F is for Barbara Fredrickson: Her Work On Positivity

Barbara has done pioneering work that demonstrates how developing positive emotions can improve our lives. Twenty years of research into emotions culminated in her best selling book Positivity.

The book was based on solid research, but it also captured the imagination. Why? Interviewers and readers focused on a key theme that provided a signpost to the future. This was:

People who have positive emotions in a ratio of 3:1 in relation to negative emotions are more likely to flourish.

Some people dispute the ratio figure, but the overall approach remains valid. People are more likely to enjoy life – and help others – if they are surrounded by positive, rather than negative, influences.

Barbara believes in humanity’s ability to shape a successful future. She maintains that she is a scientist, however, rather than a self-help guru. Her work is based on rigorous interviewing and testing.  She says:

“These days my work is also guided by my aim to test the viability of this prescription. Is it for real?

“As a scientist, accepting things on faith – or on mere hints within the data – is not in my bones. My mission is to unearth, test and then share the hidden value of positivity.”

So would you like to know your own Positivity Ratio? Here is a link to the Positivity Self Test.

One key point: this invites you to focus on your emotions today. Barbara and others recommend that you try it over a period of a month to get a realistic reading.



What is Positivity?

Writing in her book, Barbara explains that positivity is more than simply being happy. And it certainly isn’t putting on a smiling face to grin and bear things.

Positivity is based on being true to ourselves. It embodies gratitude, love, playfulness, curiosity and adventure.

These emotions trigger each other and create an upward spiral. They ‘broaden and build’, helping us to make breakthroughs and bring new things into being.

Such emotions provide the basis for creativity, problem solving and even evolution. They enable us to open our hearts and minds. Negativity, on the other hand, closes down our ability to think, create and grow. Barbara explains that:

“(Positivity) consists of the whole range of positive emotions – from appreciation to love, from amusement to joy, from hope to gratitude, and then some.

“The term is purposely broad. It includes the positive meanings and optimistic attitudes that trigger positive emotions as well as the open minds, tender hearts, relaxed limbs, and soft faces they usher in.

“It even includes the long-term impact that positive emotions have on your character, relationships, communities and environments …

“And the new scientific discoveries about the importance of positivity are stunning.”

Broaden and Build

Barbara is also known for her work on the theory of broaden and build. This is explained in the web site at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology.

The site also provides a link to a video in which she gives an introduction to her work. Here is an excerpt from her biography on the site.

Fredrickson’s research led her to develop a theory called Broaden and Build. Over time moments of positivity accumulate, inspire creativity and open us to new experiences and relationships.

From this, we build lasting resources that remain once the emotion has passed. We become better, more able versions of ourselves.

“Most scientists were looking for something to happen in the same moment, as with fear, when adrenaline pushes blood to the muscles so you can flee,” explained Barbara.

“For positive emotions, I expanded the range of time. I found that while each individual positive emotion won’t change your life, a steady diet of them can. Just as eating one piece of broccoli won’t make you healthier, adding more vegetables to your life will.”


Positivity Ratio

The web site goes on to explain:

Fredrickson noticed a tipping point at which positive emotions begin to influence lives. Experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones is the point at which one achieves the benefits of Broaden and Build.

Fredrickson is looking for the next Broaden and Build. She wants to connect ideas in positivity directly to what she calls an ‘upward spiral’ that leads to sustainable behavioral change and fuels personal development.

She is also searching to find out if a diet of positive emotions affects us at a cellular level by triggering changes in gene expressions, especially in immune systems. Discoveries in this realm could change the way we view and treat a broad spectrum of illnesses.

Positivity, Upward Spirals
and The Tipping Point

Barbara explains that positivity increases our ability to live flourishing – rather than languishing – lives. The key is to increase:

“The amount of positive emotions you have in relation to negative emotions.”

We need a ratio of 3 to 1 to lift us, increase our resilience and flourish. For many people the ratio is 2 to 1. For some it is 1 to 1 or less.

Each emotion is a process and has the possibility to affect the next emotion, says Barbara. So we get an upward or downward spiral.

How to increase one’s level of positivity? This can be by doing simple things in which we feel fully alive. We will look at some of these later. Eventually this broadens and builds till we go beyond the positive tipping point.

Slides Barbara Fredrickson.002

The Ratio 3:1 – Where
Does That Come From?

Barbara says the ratio came about via an introduction from her good friend, Jane Dutton, a Professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. She describes Jane as ‘matchmaker’ who connects people with unrelated ideas.

Jane saw the connection between Barbara’s work and that of Marcial Losada, who was born and raised in Chile. Marcial was in an unrelated field, that of industry and consulting. Barbara records, however, that:

“ … he’d begun to dabble again in what had become his passion: the mathematical modelling of group behaviour.”

When they eventually met Marcial described his work studying 60 business teams. These consisted of high, mixed and low performing teams. Barbara takes up the story:

“High-performance teams stood out with their unusually high positivity ratios, at about 6 to 1. By contrast, low-performance teams had ratios well below 1 to 1, and mixed-performance teams sat just above that, at around 2 to 1.”

Barbara explains that Marcial analysed the numbers and eventually:

“Losada’s maths led to his brave prediction that only when positivity ratios are higher than 3 to 1 is positivity in sufficient supply to seed human flourishing.”

(She explains that the ratio was in fact 2.9013 to 1, but 3 seemed an easier number.)

She began to test this by asking people to fill in a Positivity Test each day. She found:

“The consistency here is extraordinary. For individuals, marriages and business teams, flourishing – doing remarkably well – comes with positivity ratios above 3 to 1.

“By contrast, those who don’t overcome their depression, couples who fail in their marriages, and business teams that are unpopular and unprofitable each have ratios in the gutter, below 1 to 1.”

People Can Raise
Their Positivity Ratio

So how do you raise your positivity and reach the tipping point? Barbara maintains it is a lot like physical health. If we eat good food this helps to nourish us. We also need a daily diet of psychological health.

She lists ten forms of positivity that can nourish our soul. These will be familiar to readers who have studied the characteristics of those who enjoy a sense of happiness.

People can do simple things that embody some of these qualities. Eventually they will accumulate enough positivity that creates an upward spiral. This can take them beyond the tipping point.

So it can be useful to develop habits that embrace some of the following forms of positivity.

Slides Barbara Fredrickson.004

These are big words, but they can be broken down into small actions. Such habits then feed our development. As Barbara says, the aim is: “To increase your quantity of positivity over time.”

This is the foundation of her Broaden and Build Theory, which is based on two core truths. She explains these in the following way.

Positivity opens us. The first core truth about positive emotions is that they open our hearts and our minds, making us more receptive and more creative.

Positivity transforms us for the better. This is the second core truth about positive emotions. By opening our hearts and minds, positive emotions allow us to discover and build new skills, new ties, new knowledge, and new ways of being.


The second part of her book provides many resources for building positivity and dealing with negativity. Developing this approach enables us to:

Build our psychological strength.

Build good mental habits.

Build social connections.

Build our physical health.

Barbara sometimes writes like a poet, but she is also a scientist. So she underlines the following facts about positivity.

Slides Barbara Fredrickson.003

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, highlighted her contribution in the following review of Positivity. It underlines the superb work she is doing in this field.

“Written by one of the most influential contributors to this new perspective in science, Positivity provides a wonderful synthesis of what positive psychology has accomplished in the first decade of its existence.

“It is full of deep insights about human behaviour as well as useful suggestions for how to apply them in everyday life.”

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