The One You’re With
This interview originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of The Sun.
The One You’re With
Barbara Fredrickson On Why We Should Rethink Love
According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, the fundamental essence of love is the same across all relationships, whether between romantic partners, parents and children, or total strangers. In her book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, she claims that “love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people . . . connect over a shared positive emotion.” Fredrickson says that although such experiences may be fleeting, their physical and psychological effects lead to deeper bonds and even improved health. Her current research investigates these “micro-moments” of love.
Fredrickson’s interest in studying love grew out of her more than two decades of work on the science of positive emotions. She was searching for a reliable way to increase people’s daily experiences of such emotions when she stumbled upon the ancient Buddhist practice of lovingkindness meditation, which involves generating feelings of warmth, caring, and friendliness toward oneself and others. Fredrickson began using the meditation in her research and also practicing it herself. As she and her colleagues analyzed the results of their studies, they were struck by the many emotional, physical, and social benefits that lovingkindness seemed to confer.
Curious to take part in one of these experiments, I joined Fredrickson at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab (PEP Lab), which she directs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A warren of cubicles filled with grad students, the PEP Lab bustled with energy, and large windows overlooked an arboretum in full bloom. Fredrickson’s research manager escorted me to a tiny room furnished with a desk, a computer, and a box-like device called an “isolated bioelectric amplifier.” She affixed electrodes to the right and left sides of my rib cage, then added another to the top of my right hand. She also clipped a monitor to one of my fingers and fitted a tight elastic band around my torso to measure my respiration rate.
Like many of Fredrickson’s recent studies, this one was designed to measure “vagal tone,” the subtle variation in heart rate as we breathe in and out. When functioning most efficiently, the heart slows down slightly during exhalation. The greater the difference between your heart rate at inhalation and at exhalation, the higher your vagal tone, which predicts better immune function, cardiovascular health, glucose regulation, and — oddly enough — social skills. Fredrickson has found that practicing lovingkindness meditation seems to help people cultivate higher vagal tone. She says our hearts literally become more responsive to our breath as we experience loving feelings toward others.
The research manager spent a few minutes adjusting the equipment. At first the pressure of the elastic band against my ribs was strange, but after a while I relaxed, and she was able to get good baseline readings on my heart and respiration rates. Then she put headphones on me, turned off the lights, and shut the door.
The experiment began with a brief recorded introduction to lovingkindness meditation, after which the voice in the headphones instructed me to bring to mind someone close to me while saying silently, May this person be safe. May this person be happy. May this person be healthy. May this person live with ease. I was guided to repeat this process while thinking about other people, including myself. After twenty minutes the research manager returned and removed the sensors. As a single participant in a broad study, I wouldn’t find out my own results, but I was surprised by the depth of emotion I’d felt during the meditation, even in an unfamiliar room with wires stuck to me.
Fredrickson has a BA in psychology from Carleton College and a PhD in psychology from Stanford University. She trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the psychophysiology lab of the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UNC–Chapel Hill. Her first book, Positivity, describes two decades of her research on how positive emotions support “human flourishing” and was the subject of an interview I did with her in the May 2009 issue of The Sun [“The Science of Happiness”]. Four years after its publication, flaws were discovered in an element of her work, traced to a colleague’s mathematical modeling, which she’d used to propose a precise tipping-point ratio of positive to negative emotions. But Fredrickson maintains that her overall findings are sound. Her research has been funded for more than sixteen years by the National Institutes of Health and has been featured in The New York Times and on National Public Radio and PBS. Fredrickson has presented her work at the White House and to the Dalai Lama.
I met with Fredrickson on several occasions for this interview. Our last conversation took place on a sunny afternoon in Carrboro, North Carolina, where we both live. Fredrickson sometimes refers to herself as an introvert and an “egghead academic,” but I was struck by her openness and warmth. After having graciously endured another two hours of questions, she stood and stretched out her arms to bid me goodbye with a hug.
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Winter: During our last conversation, back in 2009, I asked you if there was one positive emotion that seemed to be more beneficial than the others, and you said no, that all positive emotions appeared to generate equally good outcomes. Now you’ve changed your mind?
Fredrickson: I have. I’m not in any way downplaying the value of other positive emotions, all of which help us become better versions of ourselves, but the data have led me to think that one emotion — love — is doing something different. In my research I keep seeing that the positive emotions people feel in connection with others seem to be a real driving force behind the health benefits. When we experience joy or amusement or gratitude together with another person, that moment could equally be described as a brief experience of love. I actually borrowed this idea from an earlier emotion theorist, Carroll Izard, then expanded on it.
