists Jack Block and Adam Kremen to measure one’s emotional resiliency, to test 100 college students prior to 9/11. She found those students and re-tested them after 9/11. She discovered that those scoring high on the pre-9/11 test “showed fewer signs of clinical depression. They even grew psychologically stronger in some respects…more optimistic, more tranquil…more fulfilled with their lives.” Positivity “is the activity that enables certain people to attain resilient outcomes.” Her finding is supported by research studies other scientists have conducted.

To be positive is to be resilient and able to handle the curve balls – even the great big ones – life tosses your way.

The Positivity Ratio

What is a “tipping point?” Ice and water are both chemically the same – H2O. Ice is solid and cold while water is flowing and may well be warm. The “tipping point” is 32-degrees Farhrenheit where water turns to ice and vice versa.

You too have a tipping point between languishing and flourishing. Scientist Marcial Losado of Chile, retired and with a Doctorate in Psychology to his credit, specialized in mathematical modeling of high performance work groups. He applied his advanced math skills, collaborating with Fredrickson in her research, and found the tipping point for positivity is exactly 2.9013-to-1.00. For simplicity and easier understanding, this advanced mathematical finding has been rounded up to the 3-to-1 ratio about which you’ve already read.

Just as 32-degrees Fahrenheit is the “control parameter” that determines if H2O is water or ice, the 3-to-1 ratio determines whether one languishes or flourishes. Yet is there such a thing as too much positivity? Fredrickson thinks the upper limit may be around 11-to-1 based on the same advanced mathematics Losado used. .

She goes on to point out that negativity can be “necessary” or“gratuitous.”The first is what life hands out. The latter is what we do when blaming, attacking others verbally or in our thoughts or shaming ourselves. We can choose to control gratuitous negativity.

Where Are You Now?

This chapter opens Part Two of the book. Here Fredrickson introduces the “Positivity Self Test.” It’s a simple 20-question survey that takes just a minute or two to complete. A copy of the test is included at the Appendix to her book. She encourages each reader to take the test once a day, then to summarize over a two week period to find your personal positivity ratio.

The “Day Reconstruction” technique has you divide each day into activities that describe what you were doing and how you felt at the time. What did I do today? How did I feel when I commuted to work? How did I feel at work, at school, etc.? How did I feel at the end of the day? How did I feel watching TV this evening with my spouse? This technique helps you divide your day into a few segments to which you assign your feelings. Over time you’ll be able to identify activities that lift or depress your positivity.

Is this easy? Like changing eating habits or deciding to get regular exercise, creating your database of feelings and emotions may not come too easily. However doing so can change your life. Like so many other things in life, it is up to you to choose to change the way things seem to be going.

Decrease Negativity

There are two ways you can adjust a ratio. You can increase the numerator (the number on top) or decrease the denominator (the number on the bottom). Let’s say you logged in 150 positive emotions and 100 negative emotions over two weeks of Day Reconstruction. That’s a ratio of 150/100, or 1.5. If you decrease the negatives (number on the bottom) from 100 to, say, just 50 negative emotions, your ratio becomes 150/50, or 3.0. This chapter gives you several ways to do just that.

  • Dispute Negative Thinking – When negativity surfaces, question it carefully in the light of facts. Don’t simply let your negative thoughts win the day. Think through the problem you’re facing as if you were analyzing it with a trusted friend. You’ll usually find you can disarm, dispute and disrupt the negativity.
  • Stop Ruminating – Cows are ruminants because they chew and re-chew their food; first as grass and later as regurgitated partially digested cud. We often do the same with our negative thoughts, playing and re-playing them in our minds. It’s a downward spiral into anger, depression and worse. To stop ruminating on your negative thoughts, get engaged with something that distracts you and engages you. Make it something healthy like physical activity or something that truly gets you out of the rut of negativity. It might be spending more time with loved ones, playing at a sport, walking in natural surroundings, listening to inspiring music. What it is does not matter; let it be right for you.
  • Become More Mindful – get into the moment and spend time there instead of mulling over something in the past or some worry about the future. Practice mindfulness meditation. [Renee: possible internal link to “mindfulness”]
  • Don’t Be a Media Junkie – The media loves to entice our dark side with bad news. Whether we’re looking for a movie to watch and find only murder, drugs, rape, horror and negativity – or if we’re simply watching the 6 o’clock news and seeing only who was robbed, cheated, stabbed, shot, killed or otherwise mistreated – that’s what the media is about. They know that negativity attracts people so they lead with those stories and those movies. Do not let the media feed you a diet of negativity.
  • Avoid Gossip and Sarcasm – They’re both signals that you could be spending your time and your life in more positive ways.

Increase Positivity

The other way to increase a ratio is to enlarge the top number. In this case, that’s the number of positive emotions you feel each day. Here Fredrickson explains several ways to increase your ratio by increasing any of the ten positive emotions noted above.

  • Slow Down – Take a moment to feel emotions in your heart. Open up to what is happening right now. At work. At home. With your school or college teachers, with your children, your friends…whomever. Life in the 21st century USA is fast. Slow down and enjoy what is.
  • Find Positive Meaning – Your habitual way of thinking is what determines your positivity and virtually every aspect of your life. Begin thinking in the big picture about the meaning of your life overall. Why am I here? What do I want to accomplish? What’s my mission in life?
  • Savor Goodness – We all understand “savoring” when it’s about food. The flavor. The pleasure in tasting it. The rewarding feeling when it slips down our throats to our stomachs. The feeling of fullness. Yes. Goodness is all around each of us. We can learn to savor every aspect of it with as much vigor as we enjoy a fine wine, a fine meal or a wonderful dessert.
  • Count Your Blessings – A habit you can cultivate, counting your blessings relies upon you. Can you take a moment to thank life for what you have? For what you have been given? For what others have done for you? It only takes a few minutes each week to count your blessings and doing so leads to greater positivity.
  • Kindness Counts – You usually recognize when someone does something nice for you. Begin noticing when you do something kind for another person. It boosts your positivity.
  • Fredrickson discusses other positivity-inducing habits: Follow Your Passions, Dream About Your Future, Apply Your Strengths, Connect with Others, Connect with Nature, Open Your Mind and Open Your Heart. She delivers insightful advice on each of them.

