Interview with World Leading Happiness Psychologist Professor Barbara Fredrickson

Last week I did a phone interview with world-leading Positive psychology PhD (i.e. happiness scientist) Professor Barb Fredrickson.

Martin Seligman has called Barb Fredrickson “the Genius of the Positive Psychology Movement”.

Barb is author of the 2009 book Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.

Here’s our conversation. (If you haven’t previously read my review of her book, I recommend reading that before reading the interview. It’ll make what’s written below make much more sense).

A few parts of this interview get a bit technical. But there are also lots of gems of information for non-psychology PhDs. Please don’t be put off by the technical bits. Anything you’d like me to explain in a more simplified way, you can ask me about on Twitter.

Prof Fredrickson’s Latest Research (since the book came out)

Alice: Of the new research you’re doing, what are you most excited about?

Barb: There are 3 areas, each of which touches on the effects of positive emotions within relationships.

1. With a colleague, Michael D. Cohen, I’ve been studying how positive emotions help strangers build social connection and learn to work together successfully on complex tasks.

We’re studying what’s called “Elegant Social Coordination” which is when people need to work collaboratively and think as “We” rather than “Me.” A good way to understand the concept is to think about two people playing a piano piece and one person playing the left hand and the other playing the right hand.

In our study, we had pairs of strangers do a task involving cards in which each member in the pair had a different role in the task. How it works is that one member of the pair is in charge of the color aspect of the task and the other is in charge of the number aspect of the task. It’s a task where they need to work together cooperatively rather than compete with each other.

What we’ve found is that if, prior to the card task, we have the two strangers participate in another activity that’s designed to lead them to have a shared positive emotional experience, they perform better on the card task. We think that experiencing shared positive emotions causes people to do better at “We” thinking. People get better at taking the other person’s perspective on the task which causes them to perform better as a team.

2. Another area I’ve been working on with a student is how shared laughter is like relational glue that ties people together.

In relationships, laughter seems to be a signal of relationship safety as well as enjoyment. We conducted a study in which we first had people do one of three activities. The three activities involved either 1) laughter with a friend, 2) laughter on their own, or 3) another shared positive emotion with a friend.

Then we tested people’s “social risk taking” by having them do a task that involved disclosing personal information to their friend. Our results showed that people who had recently shared laughter with each other disclosed more than the other people in the study did.

3. My post doc Sara Algoe and I have been studying how gratitude functions in relationships. We’ve been studying couples who are married or living together.

We’ve found that some ways of expressing appreciation have more positive impact on the relationship than other ways. For example, imagine someone expressing gratitude to their partner for giving them a gift. If the person focuses on the positive attributes of the gift itself, it doesn’t have the same benefits for the relationship as when the person expressing gratitude focuses on the positive characteristics of their partner as a person. It’s better to focus on the person rather than the thing.

The Most Important New Frontiers in Positive Psychology

Alice: What do you think are the most important unanswered questions or new frontiers in psychology?

Barb: I’m actually just writing a chapter on that.

What I’m really excited about is research that recognizes reciprocal causation and looks at looks at causal processes as a system [Alice: How multiple variables influence each other as part of different types of feedback loops]. Generally, psychology experiments are designed to test how one variable influences other variables. But, we can only learn so much from that. We need to get much more serious and rigorous about studying dynamic systems. We need to understand real life better. We’re just getting to appreciate the complex web of interactions that come into play when people are “flourishing” [Alice: meaning psychologically functioning well, broadly defined e.g. having psychological strengths like open, creative thought processes, good social relationships, and resilience].

Another important future direction for positive psychology is that we need to get a better handle on how momentary positive emotions (that is, the emotions you feel in particular moment) are related to both flourishing and how satisfied people report being with their lives. I’d like to see the word “happiness” banned from positive psychology because it’s so non-specific [laughs]. It’s like talking about baking bread and calling one of the ingredients of bread “bread” and also calling the end product “bread”.

The Most Exciting New Positive Psychology Research (Being Done by Other Researchers)

Alice: What do you think is the most exciting research being conducted in the positive psychology field at the moment?


