Science and self-help

I’ve read a couple books in the last few months that are basically self-help books, each with their own very different audience and with very different tones. One I read for myself, and one I read for work. You can probably guess which one I liked best.

The first is Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity, which I decided to pick up after a friend sent me a copy of an interview she’d done for Sun magazine. The interview had so many interesting bits of information of the sort I found myself immediately wanting to share with others, so I thought taking a look at the book would be worthwhile, and it was. Fredrickson is a psychology researcher and professor, and the book is part of the positive psychology movement of recent decades.

The term “positivity” is a better one than happiness, since it contains within it a whole list of positive emotions, including joy, love, curiosity, contentment, gratitude, amusement, hope, inspiration, wonder, and pride. Fredrickson has done lots of studies on the effects of these positive emotions on people, and what makes this book so interesting to me is that the science behind it seems sound (or at least she does a good job presenting it convincingly in the book). The basic argument is that if we think of the number of our positive and negative emotional experiences as a ratio, if we are able to get that ratio up to 3-to-1, meaning we have three positive emotional experiences for every negative one, then that’s a tipping point that can fundamentally change our experience of life. Once we reach that point, we become more open to life, more curious, more imaginative, and more resilient.

By nature I’m uncomfortable with this kind of schematic argument — it seems too simple — but I don’t have any reason to mistrust the research that’s behind it, and there’s much in the book that does ring true to me. Fredrickson describes what life is like for people with low positivity ratios, which includes most of us, and that picture sounded familiar — one of just getting by, of the kind of low-level dissatisfaction many people feel. The key to thriving, she argues, is to make a conscious effort to create positive emotions and to fully experience the ones we already have. A major part of the book is devoted to describing ways of doing this, and her recommendations (which she backs up with descriptions of studies she has done) often fit with things I’ve learned from yoga classes and books about spirituality. Her recommendations include things like making a conscious effort to savor the positive things that happen to us, to practice insight meditation or lovingkindness meditation in order to open the mind and heart, to find distractions that will get us out of negative ways of thinking, and lots of others.

The book is typical of its sort by being way too repetitive and not terribly well-written, but still, I’m glad I read it. The book is part of a series of books I’ve read recently that are loosely about spirituality, psychology, and self-help (including Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart and Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga). What’s been interesting to me about reading these books is the cumulative effect of reading them one after another, which has felt almost as important as what the books themselves say. They aren’t all saying the same things, of course, but there are connections among all of them and some of their arguments overlap. I’ve read them slowly, too, which means that I spent weeks or months looking into them now and then and contemplating their ideas. So I feel like I’m slowly absorbing some of the ideas and am able to make them a part of my life. It’s a process that I’ve enjoyed and benefited from.

The other book, the business/self-help book I read recently for work? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

15 responses to “Science and self-help

  1. I’m sure it’s wrong of me, but I’m mistrustful of this current emphasis on positivity. Mostly because being determined to make the best of things, to keep going and to put negative thoughts aside was a key factor in my falling ill with ME. I kick myself now – why didn’t I address the problems at the time? Why didn’t I take time out? Well, I thought it was better to stick a smile on my face and soldier on. I am not a good example, but a terrible warning. There is no emotion that lasts forever, no matter how bad it feels at the time – the only emotions that never go away are the ones you repress and don’t deal with.

    I’m all for meditation and mindfulness and stopping cycles of negative thought, that’s for sure. And positivity at its best uses these sensibly. But I think we have to be really careful that we do this in conjunction with listening to how we honestly feel about our lives – and being prepared to fix what isn’t working. Of course, it’s quite possible your book says all of this, Dorothy! 🙂 I’m probably overreacting because I fear positivity is too close to saying ‘Buck up’.


  2. I like your point about reading these kinds of works quite slowly and regularly – I can definitely see how their cumulative effect would be more influential than reading one here or there as a quick fix, so to speak. And I might need to do something like this, as well – 2010 so far has gotten off to an awful start and I am not rebounding at all like usual.


  3. I’m a bit wary of the whole positivist thinking thing especially when it moves into the realm of chronic illness, encouraging the sick, particularly cancer patients, to always be cheerful and to find the meaning of their suffering. If the patient fails to be cheerful I’ve read articles that they are scolded or considered failures. And heaven forbid if they get even more sick, then they are accused of causing it themselves as if being cheerful will cure cancer or any other disease.