A New Toolkit

Why are you reading this book review? Because it might offer a quick fix to some problem, or at least an introduction to a fix? Dr. Fredrickson points out, “The multitude of studies I and other scientists have conducted on positivity is destined to remain merely interesting dinner conversation until you deepen your self-study.” This chapter provides the tools you’re looking for to increase your positivity.

  • Be Open – Learn to be mindful, to be in the moment without judgment of what is.
  • Create High Quality Connections – Support, attend to, trust and play with other people. Practice doing these continuously throughout each day.
  • Cultivate Kindness – As Jewel said in her song “Hands” – “Only kindness matters.” Take one day each week to perform five true acts of kindness for others. Make them count. It’s not about opening a door for a senior citizen. Dig in, get deeper and do something that you know really counts.
  • Develop Distractions – Yep, it’s time to stop ruminating over perceived wrongs done to you and about what might go wrong in the future. What do you like to do? Distract yourself by doing more of it. Just make certain they’re healthy distractions. You certainly don’t want to graze on sweets, drink too much or engage in addictions.
  • Dispute Negative Thinking – As discussed earlier, when the negatives seem to occupy every corner of your thinking, take time to look at the emotional issue with facts. You can dispute most of them.
  • Find Nearby Nature, Learn and Apply Your Strengths, Meditate Mindfully, Meditate on Loving Kindness, Ritualize Gratitude, Savor Positivity, Visualize Your Future, Personalize Your Self-Study and Hunt and Gather. Fredrickson provides in-depth explanations of each idea, giving guidance for becoming more positive and enjoying the depth and breadth life can offer.

From this guidance Fredrickson shows you how to build your “portfolio” of positives that you can use at any time to lift you into the upward spiral of positivity, even when circumstances, people and events seem to be wanting to pull you into to morass of negativity.

Future Forecast: Flourishing

Here’s the bottom line on positivity. Fredrickson presents it in the closing chapter.

  • Positivity feels good
  • Positivity broaden minds
  • Positivity builds resources
  • Positivity fuels resilience
  • Positivity ratios above 3-to-1 forecast flourishing
  • People can raise their positivity ratios

Are you ready to embrace positivity? “Life gives us negativity on its own. It’s our job to create positivity.” Some negativity will always be part of human life on Earth. Yet it’s your choice to choose how you want to live. As you increase your ratio you’ll also know you are contributing to a better world for our children and all who follow us on this short time we have here.


“With positivity you are literally steeped in a different biochemical stew. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that positivity brings lower blood pressure, less pain, fewer colds, and better sleep. People high on positivity also have lower disease risks.”

“I find that we often look too far ahead to find our happiness. We try to be wealthy or famous instead of trying to be loving or fascinated. By making more moments glisten with positivity, you make the choice of a lifetime: you choose the upward spiral that leads to your best future – and to our best world.”

IMEO (In My Eduamonion Opinion)

Barbara Fredrickson will become your friend by the end of the book; and her golden nuggets of pragmatism will increase your positivity throughout the journey. In fact, her writing style made this more like a spicy fiction novel than an academic portrait of optimal living.

This isn’t a “self help” book. It’s science-based and supported by oodles of research from scientists around the world. The only ingredient you need to add is your willingness to step up to the plate and begin the process of building positivity.

I give this book 4-5 thumbs up and I cannot wait for her second book to be released on Love (due out in early 2013).

Take Action, Humanoid!

Visit www.PositivityRatio.com and take the test to find out your own ratio. Begin using the Day Reconstruction Method to log your emotions over two weeks. You’ll build a snapshot of what helps and hurts your positivity and will find yourself on the road to a more satisfying life.

The Deets

Title: Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive
Author: Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D
Published: 2009

1 thought on “Positivity”

  1. Just read the book and wanted to contribute my opinion.

    Although the book is based off scientific research, it is laid out and explained well enough that people who have no background in psychology will be able to grasp the main points. Shifting from writing research papers and articles for scientific journals to writing a book for the general public is a difficult task, but Dr. Fredrickson makes the transition fairly well. In some ways, she does this too well. Much of the book leaves out any hint of research. There is a significant lack of data, graphs and statistics, other than the 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative thoughts. It is easy to forget that the book is written from the viewpoint of a scientist, except when Dr. Fredrickson occasionally tells us that she has a scientific background. She rarely shows it.

    The book gives readers a toolkit for changing their viewpoint and bringing more positivity into their lives. The exercises and activities are based on scientific studies, but ultimately the book advises people to take up self-study. Not everyone needs the same adjustments in their thinking and actions. Also, people respond differently to stimuli. Instead of just discussing what worked best for the majority of people due to study data, Positivity gives a wide range of options for people to try, allowing readers to figure out what they most need and what works best for them.

    By the way, here’s my fav quote from the book: “Positivity transforms us for the better… By opening out hearts and minds, positive emotions allow us to discover and build new skills, new ties, new knowledge, and new ways of being.”


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