Winter: So you’re saying that, while you and I are talking together, an emotion can co-arise in both of us?
Fredrickson: Yes, I think we can co-experience emotions. We tend to think of emotions as belonging to an individual — my gratitude, your anger — but a degree of biobehavioral synchrony can emerge when two people feel positive emotions in each other’s company. You can see this in their body language: the way they move, how engaged they are, how their gestures mirror each other. There’s also facial mimicry: one person smiles, and the other smiles back.
Research is beginning to point to an invisible synchrony as well: when people share a positive emotion, the levels of certain biochemicals in their bodies rise in unison, and there’s a similarity in their neural firings, too. We’re just getting the initial glimpses of this, and it isn’t easy to study. You can’t simply have two people engage in intimate conversation while in the brain scanner. But we’re seeing hints that a single positive emotion can roll like a wave through two brains and bodies at once.
This synchrony could also happen to us in larger groups, such as a whole stadium full of people who all stand up and cheer at the same time. Or maybe the tempo of a piece of music brings a crowd’s movements into sync. I’d call that love, too. Between two individuals the connection can happen with eye contact, or touch, or even just a voice over the phone. I argue that this real-time sensory connection is one of the preconditions for micro-moments of love to emerge. When you and I are connecting, and I express a positive emotion, it can bring out the same emotion in you, which, as you express it, is going to amplify my emotion. The good feeling is reverberating or resonating between us. The term I’ve coined for this is “positivity resonance.”
Winter: We’ve been taught that good boundaries are necessary for a healthy relationship. This would really challenge that.
Fredrickson: Boundaries are important when there are negative emotions in the room, but why keep a boundary up when we can share a laugh?
These micro-moments of love build our bonds with others in the long term. I think they help babies develop secure attachments — for example, when infants and parents share positivity through instances of facial and behavioral mimicry.
Winter: Isn’t it stretching the definition of love to use it for any positive emotion we share with another person?
Fredrickson: I’m not trying to degrade love but rather to enhance it by elevating these momentary experiences that we typically have trivialized. If we use the word rapport or say, “We clicked,” or, “There was a real energy there,” we might not recognize the true power in such a moment. We have put love on a pedestal, and I’m not trying to knock it off; I’m saying that these micro-moments belong up there, too.
When I give talks, I ask people to set aside their preexisting views of love just for an hour. After that hour is over, they might decide that what I’ve said is nonsense and go back to their old views, or they might supplement those old views with this new one, which I think can give us a better handle on what makes us feel alive and healthy — and also on how to build stronger relationships.
Ultimately my goal is to get people to see those moments of positive connection as important. Whether people choose to call them “love” or not is up to them. If I weren’t trying to communicate with a broader audience, I would stick to the nerdy phrase “positivity resonance” just to be clear. In fact, when I write for scientists, I often don’t even refer to love. But I’m trying to translate our scientific findings into the language of what goes on in our hearts.
I’m also inspired by Buddhist psychology and lovingkindness meditation. Lovingkindness is already an awkward word — as if it’s trying to be two words at once. One of the better translations I’ve heard for it is “friendly feeling.” That’s what you’re cultivating through the meditation practice. When you actually get to make use of that friendly feeling in an interaction with somebody else, that’s when you experience what I’m calling “love.”
Winter: Isn’t the “friendly feeling” of lovingkindness that we experience alone also a form of love? Some people would view it as the epitome of love, a sort of unconditional embrace of all humanity, like the Christian notion of agape. You suggest yourself that we derive physical and mental benefits from it.
Fredrickson: Lovingkindness meditation unlocks all kinds of benefits. The data on that are clear. But the data also tell us that these benefits don’t come just from the time you spend alone on the cushion. The way that your meditation practice changes your day-to-day connections with others appears to be key. I think of lovingkindness meditation as a preparatory activity that makes positive connections more likely. It’s a means to another end, not an end in itself. This is consistent with my reading of Buddhist psychology.
Winter: What about romantic love? Where does it fit into all of this?
Fredrickson: Romantic love takes bonding and attachment to greater heights, for sure. I want to draw attention to what it has in common with other kinds of love, like that between friends or siblings or parents and children. There’s certainly a lot going on in romantic love that’s not explained by positivity resonance. Yet I know from my own life that positivity resonance has strengthened my marriage.