    I think these kinds of books can be helpful, I after all read and enjoyed the Chodron book. But I think there has grown up around them a culture that blames people for not being happy. Have you heard about Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America? I haven’t read it but I am curious about it. And since you’ve read a couple postive thinking books I’d be curious to know your take on it.


  4. In theory it sounds really good, but in practice I don’t find it very easy, but then I think I’m normally a glass half empty sort of person and it can be hard to change a mindset. That said, it’s cool you’ve read these books closely together yet over a period of time to think about them and perhaps take away from them positives–probably the best way to approach things.


  5. I was going to mention the Ehrenreich book as well. It would be really interesting to see how that compares with the philosophies found in the recent books you’ve been reading.

    I have to admit I’m suspicious of the positivity movement as well. How does the author of ‘Positivity’ suggest you make sure you get that 3 to 1 ratio? Do you have to go out and create extra positive events once you have a negative experience (which if something bad happens you might not feel inlined to do), or do you have to aim to minimise the negative experiences in your life (what is her stragey when things are out of your control?). Somewhere along the way ideas similar to religious teachings seem to creep into the concept of positivity and I’m just wondering if you noticed anything like ‘grant me the serenity…’ rewritten in this book.


  6. While I agree with Danielle that all of it is easier said than done, neuroscience seems to indicate that we can tune in to and repeat either positive or negative attitudes, thus self-perpetuating tendencies toward one or the other.

    The more I concentrate on negatives the worse I feel, but changing the mindset isn’t always easy. I’ve always liked Abraham Lincoln’s remark about being as happy as we make up our minds to be (definitely paraphrased), but making up the mind is the hard part.

    I’ve read some good books on the topic and some that are simplistic and annoying. My favorite is How We Choose to Be Happy by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks which I read a little over a year ago.


  7. I’m really enjoying reading everyone’s thoughtful comments to this post, along with the post itself. Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book is one I want to read, and I relate to what others have said about feeling leery about the idea of positive psychology as some people seem to apply it — there are some things that maybe one can’t/shouldn’t be try to cultivate a positive attitude about, and there needs to be room in life for the acknowledgment of pain and sadness and suffering.

    But that said, I think that positivity is a great way to deal with, as you put it, “the kind of low-level dissatisfaction many people feel.” The idea that it’s important “to make a conscious effort to create positive emotions and to fully experience the ones we already have” really rings true for me. When it’s just the little daily-grind sort of things that are wearing one down, it’s exciting to realize that a) there may be small (or less small) changes you can make to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it that will make you feel better and b) there may already be things that bring you joy (or any of those other positive emotions you listed) and by shifting your attention to be aware of them/to focus on them, you can appreciate them more or find more of them. I started this past December off really grumpy — no major woes, just life-in-general/holiday stress/holiday travel stress, and decided to write down something pleasing about every day, whether that was something I noticed or something I did. Which then encouraged me to do/notice things I found pleasing. Which then made me less grumpy. It may not be the way to deal with major life changes or upheavals like death or the end of a relationship or illness, chronic or otherwise, but for the average “ugh I’m always annoyed lately” I think it can be super.

    This whole conversation also makes me think of something that a friend of a friend organized several years ago. She was inspired by Linda Popov and The Virtues Project, so she started a non-religious online community (on Livejournal) to focus on/write about a different virtue each week. It was really satisfying to think about different virtues/different ideas of virtues, to think about how they fit in or might fit in to one’s life — things ranging from “contentment” to “enthusiasm” to “hard work.”

    Lots to think about, and now I am tempted to read this book!


  8. Interesting! I didn’t know that there was research on the 3:1 ratio. I’m curious now and will have to check out the parameters of the study, i.e., how they measure openness, positivity, who the subjects were, and so on.

    Just a quick nod for Pema Chodron. I haven’t read her work, but saw many of her videos on youtube last year. She’s calm and peace-inducing and delightfully mischievous.


  9. I had not heard of “positivity.” Is it the same as looking at what you’ve been given rather than concentrating on what you have not, or counting your blessings? These things are not at all easy to do. I don’t read self-help books myself (except Dr. Oz’s book, You Younger, which makes me think I’ll live a long life and keep my brain healthy by eating blueberries and doing crossword puzzles). They feel a little Oprah-esque to me.


