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Vol. LXV, No. 10
May 10, 2013

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Micro-Utopia, Anyone?
Fredrickson Describes Nourishing Power of Small, Positive Moments

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson

In order for human beings to flourish, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson argues, we need to get essential daily nutrients—not only from food, but also from a laugh, a hug or even a smaller moment of positive emotion, especially with someone with whom we click.

Fredrickson spoke recently in Lipsett Amphitheater as part of NCCAM’s Integrative Medicine Research Lecture Series. Her topic was positivity, which can be defined as emotional states that carry a pleasant subjective feel. She is a Kenan distinguished professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, director of the university’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory and an NIH grantee. Among her publications are two books for general audiences, Positivity and Love 2.0.

NCCAM director Dr. Josephine Briggs noted, “Dr. Fredrickson’s work is particularly relevant to two NCCAM areas of scientific interest: mind-and-body practices such as meditation and insights from complementary approaches that could potentially help people adopt and sustain positive behavior change.”

Negative emotions are adaptive in the short term, Fredrickson said, as seen in the fight-or-flight response. “Positive emotions, however, are adaptive over the long haul,” she said. “They expand our awareness so that we can survive and grow, give us more tools for our survival toolkit and help us become better versions of ourselves.” A researcher on positive emotions for the past 25 years, Fredrickson has recently focused on emotions that are shared, especially love.

To begin with, how should we define and understand love? The answer is not simple, nor is it something on which everyone agrees, said Fredrickson. Often, scientists do not define love in ways many nonscientists do. It is neither commitment, a special bond, sexual desire, exclusivity, unconditionality, nor a long relationship, although these can relate to love.

Some key elements arise from the psychology subspecialties of relationship science and emotion science, Fredrickson said. The first science adds caring, or investment in another person for his or her own sake rather than for selfish ends, and “perceived responsiveness,” or the feeling that the other person understands, validates and cares for us.

“Love is like an essential nutrient,” says Fredrickson. “[These] micro-moments of positivity resonance build bonds, weave the social fabric that creates our community, promote health and arguably are the supreme emotion.”

“Love is like an essential nutrient,” says Fredrickson. “[These] micro-moments of positivity resonance build bonds, weave the social fabric that creates our community, promote health and arguably are the supreme emotion.”

Photos: Wayne Randolph

The second adds biobehavioral components (“emotions are embodied thoughts, equally affecting mind and body at the same time”); a view of caring as a series of moments, “not something you turn on and off like a toggle switch”; and a theory called “broaden and build,” which Fredrickson has developed. It holds that positive emotions serve to broaden people’s awareness; this, over time, builds enduring resources for living such as relationships and resilience.

Fredrickson’s own definition is that love is an “interpersonally situated experience” in which there are momentary increases in several factors: positive-emotion sharing, mutual care and some synchronization of partners’ biological and behavioral processes. Other research in the field has identified some scenarios of this latter synchronization, e.g., between parents and their infants and between people having engaging conversations. Fredrickson’s concept is what she calls “positivity resonance—the idea that when two people share a positive emotion, it is unfurling across their two brains and bodies at the same time.” In these small moments of sharing, she said, “there is one state and one emotion going on—maybe even a miniature version of a mind meld.”

For positivity resonance—and, thus, for love—to occur, Fredrickson argues, two conditions must be met: a feeling of safety, both internal and external, and a “real-time sensory connection,” as when people are physically together, have eye contact, touch or hear each other’s voices. There is evidence that eye contact, for example, sends neural information to us that provides gut-level wisdom about what someone is trying to communicate to us. “The ways we connect by texting, emailing and messaging may feel good at times,” she said, “but do not lead to this experience of resonance.”

Some of her recent studies have examined a complementary health approach that might help people generate more of these “micro-moments”: a type of meditation called loving-kindness.

One early study found, following this practice, a small upward shift in certain measures of participants’ cognitive, social and psychological resources and self-reported health.

Another examined associations between three factors: vagal tone (a biological process of the vagal nerve, which connects the brain to the heart and other internal organs and has regulatory functions); positive emotions; and positive social connections (individual reports of positivity resonance). Her team found that an increase in one of these factors was associated with increases in the others, in a kind of “upward spiral. One way to think about this is that love creates health and health creates love,” she said. A study now in press looks at these three factors with the addition of meditation. Another study, with Dr. Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles Geffen School of Medicine, is looking at other mechanisms such as oxytocin and pro-inflammatory gene expression, which may be operating when people experience good effects from a new health behavior and want to repeat it.

Fredrickson offered a summation: “Love is like an essential nutrient. [These] micro-moments of positivity resonance build bonds, weave the social fabric that creates our community, promote health and arguably are the supreme emotion.” They can also, she said, create micro-utopias in our day-to-day lives.

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