Fredrickson: Just by helping me see how important it is to spend time with my husband over breakfast or to share an interesting idea or something funny that our kids have done. At the beginning of our relationship I was a workaholic academic. My husband would call me at work during the day, and, before we’d hang up, I’d tell him how many minutes we’d been on the phone. I was saying, in effect, Hey, you’re interrupting me. Even after I’d stopped being rude, I still used body language or tone of voice to signal, Come on, I’ve got work to do here.
I realize now that those little breaks in my day, in the larger scheme of things, are valuable, like a tuneup. Rationally I knew that our marriage meant more to me than my job, but when he called, I didn’t necessarily think, Oh, here’s an opportunity to strengthen our bond.
I used to think of my work and my romantic life as separate, monolithic entities. Now I think of my whole life as one moment after another. Our real relationship lies in these small interactions. I can feel them knitting us closer together. And when we miss out on them, I can feel a bit of strain between us.
Winter: OK, so love is built around shared positive emotions. What makes an emotion positive?
Fredrickson: A positive emotion is one that we find to be pleasant such that, all other things being equal, we want it to continue. Sometimes people tell me there are negative emotions they want to feel: anger, for example, because it encourages them to fight injustice. But you don’t want the anger to last forever; you just want it around for as long as it’s useful, and then you’re done with it. A positive emotion is both enjoyable and makes you want more of it.
Sometimes people have a problem with the word positive. Perhaps a more accurate term would be “pleasurable,” but that sounds as if it were based on physical pleasure.
Winter: Speaking of which: what are your views on bodily pleasures, and why are they not part of your studies?
Fredrickson: My colleagues and I actually have grant funding right now for a study to distinguish bodily pleasures from positive emotions. My hypothesis is that physical pleasures narrow your attention around whatever is providing the good feeling, whereas positive emotions broaden your awareness and encourage you to re-create that circumstance again but in more open, balanced, and diverse ways.
Of course, physical pleasures and positive emotions often go together in our closest relationships. But when pleasures are devoid of positive emotions, they can pull us toward obsession and addiction. Positive emotions help us to find meaning and dream big about what kind of contributions we can make to the world, whereas physical pleasures just motivate us to have that feeling again. And again. And again. This distinction could be important for helping people develop healthy habits.
Winter: Do you feel that how love affects us physically is more important than how it affects us socially or philosophically?
Fredrickson: I think that love can be experienced on many different levels. My focus reflects my background as an evolutionary psychologist. I’m interested in the purpose that emotions have served in human development over millennia.
I’m aware, though, that the danger in talking about love from the body’s perspective is that people will start thinking I’m talking about sex.
Winter: We’ll get to that.
Fredrickson: [Laughs.] We are so concerned with sexuality in our culture that we’ve lost sight of the fact that every emotional connection we make is a physical experience. Instead of examining love songs and poems, I’m looking at what’s happening in your actual heart. How is it affected by these moments of connection? How are your white blood cells affected?
Winter: How might an engaging conversation be a physical experience?
Fredrickson: In our lab we take pairs of strangers and give them an icebreaker activity — a set of questions for them both to answer, such as: If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?
It’s an exercise developed to encourage disclosure, and we know that disclosure increases levels of the hormone progesterone as well as people’s degree of behavioral synchrony with one another. At the end of the study, participants often say, “I felt energized.” That’s because something was changing physically in them. There’s a cascade of biochemicals running through your body during a good conversation.
For example, you release more oxytocin, a neuropeptide associated with intimacy. There’s also clear evidence of neural synchrony between people. When you and I are really attuned to one another, our brain activity becomes highly similar. The researcher who’s done the most work on this is Uri Hasson at Princeton University. He says that speaking and listening are not two separate acts. Rather, communication is a single act performed by two brains.
Winter: What does oxytocin do, and why is it important?
Fredrickson: The full story of oxytocin is still unfolding, because only recently have we been able to do experiments on it. But oxytocin does make us more attuned to and influenced by others — at least, when we’re feeling safe and secure. Oxytocin seems to encourage our latent biological tendency to be attentive to others instead of wrapped up in our own concerns. Vagal tone operates in a similar way. Having higher vagal tone is associated with being better able to read others’ emotions and expressions.
Winter: Could you explain vagal tone?
Fredrickson: Vagal tone is the degree to which your breathing pattern affects your heart rate. In people who have low vagal tone, there isn’t much connection between whether they are breathing in or out and what their heart is doing. In people who have higher vagal tone, their heart rate slows down just a touch as they exhale, which is a good thing.
Winter: Why is that important?