1. I’m excited by Adam Anderson’s work about positive emotions. He’s a neuroscientist at University of Toronto.

One of his recent studies was about creativity, distractibility, and positive emotions.

In that study, people listened to different types of music which was designed to put them in a positive, negative, or neutral mood. Then the researchers had all the participants do two tests.

One of the tests measured their visual attention span. It tested how much they were distracted by objects that were in the periphery of their visual field.

The other test measured verbal creative thinking by giving people a list of three words and asking them to come up with a fourth word that was related to all three of the other words. For example, people would be given the list “mower, atomic, and foreign” and the correct answer would be “power” (as in power mower, atomic power, foreign power).

When people are in a neutral or negative state, verbal creativity isn’t related to their visual attention span. Performance on these two tests is typically uncorrelated. But when they’re in a positive mood state, the wider their visual attention span (the more distracted they are by things in the periphery ), the better they do on the verbal creative task.

That research is important because it’s an example of how two types of cognitive processes are related only when people are experiencing positive emotions, and it’s an example of positive emotions creating broadened thought processes.

2. Also, research by David Soto on people who have had stokes and who have visual neglect as a consequence of their stroke. [Alice: Visual neglect is when a person has decreased awareness of objects in part of their field of vision. For example they don’t detect objects on their right side so they bump into things on that side. But, the problem isn’t with the persons eyes, it’s with another brain process].

The research shows that people when people with visual neglect listen to music that they enjoy (and consequently experience positive emotions from the music), their visual neglect problem improves. They’re able to see objects in the part of their field of vision where they have the problem.

Her Favorite Psychology-Related Books for Non-psychology PhDs

Alice: What are your favorite psychology books (accessible to non-psychology PhDs)?

Barb: There are lots, but some of my most favorite are:

1. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge. [This book is ranked the #231 bestselling book on Amazon. Also recommended by Alice]

It’s about neuroplasticity – how the brain changes based on the daily experiences we have. What we choose to spend our time doing on a day to day basis determines how our brains are sculpted. For example, there’s a chapter in the book about how consuming a lot of pornography makes it difficult to have a normal sex life. Nutritionists say “We are what we eat”. I like to say “We are what we feel.” Work on neuroplasticity highlights how what we do determines what we’re capable of doing. So, if you want to be a flexible and wise thinker, you need to practice that.

2. The Power of Story: Change Your Story, Change Your Destiny in Business and in Life by Jim Loehr

3. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. Or anything by Sharon Salzberg.

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Plans for Her Next Book

Alice: Is there anything you didn’t include in the book that you wish you had?

I don’t have any regrets about things I didn’t include in Positivity. But I’m already thinking about my next book. It’s going to be more about relationships and systems. It’ll be based on the new research I’m doing with my colleagues and students. After the research has been peer reviewed and published in scientific journals, I’ll write a book about it for non-psychology PhDs.

Writing Science Journal Articles vs. Writing Books for the Public

Alice: What’s your experience been like of translating your scientific work into information for the general public?

Barb: Writing the book was the most fun writing project I’ve ever had. I really enjoyed the book promotion, more than I expected. It was very rewarding.

I wrote the book because the scientific studies have shown that there’s a prescription people can follow if they want to flourish. . It felt really important to give that information away to people who aren’t scientists, those who don’t read psychology journal articles. I wanted people to know how much control they have. I thought that once people had the information that’s in the book they might make different choices.

It’s been very rewarding to hear people’s different reactions and how they are using the information.

What about Skeptics? What about People who are Reluctant to Try Actively Using Happiness Strategies?

Alice: Do you have any tips for people who are resistant to the idea of trying positivity strategies?

Barb: One of my favorite reviews of the book that turned up on Amazon said something like “Finally a book about positivity for skeptics”.

The research studies tell us that it’s possible to increase positive emotions using deliberate strategies. There’s a science behind it, a logic.

I totally understand people not wanting to be told what to do, so I encourage people to do self-study about what works for them

Negative emotions have important functions, but I think it’s important for people think about what the best way is to redirect anger, anxiety, or self-deploring emotions once they’re finding those emotions are no longer useful to them.

Of course, for some people, the stereotypes that Positive Psychology is all about yellow smiley faces will continue.