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2. Positivity

PUBLISHED 23rd February , 2016

Last week I hinted at our human tendency to focus on the bad stuff. Scientists call this the ‘negativity bias’. Baumeister and colleagues actually go as far as stating that “bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena”.1 Now just before you take this as proof that the world is going to end up a concrete desert in which we all try to eat each other, as some sci-fi films predict, let me repeat: this finding concerns psychological phenomena. If anything, the sci-fi depictions are proof of our negativity bias.

But what it means is that this bias may have fed our unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life. If so, we need to learn to work against it. Luckily, there is one scientist who has focused her efforts on showing us how. Barbara Frederickson is the international authority on emotional positivity. Her ground-breaking work began with a logical suggestion. Frederickson, familiar with theoretical models in psychology, knew that human feelings are linked to instinctive action tendencies. Frederickson, however, recognised that the models were primarily based on the experience of negative and stressful emotions such as fear and anger. Negative emotions were found to limit our options and evoke specific urges. For example, when we feel fear we have an urge to escape.2 Frederickson suggested that since negative emotions narrow our focus, positive emotions might broaden them. And she was right. Positive feelings open up our awareness of new possibilities in thought and action, and also spark urges: positive ones.3

The good news in Frederickson’s findings is that our outlook expands every time we feel a positive emotion such as joy, serenity, gratitude, hope, interest, amusement, inspiration, awe, love, or pride in achievements. The bad news is that every negative feeling has three times the weight of a positive one.4

When I was nine, my mother re-married. By then she had three girls and there was another baby on the way. At first this was a ray of hope. The new man promised many things, among them a move to a ‘proper’ house. This particularly evoked my fancy. We lived in an old farmhouse surrounded by cow pasture, and I hated having to duck under theelectric fence, hoping my backpack was not caught, negotiating the staring cows, and rushing down the slippery grass trying not to step on cow pads. Ah, a new house, with a driveway and proper heating…! The new man turned out to be a categorical liar, who had made up everything: his education, financial status, willingness to work, and goodwill for us. After less than two years he quit working. He began selling all of my mother’s antique furniture, coming home late at night, and throwing lunch out of the window if my mother had not conjured up some ‘proper’ meat. Worst of all, he began to beat her. My room was above theirs, and the farmhouse’s thin wooden ceilings meant I could never escape it. Home life was miserable. At the same time I had been moved to a new class with a teacher fresh out of college. Our class stayed with her for three years, and we all grew close. Our teacher was wonderful; she put on plays, read us amazing stories, took us out to study trees and see the church bells. We, in turn, would band together and travel to watch her play volleyball on the weekends. I loved school; I loved Miss Jakob; and I know (because she told my mum once) that she loved me. Through the worst part of my childhood, as I stood at night in front of my mother to prevent her being beaten, Miss Jakob was there in the morning. Miss Jakob kept my positivity balance.

Practising positivity means to actively encourage our experience of positive emotions in an effort to balance negative feelings that cannot be avoided. It is not about cutting off valid, natural human emotions. Frederickson writes that in all her investigations, she has not yet encountered an individual without any negativity in one month.5 Mourning when you lose someone, being frightened if threatened, feeling angry at injustice, all keep us grounded and real.6 Dissatisfaction, anxiety and frustration can fill us with the necessary motivation to make changes for the better.7

Practising positivity involves a two-folded approach: it challenges us to reduce unnecessary negativity, and invites us to pursue activities and attitudes that provide a fertile ground for positive emotions. The goal of positivity is to achieve a ratio of 3 to 1 or better: to experience three good, uplifting, pleasing feelings for every negative one.

This week I offer you a simple but powerful challenge: I’m asking you to spend some time in nature. Nature tends to have a soothing effect on us. Howard Frumkin, for example, found that in one study, prisoners who had a courtyard view from their cell had 24% more sick-call visits than those whose view was of rolling farmland and trees. Another study, which spanned a period of ten years, compared postoperative patients at a Pennsylvania hospital. Patients with a view onto leafy trees stayed in hospital for statistically significant shorter periods and needed less pain killers than the patients who looked at a brick wall.8 According to Bratman, Hamilton and Daily, the natural environment has two scientifically explored effects on the human being: It reduces stress and it is restorative. After only 15 minutes in a forest, for example, stress levels among study participants reduced significantly, with effects even stronger for individuals experiencing personal crisis. Bratman and colleagues explain that when we spend time in nature, our attention is drawn involuntarily as we take in our surroundings. This is very restful for us. It also helps us to concentrate better afterwards. However, we must feel safe in a landscape to reap nature’s restorative effects. Additionally, it is crucial that we try to really feel immersed in nature, aim to get as much away from our everyday reality as we can, and nurture our fascination with what we notice. Lastly, it is important that the environment suits our intentions and inclinations.9 Your nature experience may thus require some planning. You need to ensure that you feel and are safe, can find your way home, have drinking water, and are somewhere that appeals to you. If it is the only or best option for you, visiting a park is fine.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015


  1. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen Vohs, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, no. 4 (2001).
  2. Barbara L. Frederickson, “Positive Emotions,” in Handbook of Positive Psychology, eds. C. R. Snyder and Shane. J. Lopez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  3. Frederickson, Positivity.
  4. Frederickson, Positivity.
  5. Frederickson, Positivity.
  6. Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008).
  7. Howard Frumkin, “Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment,” Journal of Preventive Medicine 30, no. 3 (2001).
  8. Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton and Gretchen C. Daily, “The Impacts of Nature Experience on Human Cognitive Function and Mental Health,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1249, no. 1 (2012).
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