Fredrickson: Vagal tone predicts whether we find social interactions enjoyable as opposed to scary or threatening. People with autism, for example, have very low vagal tone and also show a lack of interest in social engagement. Higher vagal tone boosts our interest in others and seems to quell our fear of meeting new people. Scientists have called it a key part of our innate social-engagement system.
Winter: Is there a baseline reading of vagal tone for the general population?
Fredrickson: The exact norms for vagal tone aren’t really known. What we do in our lab is measure someone’s vagal tone and compare it to others in the same sample. But our samples are not representative of the entire population.
There are companies now that are interested in creating biofeedback devices for vagal tone. You might wear the device like a watch, and it would give you a readout. In our research we don’t tell participants what their vagal tone is because the meaning of any particular value is still debated. I don’t even know whether I have high or low vagal tone. I’m the first test subject of every study we run, so there are files that have my vagal tone in them, but I’ve never looked.
Winter: You’re not even curious?
Fredrickson: No. It’s important to understand that although vagal tone is fairly stable, it’s also a moving target, like your cholesterol level. Whatever your vagal tone is now, it’s not necessarily going to be the same three months from now. Our studies show that people’s vagal tone improves in conjunction with the amount of positivity resonance they experience. I’d rather pay attention to the connections I make with others during the day than to a numerical measurement.
Winter: You’ve written that “a lack of positivity resonance is, in fact, more damaging to your health than smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol excessively, or being obese.” That’s quite a provocative statement.
Fredrickson: It’s based on findings by a researcher named Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues at Brigham Young University. Her paper on this is making major ripples all over the social sciences, because it suggests that we’re not targeting all the right behaviors when it comes to improving people’s health. We need to focus also on creating more positive social connections. But coming up with ways to do that has been vexingly hard, I think because we don’t fully understand what drives social engagement. Setting up bingo games in retirement communities, for example, doesn’t work, because just being around people isn’t enough. I’m hoping that my work on positivity resonance will help us discover ways to improve social engagement.
Winter: How long do the effects of a micro-moment of love last?
Fredrickson: The immediate effects are short-lived. They might be gone just minutes later. The long-term benefits come from a steady diet of such experiences.
Vagal tone seems to obey a “use it or lose it” law. If we continue having these positive connections with others, it stays high. If we become socially isolated and communicate only by text, never face to face, then we may be eroding our capacity to connect instead of building it up.
Winter: In an age when people are spending less and less time talking in person, do you worry about us losing some of our ability to experience love?
Fredrickson: Yes. I wrote a New York Times Op-Ed piece about this. The positive experiences we have in conjunction with others are like nutrients: we need daily doses of them in order to stay healthy. But contemporary culture encourages us to reach out through technology. Though e-mail and texting and social media are great in many ways, they potentially have costs.
In the future I’d like to look at the bodily effects of communicating through electronic mediums versus face to face and see what the differences are. When we connect with people online, we certainly experience a lot of positive emotions, but maybe they’re not reverberating and building off each other. Seeing you smile makes me happy in a subtle but perceptible way that may not occur when I just see the little smiley emoticon. [Laughs.]
Winter: What about FaceTime or Skype, where you can see the person’s face?
Fredrickson: One of my colleagues has pointed out that with video chat you can’t quite establish true eye contact, because the camera’s up here and the other person’s eyes are below that on his or her screen. You see your friend or beloved looking down. I’ve encountered some research that makes me think this may be consequential. Without true eye contact, there’s less facial mimicry. With less facial mimicry, there’s less neural mimicry, and this cascade of biobehavioral synchrony is less likely to happen. Both people might be smiling, but they’re not resonating.
Winter: What if you’re blind?
Fredrickson: I don’t have data on this, but I do think that shared voice alone can get you there. A lot of emotion can be carried by the human voice. So you can pick up the phone and talk to each other — or, I guess, talk through FaceTime or Skype — and still get into a shared emotional state.
I did a radio show once, and a blind man called in and said he could feel what other people were feeling. He didn’t know how to describe it, but he claimed he actually experienced more connection with others now that he was blind, because he wasn’t distracted by how people look.
Winter: What about stories of great correspondences between people? Can’t people bond through the written word?
Fredrickson: When you read a letter from somebody who really understands you, you definitely feel valued and heard. What’s missing is that the expression on your face isn’t going to be mirrored in the other person’s, and so the emotions can’t feed off one another and grow. If there weren’t something missing in a relationship by mail, people would never be drawn to meet in person — and usually, after all those impassioned messages, people do want to meet.
