Positive Emotions Build Resilience

Positive Emotions Build Resilience

“Positive Emotions Build Resilience” is Chapter 14 in Bouncing Back. In researching the neuroscience of how and why, I came across the original research findings of Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist whose “broaden-and-build” theory has provided much of the scientific basis for the rapid growth of the positive psychology movement in recent years.

Since turning in the manuscript for Bouncing Back, I’ve read Frederickson’s book Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive, written to make her 20 years of research and scientific data accessible and applicable to us regular folks who want to move from languishing to flourishing.

Of course, our response to any emotion can become a gateway to resilient action. Anger fuels our fight against injustice and oppression, sadness can lead us to reach out to others for comfort and support, guilt can lead to making amends, even as joy sparks the urge to play and be creative, interest sparks the urge to explore and learn, and serenity helps us savor the goodness of life just as it is.

The reflections below explore how positive emotions especially broaden our mindset to see new possibilities and solutions, and build resources for long-term resilience and fulfillment. I also describe Frederickson’s empirically validated positivity ratio – the tipping point of three positive emotional experiences every one negative experience – that “seeds” our resilient thriving. If you wish to achieve that 3-to-1 positivity ratio, the exercises in the practice section below draw on Frederickson’s suggestions to decrease negativity and increase positivity and tip you into that 3-to-1 ratio that science shows helps us move from languishing to flourishing.

May these tools and insights be useful to you and yours.


Dr. Frederickson clearly acknowledges the inevitability, even the necessity, of negative emotions in our lives. Negative emotions can be corrective and energizing, even essential for our survival. Modern psychology has focused a great deal of attention, in research and in treatment, on the impact of fear, anger, shame, depression, negative self-talk and judgments, on the individual human mind and heart as well as on our relationships and larger communities. We all know how the value of negative emotions can be intensified and prolonged beyond their usefulness as signals to change course; when entrenched, they can become quite corrosive or smothering to our well-being.

Frederickson chose early in her career to focus instead on the role of positive emotions on our surviving and thriving. She found that while we evolutionarily experience negative emotions more intensely, we evolutionarily experience positive emotions more frequently, the brain’s negativity bias and the positivity offset. She further found that the ratio of positivity to negativity is the key factor in our subjective well-being.

The positive emotions Frederickson has researched to date are: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement (I find delight a more accurate term for what she describes), inspiration, awe, and love. She does state that a basic level of safety and satisfaction is required for these positive emotions to be potent in their impact. Anyone in the field of psychotherapy knows it can take a lot of effort and skill for folks to achieve that basic platform of safety and satisfaction. Nonetheless, what the dedicated cultivation of these positive emotions can lead to has merit and both subjective and scientific validity. Hundreds of studies now show:

1. Positive emotions help us feel good…and improve our physical, psychological, mental and social health:

* positive emotions reduce stress, lower blood pressure, improve the immune system, reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and help people live longer (7-9 years longer);

* positive emotions have a cause and effect relationship to resilience, not merely a correlation. I.e., positive emotions are not simply a reflection of resilience – the capacity to bounce back from setbacks. Positive emotions help produce resilience;

* positive emotions change how the brain functions, making it easier to learn new skills, new points of view, new ways of being;

* positive emotions build resonant connections with other people and help us move from “me” to “we.”

Frederickson found positivity:

2. Puts the brakes on negativity, un-does the impact of negative emotions on the body, on our thinking, on our choices; positivity helps us reset and rebound. Frederickson is clear, positivity is never about denying or suppressing negative emotions. It’s about being nimble and agile with them. We are to approach all emotions with curiosity and compassion. It’s about engaging with emotions mindfully – with awareness and acceptance – and then shifting focus to skillfully “practice” positive emotions instead, even most of the time.

3. “Broadens” the possibilities of perception and response beyond the narrower range of basic survival responses. Positive emotions open the mind and heart to new ideas, new behaviors of coping, new outlooks on life. There’s more mental space for exploration and learning. Positivity expands the horizons and allows us to see the forest and the trees, to see the bigger picture more accurately, and to connect the dots in new ways. Positivity leads to more optimism, more confidence, more creativity, more collaboration with others, more spontaneous yet accurate decision making, more win-win solutions.

4. “Builds” resources to draw on long-term. Frederickson found that positivity is not a placebo with effects that are large, immediate and that may disappear, nor are the effects of positivity random or isolated. The effects of cultivating positive emotions are small, incremental, predictable, and permanent. There is a cumulative effect beyond the immediate moment of joy or interest or awe that can alter the trajectory of an entire life.

With more positivity, there is deeper self-acceptance (less shame-blame, more relaxation, forgiveness and inner peace); greater sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment; more resonant connections with others; more receptivity, flexibility and creativity; a better balance between gravity and levity; a more buoyant, dynamic, yet realistic “ready for anything” vitality; more openness to the inter-comnectedness of all of humanity; more impetus to make a lasting contribution to the larger community.

