Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Director of the Social Psychology Doctoral Program and the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, President-Elect, International Positive Psychology Association Kenan-Flagler School of Business
This week, we go deeper into exploring the scientific evidence on positivity,
how if affects your thinking, your development, your resilience.
Although this area of science is relatively new,
I want to underscore that the foundational ideas have been around for
centuries, as articulated in poetry and other wisdom traditions.
For instance, 13th century poet Rumi said,
there is a way of breathing that's a shame and a suffocation.
And there's another way of expiring,
he called it a love-breath that lets you open infinitely.
There's an analogy with how plants flourish that fits well here too.
Sunlight is crucial for the life of all plants.
And at some level plants know this and turn towards the light and
stretch themselves open to soak in as much as they can in order to flourish.
Scientists call this the heliotropic effect.
There's a similar heliotropic effect in humans, where positivity is crucial for
the life of all humans.
And at some level, your brain knows this, and turns towards sources of positivity,
and stretches itself open to take in as much as it can in order to flourish.
So I just want to dive right in this week, and get you to experience some
ways that different mental states affect your, your thinking.
So right now, I want you to all look at this on the screen.
Let's just see.
Don't try to think of anything in particular.
Just take a moment to check out this imagery.
kind of clear your mind.
Now, turn over your pieces of paper and
think okay, given this feeling that this imagery created.
What do you want to do right now?
You have a sheet of paper that says I would like to, 20 different times.
Just fill out a, fill out some of those.
Okay, so let's try a different experience next.
So, let's see, this will be a little different.
>> [LAUGH] [SOUND].
>> [LAUGH]. >> [SOUND].
>> Okay, you guys get the, get the feel for this.
So, now, stepping away from the specifics of this exact video kind of, you know,
think of a situation in your own life, where same feelings would arise.
Go to the next page, fill out what does it make you want to do right now.
Okay, so, you had a little bit of an experience coming up with, you know,
what does it make you want to do right now?
You know, this I don't know if this worked as a,
as a demonstration of a classic study, but we'll see.
Did you have a longer list the second time or the first time?
>> Second time >> Second
time >> Second?
not, not you.
[LAUGH] Sounds like.
So Debbie was a, a longer list the first time,
but everyone else had longer list the second time, okay.
This kind of models a study that we did really early on to try to demonstrate
this idea that positive emotions broaden people's action repertoires.
And now, the hardest thing to do in a demonstration like this, is to try to,
even in a, in the laboratory, is to try to hit neutral, right?
I mean, so that's, you know, by showing you that screen saver, I was trying to,
like, have it be a, like emotional palate cleanser and just kind of be neutral.
Now, only you can decide whether that was neutral or was kind of groovy.
[LAUGH] But the that's
actually the toughest thing to bring into the laboratory, is that neutral feeling.
Mild positive emotions are, are a little bit easier.
And when we've done this as a study in the laboratory we give,
randomly assign people to different emotional conditions.
So that, you know, some people were in the neutral condition,
others were in one of two different positive emotion conditions.
And what we found in this, in this work is that when people do the same exact outcome
measure that you guys just did, what would you like to do right now.
When people feel contentment or serenity or joy,
kind of you know, playful either of those leads to a longer
list of what people want to do next, or do right now, compared to neutral.
That's the most important comparison but we also find that if
you induce a negative emotion, like anger or fear, people's lists get really short.
They just, they just, you know, they have one or two things on their mind.
But they, they don't have that same fluidity about all these possibilities.
So the way I think about it, if you think of a sign with sign post posts of
different directions that you could go.
So like when you're feeling neutral you've got maybe one or
two different sign posts on there.
If you're feeling negative there's just one direction and
when you're feeling positive there's you know?
Maybe half a dozen or different things, different directions that you could go.
So that's one way that positive emotions, you know, expand people's awareness and,
you know, help people come up with, different possibilities for action.
What to do next.
There's other work what, that we've done where, where we're able to
see that positive emotions get people to see the big picture.
And, one way we've done this is by using, showing people images like these
where you know, we will ask people which of these
two comparison figures on the bottom most resembles this target figure on the top.
You know, and there's, there's no right or
wrong answer, but people kind of will have a preference for one or the other.
And we got interested in this because there was some early work to
say that people's kind of emotional styles of their personalities predicted where,
which one they gravitated to.
So if sometimes if people see this one as most similar,
you know, they're focusing on the local detail elements.
And that had been associated with pessimism and
depressed depressive states more.
Now this is not a one item mental health test.
>> Don't worry about that.
But people who are more optimistic or satisfied with life would be
more likely to, to say this one's more similar and it's global configuration.
Now when we did the laboratory studies where we induce, you know,
randomly assigned people to feel, you know, joy, serenity, anger, fear,
you know, we're able to push around whether people, you know,
are more likely to see the similarities along the details versus see
the similarities along the global configuration.