Winter: Why are mimicry and biological synchrony so important?
Fredrickson: Think about the way birds fly together or fish swim in schools. We don’t like to think of ourselves as animals, but we are. And when we are really attuned to another person, we take part in this almost imperceptible dance. Like a school of fish, we’re joining up and swimming along together, and this can bring a powerful sense of oneness.
Right now we’re studying whether experiencing shared positive emotions can unlock collective intelligence. In our experiment, participants are given trivia questions and have to figure them out together. They’re encouraged either to brainstorm in a fun way and treat it as a game, or to treat it very seriously and mute their emotions. We’re looking to see whether shared positive emotions help people come up with better answers.
Winter: In many of your experiments participants self-report their feelings. Is that as precise as an experiment that uses objective measurements?
Fredrickson: We use both self-reports and objective measures, because you can’t study emotions without asking people how they feel, but you also can’t believe 100 percent of what they say.
Winter: When you use American college students as your test subjects, do you think the resulting data are skewed?
Fredrickson: I think that’s an important critique and one of the reasons why I test midlife adults and community populations, too, and not just college students. For convenience, however, a lot of my graduate students will study peers because it doesn’t require external grant money. As long as funding is sparse, we will continue, when necessary, to study college students.
Even when I study a broader population, it is still within the predominantly white town in which I live. These studies need to be replicated in other contexts and other cultures. But we’ve got to start somewhere.
Winter: Let’s go back to your theory that physical presence is a key prerequisite for positivity resonance. Does that mean that when I’m separated from my husband, I am not actually feeling love for him?
Fredrickson: Yes, I do mean that. If you accept that the essence of love is positivity resonance, then when you’re not with him, you can still benefit from the loyalty, commitment, and trust that you’ve built up, but you’re not, at that moment, actively nurturing the relationship. That comes only from physical presence. Of course, you could get that by picking up the phone and making an old-fashioned call. And physical presence is only a precondition. It does not guarantee that positivity resonance will emerge. Even holding hands can become a loveless habit.
Winter: What if you strongly prefer spending time alone? Are introverts just doomed?
Fredrickson: [Laughs.] No, as an introvert myself, I can say that we’re not doomed! I see positivity resonance occurring in people across the scale from introversion to extroversion.
I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking because one of my sons is introverted like me. We both cherish our solitude. Cain says we introverts need to recharge by being alone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Positivity resonance isn’t about having nonstop connection. It’s about recognizing the benefits that can come from positive interactions, however fleeting.
Winter: Are there any cultural differences in people’s ability to experience positivity resonance?
Fredrickson: There could be. The norms for eye contact, for example, vary all over the world.
Eye contact isn’t always a positive thing, by the way. It can be threatening, too. When you’re feeling safe, eye contact can seem friendly, but without a sense of safety, it can be perceived as aggressive. There’s good evidence that people who are depressed, anxious, or lonely experience fewer feelings of safety around others, and that starts a downward spiral in which they cut themselves off because any interaction, to them, seems threatening. They may want to connect, but their actions don’t support that desire, which reinforces their loneliness.
Winter: So what do you do if you’re depressed or anxious?
Fredrickson: Mindfulness meditation — in which the meditator is simply present in the moment without judgment — may help you begin to see a safe situation for what it is, instead of projecting your negativity onto it. After you’ve dealt with some of that initial negativity and are feeling safer, lovingkindness meditation might help you experience more warmheartedness.
Winter: So feeling safe is a baseline requirement for people to share positive emotions with others?
Fredrickson: Yes. If we’re constantly on alert and protecting ourselves, there’s no opening for us to think, There’s another person here. What’s he or she like? A starting place to increase our experiences of love is to recognize our own safety. Only when we feel safe can we be curious. Most things we view as threats are not truly threatening to us right here, right now. I might read a sharply critical article about my work, but those are just words on a page. I can always shift my attention away and come into the here and now and say, “That hurt, but I’m safe.”
One mantra of lovingkindness meditation is “May I feel safe.” Another way to phrase that is “May I recognize the safety that already exists.” Because most moments in life are pretty safe for the majority of us.
Winter: In your first book you wrote that ideally we should experience more positive than negative emotions in life, and that the tipping-point ratio for “flourishing” is 3 to 1, positive to negative. Later someone discovered a problem with the mathematical modeling your collaborator had used to arrive at those numbers. How did the criticism affect your work?