5. Positivity ratio – Frederickson worked with mathematician Marcial Losada to apply his model for predicting high performance in business teams to positivity. Like knowing at what temperature ice will turn into water or vice versa – the “tipping point” of 32 degrees Farenheit – Frederickson was curious about what ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions would tip a person’s subjective experience of well-being from “good enough” to flourishing. Chapter 7 in the book gives an elegant yet simple explanation of the research. The data indicates the positivity ratio is a consistent 3 to 1. Over the course of a day, but even more reliably over the course of a month or a year, a positivity ratio of three positive emotional experiences to every one negative emotional experience predicts thriving and flourishing in an individual. (Similar to John Gottman’s findings that five positive experiences to every one negative experience reliably predicts whether a couple will become relational masters or disasters.)

The 3 to 1 ratio is the tipping point. Below 3 to 1, we’re doing well enough, or even not so well. Above 3 to 1, we blossom.

The tools offered in Exercises to Practice Below are drawn from the book’s toolkit to help cultivate and reinforce positive emotions in an upward spiral and achieve that 3 to 1 ratio. Frederickson sets a high bar. These exercises require effort and perseverance, an investment in your own well-being. They aim to change the trajectory of your life from surviving to thriving, from languishing to flourishing.


Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.
– Andre Gide

* * * * *

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
– Jack Gilbert, A Brief for the Defense

* * * * *

There is a way of breathing
That’s a shame and a suffocation.

And there’s another way of expiring,
A love breath, that lets you open infinitely.
– Rumi

* * * * *

I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.
– Diane Ackerman

* * * * *

How did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement
Of light against its being,
Otherwise we all remain
Too frightened.
– Hafiz

* * * * *

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside of people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority.

“The others is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The Old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
– Anonymous


Frederickson tells her own story of the power of positivity to help her cope with the downward spiral of negativity. While she was writing Chapter 6 on “Bounce Back from Life’s Challenges,” the “unthinkable” happened: her husband developed serious and enormously painful complications following a routine outpatient surgery for an abdominal hernia. Barbara had to use several elements of positivity to help both of them cope with seven days of hospitalization while managing her career and the care of their two young children at home.

Knowing the impact of nature on positivity, Barbara brought houseplants and flowers into the hospital room. Knowing the importance of resonant connections, she brought in photographs of family and other visual reminders like the boys’ artwork and soccer medals. She brought in the resource of her husband’s i-pod with 5,000 songs and many guided meditations.

When, after a week, another emergency surgery was required, Barbara called on friends and neighbors who immediately offered to cook meals and arrange playdates for the boys, even stay overnight the night of the second surgery. Such fast-acting compassion allowed Barbara and her husband to get through the surgery and another week in the hospital without succumbing to discouragement. Home-cooked meals delivered by neighbors and extended playdates for the boys continued even after her husband came home. Barbara writes…

“Moved in a heartfelt way, I was able to be more fully open. Sure, I’d known for years and from volumes of data that positivity opens us. But my experiences during this time were neither subtle nor abstract. I could feel the hinges of my heart and mind give. My bigger heart had room for many emotions, a wide fusion of negativity and positivity. This poignant mix helped me carry on. It allowed me to meet the demands of each moment without losing sight of the big picture. It allowed me to receive and enact compassion.

“I thank my community of neighbors, family and friends for this palpable growth. As an upward spiral clears your path, and your mind and your heart become more fully open to connect with caring others. And each connection supplies its own positivity that refuels and opens you even further. The secret of resilience, then, is going beyond tapping your own well of heartfelt positivity and being open to drink from what springs from others.

“Although I’d long known the benefits of positive emotions in a scholarly way, I felt those benefits now more intensely and poignantly than ever before. Just as science is never complete, neither is my own or anyone’s heartfelt and firsthand appreciation for the wonders of this human life.”

* * * * *

Frederickson also tells the story of James Pawelski, now director of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, as he invented a positivity portfolio as described in exercise #12 below.

“James was invited to interview for a job as an assistant profession at Vanderbilt University. He was both excited and nervous. To build his confidence for that interview, he created a “pride portfolio.” He included in it connections he had made with the founding fathers of positive psychology, scholars he deeply respected and admired – an encouraging e-mail masse from Mike Csikszentmihalyi, a snapshot of himself with Marty Seligman. He also added other mementos that made him feel secure and socially valued.

Once he’d fully prepared for the interview, he spent the final thirty minutes revisiting his portfolio and connecting with it emotionally. It reminded him that, although young, he was both respected and capable. He entered the interview feeling calm and confident. Because his own portfolio worked so well for him, years later…James shaped these ideas into a research project that he regularly assigns to students….I’m now collaborating with him and others to test the effectiveness of these portfolios in a wide range of circumstances.”


Ten years ago, Frederickson and more than one hundred other scientists participated in a week-long silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts taught by some of the most senior teachers of vipassana (insight) and metta (loving kindness) practice – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Guy Armstrong. Frederickson experienced for herself and deeply “got” the power of mindfulness and loving kindness practices to increase resilience and well-being. Mindfulness and loving kindness are offered throughout her book as tools to Open Your Mind and Open Your Heart, and infuse the tools offered below from her toolkit.