It's kind of like the, the positive emotions allow you to kind of step back
and see that, that configuration that allows you to, to connect the dots.
Other people's labs have look, done eye-tracking studies.
You know, like, you know, there's a camera trained right on people's irises and
checking out every movement of the eye.
And they find that, you know, if you give people an unexpected gift like,
if I were to give you a bag of candy right now or something that you didn't expect
that you would be more likely to kind of search around the visual scene.
Make more eye movements and kind of take in more of the context that you're in,
whereas if you're feeling neutral whatever is right in the center is
what people tend to focus on.
So there's ways in which,
really behavioral tests have shown this, this broadening to be real.
So, you know, sometimes it feels like a,
a loose metaphor, positive emotions broaden awareness.
But, you know it's, it's really not a loose metaphor, it's it's very concrete.
One of my favorite studies on this comes from another lab that does brain imaging.
And, what they did it show people these compound images,
like a face right in the middle of a, like, a real estate ad.
[LAUGH] You know, a picture of a house.
And they gave people the very simple task, nobody ever got it wrong.
To say whether the face is male or female.
And so they did this while people were in a brain imaging scanner.
And the work capitalized on how
there are certain parts of the brain that we know register human faces.
And there are other parts of the brain that register places.
And so there's, in a way, a place area of the brain and a, a,
face area of the brain.
And they used this knowledge in this study to see what people were picking up,
or encoding, when they see this complex image.
And, additionally in this study, what they did was introduce positive and
negative emotions with images short slide images of puppies or
money or, you know, tasty desserts, or something.
You know, just really mild things.
And other people had neutral states or
negative states, and what they found was that when people are feeling negative
emotions they follow these tasks instructions so well.
They just, they just look at the face.
And you can tell this because the place areas of
the brain don't show any activity at all.
Whereas the face area is showing activity.
That, that same things holds for neutral states.
But when people are feeling positive it's like they can't help but
take in that contextual information.
So there was, there, and they know this because there was change in blood flow in
both the place area of the brain and the face area of the brain.
So, you know, it's, it's not just through behavioral studies or
eye tracking studies.
We know this through brain imaging studies that the way the brain works is just
fundamentally different in positive states versus, versus neutral.
One analogy I've let, I've used a lot of times is this water lily analogy.
And in a early version of my book, I had it as day lilies, and
someone told me, day lilies don't do what you say they do.
So I had to [LAUGH] I had to come back and change it to water lilies.
But, so when you're feeling neutral, it's kind of like you're this, you know,
closed up water lily.
And, in a way, those petals function as, as blinders.
But when a positive emotion moves through you those blinders kind of pull away and
you, your world becomes larger.
You know, it's like your experience of the world is expanded.
So I'm just wondering if you guys have any examples of how this kind of
broadened awareness factors in to, you know,
the way you move through the world or, or connections to creativity.
Or if there's other, other ways in which you,
you, you know, this resonates for you in any way.
>> Well I've seen it a lot in my own life.
And what it really makes me think of is in coaching talking to
people about their health.
People can feel so stuck and especially if there's an illness going on there's
a lot of negativity and stress, and just introducing more
positive emotion can really open people up to all of these possibilities.
It brings in hope that they can actually do more things to
promote their well being.
>> Uh-huh >> That they may have
just never considered before.
>> Yeah. Great example.
>> Yeah. >> Thanks.
>> I'll say, in my work with social justice around race relations.
>> It's a very, very touchy time right now, in particular in America.
And so it's a blend of positivity and
faith, and knowing that I'm a spark of the divine.
But so are you, and you, and you, and you.
So regardless of where we might feel on a particular position,
I have to remember that there's something positive in you,
and you're a spark of the divine, which is positive.
It's all about love.
So somewhere you have to find that,
that kernel of love and not hate the person, necessarily.
>> Right, right, and that just opens up possibilities when you do that.
>> It broadens it in a major way, major way.
>> Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Great example, Debbie, thanks.
>> We do peer [COUGH] we do peer mediation for kids at schools.
>> Mm-hm. >> So when kids are not
getting along with each other, help them learn how to negotiate conflicts and such.
And it's really clear when they come in angry, there's no solutioning happening.
>> There is no alternative other than that person was wrong.
>> Yeah. >> So.
Until you can get some positive, even neutral to start with.
>> Yeah. >> But some, some more positive emotions.
If you get those and you can kind of relax the situation they
do tend to problem solve a little bit better.
>> Yeah. >> And so
that's how I think about that, if, if I'm seeing a kid that's angry in school.
>> Yeah. >> It's really not useful to help them at
that point, other than to calm their emotions.
>> Right. >> And once you induce some
positive stuff, then they're more open to kind of problem solving on their own.