Fredrickson: My role in that collaboration was to bring the data and the theory; my collaborator provided the mathematical model. Science is an evolving process, and we can always learn from our peers. Based on the criticism, my collaborator and I issued a correction, stating that his modeling should be considered unreliable, but that the data still support the notion that it’s beneficial to have a greater number of positive emotions — up to a certain point. Too much positivity eventually proves detrimental.
Winter: So it’s possible to experience too much love?
Fredrickson: People can have too much positivity, for sure, but they tend not to feel too much love. Studies suggest they tend to have too much pride and eager anticipation of good fortune. Their positive emotions are too intense or otherwise don’t fit the context.
Winter: So they’re not connecting with others?
Fredrickson: No, it’s more “Me, me, me,” or “I’m going to get rich quick,” or other forms of self-absorbed glee. A person with bipolar disorder in a manic state is an example of this sort of positivity.
Potentially you can experience too many positive moments with others. People need a balance of solitude and connection. There are ways we grow when we’re connecting with others, and there are ways we grow when we’re by ourselves in nature or focused on a meaningful project that absorbs us.
Maybe “too much love” would mean expecting positivity resonance nonstop, grasping for it as opposed to just letting it flower.
Winter: Some children never experience good emotional bonding with their parents and caregivers. What special challenges do they face later in life in regards to experiencing love?
Fredrickson: I think it’s possible to learn to seek out love at any point in life. In my own life I made a major turnaround as an adult when I discovered how to relate more with people instead of remaining isolated. People can wake up at any time to what they need as human beings regardless of where they started. Positive emotions are our birthright, and we all have access to them. It could be that the families we grew up in didn’t help us to feel them, but the people who raised you can’t take away your capacity to resonate with others. They may have reduced your skills, but the capacity is still there.
We can start just by recognizing that love comes in many forms, some of them small. Instead of being a high hurdle, love can be an easy thing to experience. Smile at somebody and see where it leads. Maybe you’ll realize that it feels good and you’ve been missing out.
Winter: Has studying these micro-moments of love changed you personally?
Fredrickson: Yes, as I said, it’s opened my eyes to the costs of getting immersed in abstractions for too long and missing out on opportunities for connection.
Another way that I’ve changed is how I give talks. For years I used to write out what I was going to say, and I’d consult my notes while I was speaking. A mentor of mine was watching me once and said that each time I looked down at my notes, I severed my connection with the audience, and then I had to regain it. Now I no longer use notes but instead bring slide projections of simple images that the audience and I can look at together. This makes it more conversational, and I can feed off the audience’s energy. It’s so much more rewarding. I’ll never go back to speaking from notes.
Simply put, I see now that everything I do is somehow in connection with others. I try to find even mundane parts of my day more enjoyable. Driving to work, when I pass somebody jogging, I think, Hey, have a great run. I may be stuck in my car, but I can get a little joy out of what that person is doing. Just as I once discovered the restorative benefits of being in nature, I’ve discovered that people are a restorative resource, too. I love being with my kids and my husband, but even when I’m traveling, I don’t have to be lonely, because there are friendly people everywhere I go. Of course I sometimes feel lonely without my family, but I don’t have to know somebody well to be able to enjoy his or her company.
Winter: Does that mean a good visit with my sister isn’t necessarily more significant than time I might share with a stranger?
Fredrickson: I’m not saying every moment is the same, just that there’s an element of what you might share with your sister that you could also share with a person you’ve just met. Our most cherished relationships will always be more intimate, but you still need mild daily doses of connection for well-being and health. Although your sister and your spouse might be your main sources of emotional nourishment, they don’t have to be your only sources. These micro-moments of love we find in other places are supplementing those connections with your loved ones, not replacing them.
Winter: Do you practice lovingkindness meditation yourself?
Fredrickson: Yes, it really helps counteract my tendency to get pulled into my self-absorbed academic world. I know now that I don’t like that kind of life by itself. It feels incomplete.
Winter: Is lovingkindness meditation more effective than other forms of meditation at improving vagal tone?
Fredrickson: We’re researching that now. The data are beginning to show that some people are more responsive to lovingkindness meditation, whereas others may have a better response to mindfulness meditation. I’m hoping we can help point individuals to the practice that’s right for them, depending on their preexisting health conditions, vagal tone, social skills, and so on. We’re also looking at whether meditation helps people to become physically active and to eat more fruits and vegetables. These activities — meditation, exercise, eating well — might work together to start an upward spiral in a person’s life. We know that what we call “sickness behaviors” work together to create a downward spiral in which you don’t want to be with people or to be physically active. You just hunker down and try to survive the day.