  10. I too am wary of the insistence on being positive and cheery at the expense of recognizing and integrating all your emotions. That said, I do believe that the way you look at things affects your experience of them. If you get into the habit of always seeing the downside of everything life will be experienced as harder and more bleak than if you make an effort to also see and appreciate the good things. There is a book I like from a few years back, written by therapist Timothy Miller, called “How to Want what you Have”. His thesis is that living with compassion, attention and gratitude will make us happier.

    Of course, there’s always the great quote by Herm Albright:

    A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.


  11. I was just poking around “The Happiness Project” website a bit yesterday, not enough to form a real opinion of it, but thought it was definitely interesting and thought-provoking.

    I suppose if these sorts of messages make us think about our lives and actions and attitudes in a new light, then maybe they’ve worked?


  12. Litlove — what you say makes absolute sense, and I can see why your particular experience makes you aware of how a focus on positivity can turn into a problem. I agree that listening to what is going on most important — both good and bad. I do think this book does a good job of making the point that negative feelings have a use and that we shouldn’t ignore them. She argues that we tend to focus on the negative and ignore the positive, but she’s careful to clarify that we shouldn’t go completely in the other direction either.

    Courtney — I’m sorry to hear that 2010 has been so hard! I definitely find the process of reading a series of books is more important than any particular book — and that’s probably healthier anyway, so as not to buy into any one “program” too closely.

    Stefanie — I’ve heard of the Ehrenreich book, and I’m curious. I think I’d probably agree with her that the positive thinking movement has taken some very wrong turns and can be used in ways that are harmful. But at the same time, I think this particular book does a very good job of being balanced about the issue — she never blames people for their negative feelings and doesn’t advocate cheerfulness so much as a whole range of positive emotions. I guess I wouldn’t want to dismiss the whole movement because it’s gotten warped or misused by some people.

    Danielle — no, it’s not easy, but I liked this book because it was very practical and concrete. Part of what she recommends is simply paying more attention to the good things that happen to us, and I like that — it’s not fake or contrived, but simply about being more aware. And yes, I’ve liked reading a whole bunch of perspectives — it’s definitely a good way to think about the issue.

    Jodie — she’s not religious in her approach at all, which is nice, actually. If anything, she’s closest to a Buddhist approach, because one of her methods is meditation in order to increase awareness and feelings of love. She argues that what matters is our ratio over time, so when things go bad, we’ll definitely feel more negative than positive, but we’ll be quicker to recover and will be more resilient. She lists methods of reducing negative feelings as well as fostering positive ones, but it’s not a matter of purposely trying to get the balance just right. It’s more a matter of fostering the positive, reducing the negative, and working toward an overall effect over time.

    Jenclair — thank you for the recommendation. I take it you haven’t read Fredrickson’s book? I’d be curious to know what you think. I like what you say about tuning into and repeating either positive or negative experiences — they are both out there, and a big part of the issue is what we are aware of and what we focus on.

    Heather — if you do read the book, I’d love to know what you think! Much of what you’re describing sounds like what’s in the book; she recommends, for example, keeping a gratitude journal and doing other exercises that help us focus on the positive things that are happening. I think you’re right that these methods are great for the day-to-day low-level sadness that people feel, and I also think that focusing on the positive will help recover from larger problems as well. Not that those problems won’t happen or that they will be easy, but we’ll be better prepared for them.

    Polaris — I’m glad to hear that about Chodron; I will have to check out those interviews! I’d love to see what she’s like. I’m also curious what you would think of the science behind this book. I found it convincing, but then, I’m no scientist!

    Grad — positivity is partly about the things you mention, but it’s really about a whole range of positive emotions, including ones like curiosity that contribute to happiness but aren’t really happiness itself. I like the fact that her definition of positivity is so complex; the book didn’t feel reductive at all.

    Melwyk — I love that quotation! 🙂 Living well is the best revenge, right? Thanks for the book recommendation; that sounds interesting. I think failing to recognize the full range of emotions is definitely a problem, and fortunately, this book is careful not to advocate that.

    Marieke — I’ll have to check out that website. And yes, just thinking about our lives in a different way is a major step!


  13. Pingback: A little more self-help « Of Books and Bicycles

  14. This is a great counter-balance to the article I just read on ‘Depression’s Upside’ (in The New York Times Magazine). I’ve also been sceptical of positivity if it denies the negative things that happen but I think it’s about getting the right balance. Will be interested to read more on this. Thanks.


  15. Pingback: Some thoughts on Positive Psychology I « Couch trip

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