Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, speaking at Golden Lectureship.

Psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, talks about her work on studying the effect of positive emotions on mental, physical and public health.

Psychologist Reveals Impact of Positive Emotions on Health

Published October 4, 2022

By Dirk Hoffman

A leading psychologist challenged her audience to view love as co-experienced positive emotions during her presentation at the 20th annual Lawrence & Nancy Golden Memorial Lectureship on Mind-Body Medicine.  

“Positive emotions broaden our thinking. Over time, having a steady diet of broadened awareness helps people to learn and grow. ”
Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD
Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, is Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she directs the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory.

Among the most highly cited scientists worldwide, her books, “Positivity” and “Love 2.0” have been translated into dozens of languages.

Positive Emotions Help People Learn and Grow

The title of Fredrickson’s speech was “The Goods in Everyday Love: Implications for Mental, Physical and Public Health.”

“I’m talking about research on emotions, it’s my home discipline — emotion science, and within that I study positive emotions and I am trying to make the case that everyday positive emotions that are shared between people, no matter who it is, when you share a positive emotional state in a caring context — that is what I call everyday love,” she said.

“As humans, this is fuel for health, and we see connections to individual mental health, physical health, relationship health and also public health,” Fredrickson added.

One thing that all emotions have in common, both positive and negative — is they are very short lived, Fredrickson noted.

“We’re definitely targeting things the mind and body experience together,” she said. “We can’t just talk emotions as a mental phenomena, they are equally a body phenomena.”

Fredrickson explained that the framework for the research in her lab is her broaden-and-build theory (BBT).

BBT suggests experiencing all of these varieties of positive emotions fundamentally change the way the human brain takes in information, she said.

“Pleasant emotions open our awareness, allowing us to see more on the periphery, even if we do not intend to,” Fredrickson said. “We know this from behavioral studies and brain imaging studies.”

“Positive emotions broaden our thinking. Over time, having a steady diet of broadened awareness helps people to learn and grow.”

Science-Based Tips Improve Bedside Manner

Fredrickson said she used to think that all positive emotions were very similar, but she has come to the conclusion that there is one super nutrient for growth and resilience and that is positive emotions that are co-experienced.

“Some may call this love, but in the scientific literature, I call this positivity resonance — any moment when you co-experience a positive experience with another person,” she said. “It could be laughing with a friend or it could be celebrating a success at work with a co-worker.”

Fredrickson described positivity resonance as the “most elemental building block of love.”

She further defined it as an interpersonally situated experience marked by momentary increases in:

  • co-experienced positive affect
  • caring non-verbal synchrony
  • biological synchrony

Which, over time, she said builds:

  • embodied rapport (chemistry)
  • social bonds
  • commitment, loyalty and trust

“Knowing this theory will help you to know how to repair a bond that matters to you, but has seemingly gone awry,” Fredrickson said.

She noted one cannot simply ask others to trust them — it must be earned.

“People trust you because they have these caring moments of positivity resonance with you over time,” Fredrickson said, using the trust between a physician and a patient as an example.

“We know that being empathic or being a good listener is associated with positivity resonance so these are some science-based tips on how to create a better bedside manner,” she added.

Kindness Tendencies Can Affect Public Health

Fredrickson said her research team was also interested in looking at how positivity resonance related to things that allow communities to function.

“Like many, we have a concern about the basic fabric of society, how we are seemingly constantly pulling at it, creating such great divisions culturally and in communities,” she said.

Fredrickson said her research found that quality of positivity resonance predicted virtue and prosocial tendencies.

“That turned out to be important because that predicted the degree in which people engaged in behaviors to promote public health — such as washing their hands frequently or wearing a mask,” she said.

“So these tendencies to be kind to one another affect public health. These are behaviors we know affect rates of transmission,” Fredrickson added. “The quality of your interactions with people determines whether you care enough to protect public health.”

“You see, we think positivity resonance is equally for the common good, not just for health.”

Fortifying Commitment to Mind-Body Medicine

In her opening remarks, Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, noted the Golden Lectureship was founded in 2001 with an initial gift of $50,000 to expand the traditional medical model to a bio-psycho-social and spiritual model of care.

“Named for cardiologist Lawrence Golden, MD, and longtime family therapist Nancy Golden, this lecture reinforces their longstanding commitment to mind-body medicine, which focuses on the interactions among the physical body, thoughts, beliefs and emotions, as related to health,” she said.

“This topic is really top of mind because here at the Jacobs School we really focus on the patient’s whole body,” Brashear added. “Most medical schools are beginning to teach this and there is significant scholarly research in this area.”

The lecture took place Sept. 22 in the M&T Auditorium at the Jacobs School building.

Anne B. Curtis, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Charles and Mary Bauer Professor and Chair of medicine, introduced Fredrickson.

Nasir Khan, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine, led a Questions & Answers session following the lecture.