Winter: Sounds like depression.
Fredrickson: Exactly. In fact, there’s a theory that links sickness behavior to depression. The symptom that underlies all of it is inflammation. We know that if we give someone a mild endotoxin that creates inflammation in an otherwise healthy body, suddenly he or she doesn’t want to be with other people or to be physically active. Inflammation appears to mute the positive emotions, making you lie low. A lack of inflammation, on the other hand, may make you feel as if you’ve just gotten over being sick and are ready to be out in the sunshine and call up your friends. This produces more positive emotions, which creates an unconscious desire for similar experiences. As we seek out more positive emotions, we build higher vagal tone. That’s the upward spiral — when our behaviors and our body’s responses to them amplify each other.
Winter: How about those biofeedback devices you spoke of earlier? Could they play a role?
Fredrickson: It’s possible. As a scientist I don’t like to endorse products, especially without having tested them myself. I’m curious about the possibility of mobile devices that monitor vagal tone, but I also worry that people will become focused on the gadgets and lose sight of what’s really important, which is human interaction.
Winter: Wouldn’t it reinforce healthy behaviors if you could look down and say, “Oh, that meditation actually had an effect. My heart is beating differently than it was before”?
Fredrickson: It could be reinforcing. Some people try these wellness activities and enjoy them but remain skeptical. Maybe having readouts of vagal tone would help those people.
Winter: So is the ultimate goal of positivity resonance to have better health? To live longer? To help others?
Fredrickson: I think living longer and being healthier are just side effects. The real goal is to get us out of our self-absorbed state, so we can see ourselves as part of something larger. But the health benefits are often the target of our experiments.
Winter: Tell me about your latest experiment and what you’ve found.
Fredrickson: We randomly assigned people to learn either lovingkindness or mindfulness meditation, and we compared the two. Volunteers gave us blood samples before and after the experiment, and we shipped those samples off to my colleague at UCLA, who inspected the volunteers’ white blood cells. He found differences between the lovingkindness-meditation group and the mindfulness-meditation group. Both benefit from the practice, but in the white blood cells of the lovingkindness group we find decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes and increased expression of antiviral genes. This shift would, in theory, protect people from chronic illnesses that involve inflammation — like arthritis and heart disease — and help them fight off colds and flus. This is after just six weeks of lovingkindness meditation, practicing three to four times a week for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time — a total of about an hour a week.
Winter: Do you think doctors will prescribe lovingkindness meditation in the future to treat or prevent illness and depression?
Fredrickson: That’s what I’d like to study next: to see if we can produce these cellular shifts not just in people who are moderately healthy but in more-challenged populations. We have a proposal to work with people who grew up poor, because they tend to be at greater health risk. I’d also like to study cancer survivors or people undergoing cancer treatment to see if this immune shift might be consequential in terms of their health. There are still quite a few studies we need to do before we can say that lovingkindness meditation by itself improves health and longevity, but I think the early evidence is promising.
Winter: What can positive psychology do for people who are economically or socially disadvantaged and live under extreme duress or devastating circumstances?
Fredrickson: There’s certainly evidence to suggest that even people who are living in dire conditions can form positive personal connections and have good days. That doesn’t mean that poverty doesn’t limit their health and well-being, but studies show that warm and loving interactions with others can mitigate that. Positivity resonance would be especially important for those in more-challenging circumstances, because without it, poverty and trauma might take an even greater toll.
Winter: What are some other ways, besides lovingkindness meditation, for people to experience more micro-moments of love?
Fredrickson: You might start by taking stock in the evening of the interactions you had that day and how connected or attuned you felt in them. When lovingkindness meditation is taught, it includes informal practice as well as formal sitting practice. One informal practice is to meet others with more openness and warmheartedness. Pull yourself out of your blindered state and be curious about what’s going on with the individuals you meet. Are they enjoying their day? Are they just muddling through? Are they facing some difficulty? You don’t even have to ask. You could just think to yourself, I hope good fortune comes this person’s way.
People sometimes call this magical thinking, as if you’re “sending vibes” and somehow expecting something to happen to other people because of it. But really it’s just a shift in your own perspective that softens you and makes you more approachable. It helps you remember that not everything is about you and that other people are also trying to live good lives and experience some enjoyment here and there. Why don’t we notice this more often? It’s not something that takes a lot of time. We can practice it while we’re waiting in line or commuting or sitting in a boring meeting. Often people turn to their phones during those moments. When you feel that impulse, ask yourself, Why am I pulling away? Why don’t I just try to connect here?