Each of the tools below is validated by good science to decrease the landmines of negativity or increase the wellsprings of positivity. As with any experiential exercises to change how we interact with our inner experience and our outer world, it’s important to experiment with which exercises work best for you, at any given time and in any given circumstances, to increase your own positivity ratio.


1. Dispute negative thinking – a hallmark of cognitive behavioral therapy, this is a tool to dispute distorted thinking that de-rails a sense of capacity and competence with realistic thinking that remembers and claims competence. It means facing the situation, checking the facts, and dissolving the distortion with more realistic facts.

For practice, create a set of index cards, one negative thought per card. Shuffle the deck, pick a card, and practice disputing it with realistic facts right in that moment. Over time, continue practicing in-the-moment disputation until you’ve practiced with every negative thought in the deck.

2. Break the grip of rumination – we get stuck in previous habits of thinking or the worry of what if’s which block our seeing clearly so we can dispute negative thoughts. Frederickson suggests using healthy distraction – go for a walk, cook a meal, call a friend – to re-direct the mind’s attention and switch the channel. Have a list of healthy distractions at hand for varying life circumstances – work, home, even various weather conditions.

3. Become more mindful – attend to inner experience with awareness and acceptance, step back, see any thought as a thought, and let it go.

4. Defuse negativity landmines – we all need to identify what our landmines are, conditions, circumstances, events, routines, that de-rail our positivity and our resilience. Then, either change the conditions, (drive a different way to work or at a different time) focus attention differently (what’s right with this wrong?) or perceive the meaning differently (what’s the gift in this mistake?) Frederickson suggests specifically:

a) assess your media diet, too much violence or negativity in the news without enough positivity to balance it out zaps empathy and kindness;
b) avoid gossip and sarcasm (wise speech of wise relationships anyway);
c) apply social aikido to toxic people:
neutralize the impact of their aggression by expanding your tolerance and love:
be kinder yourself, appreciate anything good in them, see them as a teacher in disguise, an opportunity to practice.


1. Heartfelt – experiencing positive emotions must be genuinely heartfelt to be effective. Slow down; feel the positive emotions in your body. Savor them. Amplify them. “Stretch them out and pump them up.”

2. Find the “half-full” in any event to help create more meaning and purpose in your life.

3. Savor goodness – anticipate positivity before an event, notice it during the event, remember it again and again afterwards. Cherish the goodness; amplify it by sharing the experience with others.

4. Gratitude practice: identify conditions and events that evoke gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal or share them with a gratitude buddy if that’s helpful.

5. Count kindnesses in the day that you receive or give, at least five a day; even prioritize one day devoted to kindness to boost the effect.

6. Follow your passions – high challenges met with high skills keeps you in “flow.”

7. Apply strengths – identify your strengths with tools referenced in book, then find ways to incorporate them into your life more, even re-designing major elements in your life to be able to use your strengths more every day. A specific and fun way to identify strengths – the Reflected Best Self Exercise:

Ask 10-20 people – positive family, friends, co-workers, neighbors – to each write three detailed stories of how they see you add value and make a contribution to others. Pull the data together and identify themes of your own goodness, then create an essay or narrative of yourself that incorporates all that goodness. A new resource to re-right you when things get difficult.

8. Connect with others – in ways that are resonant, mutually respectful, appreciative, supportive, and playful, thus life-enhancing. It is scientifically correct to say: connection is essential for flourishing, whether in person or in imagination, every day, no matter what.

9. Connect with nature – studies show spending time outdoors makes you smarter as well as happier.

10. Mindfulness – here as acceptance rather than analysis. Focus attention on your breathing, becoming present to experience in the moment, then noticing with awareness and acceptance the thoughts and feelings that arise, as they inevitably will, naming them with a light touch, and then returning awareness to the breath, becoming present again to the experience of the moment. Again and again, noticing how the mind works, how presence feels.

11.  – to generate openness, trust, and love. Evoke a feeling of love and kindness where it’s easy (child, best friend, pet) then extend that feeling to yourself, to others.

12. Create a positivity portfolio as James Pawelski did in Stories to Learn From. Collect reminders that evoke each of the ten emotions that Frederickson has researched into its own portfolio – photos, e-mails, letters, objects to create a joy portfolio, a gratitude portfolio, a serenity portfolio, etc. Make the portfolio small enough that you can carry it with you and pull out during the day as you need to, to remind yourself of your own strengths and positive traits. Carry a different portfolio every day to keep them fresh and potent, not a habitual routine that is too easily forgotten.

You can also use tools in the resources below to assess your own positivity ratio and measure its change over time.


Barbara Frederickson, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012).

Positivity is well-written, with its own wealth of resources and tools to take further steps to increase your positivity ratio. The science is easily accessible; the book provides a fascinating window into how good psychological research is done. You can also access the book’s website:


You can take a two-minute online test to assess your own positivity ratio, and access many tools to improve it.

Another resource:

“The Emotion Revolution: Harnessing Mind, Body and Soul in the Consulting Room” webinar, sponsored by the Psychotherapy Networker, begins Wednesday, July 25, 2012. Cutting-edge thinkers: Sue Johnson, Joan Klagsbrun, Jay Efran, Rick Hanson, Ron Potter-Efron, Diana Fosha. To register: click here.