Joy. Interest. Love. Serenity. Awe. Amusement. Pride. Such positive emotions, fleeting feelings that last just seconds or minutes, are the subject of Barbara Fredrickson's research. Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, examines how they can alter our thoughts and actions for the better. She finds, for example that when we're under the influence of positive emotions, our awareness expands. "We literally see more," she says. "Our peripheral vision is expanded." (Negative emotions, on the other hand, narrow our thinking.) She also finds that people who increase their "daily diet" of positive emotions develop closer connections with others, their resilience and optimism strengthens, and they become less depressed and more satisfied with life, compared with people who do nothing to experience them more frequently.
This isn't to suggest it's necessary to strive for constant euphoria—even mild positive emotions can impact a person's growth and outlook over time, she says. Nor must negative emotions be banished. In fact, doing so would be unhealthy, she adds. Instead, Fredrickson has identified a "prescription" for attaining balance between those polar feelings, the amount of each people need to flourish. On average, "we all need at least three positive emotions to lift us up for every negative emotion that drags us down," she says, a "positivity ratio" that arose from work she and a colleague published in 2005. People truly in the "flourishing zone" surpass that mark, although most of us clock in at 2 to 1 or even lower, she says.
The good news, says Fredrickson: "There are multiple ways to raise your ratio." You can increase your positive emotions, you can decrease your negative emotions, or you can do both, she says. Learning to meditate, for example, can boost positive emotions, Fredrickson has found, though a run in the woods, dancing, or reading a new cookbook work best for her. Evidence suggests that there's a correlation between experiencing positive emotions in life and living longer, says Fredrickson, who encourages people to visit her free website and track their positivity ratio nightly for two weeks to see what their average is. Doing so might help you learn the sources of your positive emotions and the triggers for your negative ones. "The truth emerging from the science is that feeling good is a wise investment in our future," she says.