Winter: If I have a choice between texting with my husband and being with the people around me in a restaurant, which is better?
Fredrickson: When you’re away from your spouse, you do need to stay in touch, but maybe you can do that when other people aren’t around, or excuse yourself to do it. We too readily check out of conversations these days. It’s becoming normal now. We just accept that most people are only half engaged when we’re with them. I think one reason people turn so quickly to technology is because they don’t want to be rejected or misunderstood. We need to take a few risks. Put the phone away.
Winter: And love the one you’re with?
Fredrickson: [Laughs.] Yes, exactly.
Winter: That raises an interesting question: If our bodies experience these micro-moments of love in the same way no matter who we are with, then why practice monogamy?
Fredrickson: I’m not saying our sexual partnerships shouldn’t be exclusive. I think there will always be a place for commitment and monogamy and marriage and family. But there’s no reason people have to be monogamous about sharing positive emotions. Think about it this way: As a parent, do you want your children to make positive connections only within the family? No, you want them to have great relationships with friends and teachers and neighbors. Why shouldn’t we want the same for our spouses? Only the most controlling, jealous husband or wife would say, “You can smile only when you’re with me.”
If we think love is just about romance and mating, then we lose sight of these subtler moments of love. We’re blinded to them by the strength of romantic love, the same way you can’t see the stars when the sun is in the sky.
Winter: But can you see how it’s confusing to call all these relationships “love”?
Fredrickson: English is confusing that way. We use the word love to describe both the feelings we have for our children and the feelings we have for our romantic partners.
Love is not just a relationship status. It’s a verb; it’s an action; it’s something that transpires between people. It’s one human resonating with another. Regardless of whether or not you want to call this “love,” those moments of resonance need to be given proper credit and attention.
Winter: What about somebody who’s in a prison cell and incapable of being with his or her loved ones? Is it impossible for that person to experience love?
Fredrickson: By my definition, yes. Perhaps this is why solitary confinement is as cruel as it is. We’re depriving people of an essential nutrient. It’s a heartless form of punishment. Humans need interaction.
Winter: Can’t people also be brought closer together by negative emotions, such as shared grief or a traumatic experience?
Fredrickson: Sure. Positive connections don’t have to be about lighthearted topics. They can be about holding on to each other and weathering a rough spell. When we bond during trying times, we get the reassurance that we’re not in this alone. The overall context may be one of horror or grief, but in the embrace we find the sense that someone is here for us. To lean on each other in tough situations feels good, and we want that to continue, even if we don’t want the hardship to continue.
Winter: Sometimes your analysis seems more like common sense than scientific discovery. Do we really need data to prove that positive connections can improve our health and our lives?
Fredrickson: Data are important, because not everyone shares the same common sense. When I teach business leaders about positivity, many are skeptical. They ask me, “Doesn’t negativity motivate people?” And then there are the workaholics who are obsessed with achievement or material wealth. Maybe scientific findings will encourage them to change their behaviors. That’s why I also write for nonscientists. Ultimately I want to teach people how to open up to these life-giving experiences and help themselves. If everybody were just humming along, healthy as can be, then, no, we wouldn’t need the science. But there are a lot of unhealthy people in this world. There are a lot of addicted people. We need to know how best to intervene.
Winter: When you deal with personal adversity, such as the controversy that arose around the positivity ratio, do you make use of what you’ve learned about love?
Fredrickson: When I suffer personal attacks, I try to remind myself that ultimately it’s not just about me. I keep in mind that others have suffered in similar ways, and maybe my experience will give me a better understanding and respect for them. The support that I get from my family and friends is important, too, and I try to take good care of myself and remember that this, too, shall pass.
Criticism or no, I’m going to keep doing what I do, because I know that if we ignore this aspect of the way our hearts and bodies work, it will be to our own detriment.
Winter: Does encouraging people to cultivate micro-moments of love let them off the hook from trying to make real positive changes in the world?
Fredrickson: I sure hope not, because I want this world to be a better place. Again, I’m not arguing that this is the only thing people need to do in life. But it could make the struggle for social justice and environmental causes more sustainable if it helps activists avoid burnout. We all need to make a contribution to the world around us, big or small, but it’s shortsighted to think only of the larger pursuit while ignoring our human needs along the way. I think it’s not either/or. It has to be both/and.
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From The Sun, July 2014, 4–13.