Book Review: Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson

coverAt first glance, Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity seems to be your average, broadly applicable self-help book. Chapter titles include “What Is Positivity?”, “Decrease Negativity” and “Increase Positivity”.  In her introduction, Fredrickson claims her inspiration to write this book came because she felt positivity was “largely uncharted territory” that can drastically improve one’s life. However, one only has to tune into daytime TV talk shows or cruise the self-help section of the local bookstore to learn that the idea of positivity is within the grounds of well-worn territory. The cynics among us may well roll our eyes at the idea of the transformative power of positivity, while the optimists likely already have half-a-dozen books they might recommend on the topic.

However, the crux of Fredrickson’s book lies in the subtitle of her book: “Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life.” The research contained within Fredrickson’s book is of true value. None but the crankiest of contrarians will deny that positive emotions and situations will indeed enhance one’s life.  But Fredrickson takes such vague, new-age ideas a step further and presents a body of research that grounds such notions in concrete realities that show definitive ways in which positivity affects the brain neurologically, in turn broadening our minds to accept more positive thoughts and experiences (or translate negativity into positivity.) Time and again throughout Positivity (particularly in early chapters), Fredrickson demonstrates her competency as a psychologist and the depth contained in her research.

Unfortunately, the book proceeds to a conclusion that is less than revelatory. Norman Vincent Peale’s 1996 book The Power of Positive Thinking that posited similar life-altering results inherent in positivity and optimism (a word Fredrickson is keen to avoid), albeit with unsubstantiated and anecdotal evidence. With Positivity, Fredrickson furthers such previous claims with well-researched and specifically-cited scientific fact. Unfortunately, the most interesting section of her book (the first half) merely affirms a conclusion that most everyone already believes to be true, while the latter half proposes a prescriptive lifestyle equation of the 3-to-1 ratio between positivity and negativity. Fredrickson occasionally gets bogged down in her new take on positivity and her wealth of research and information can be overwhelming, if not totally numbing. However, she does occasionally lessen the blow with touching anecdotes about her own life and how her methodology of positive thinking has allowed her to navigate some personal trials. Positivity tips heavily in favor of the hard data though, and a few more of these personal touches would have been a relief, as Fredrickson appears to be an interesting person beyond the wealth of psychological research.

Very rarely do books of this type really offer brand new startling insights into their chosen topic.  The best of them repackage old points of view in a new and interesting way. With Positivity Fredrickson re-views the power of seeing the glass half full with a strong academic background and through the lens of scientific research. While at times quite fascinating, the book never really transcends the forgone conclusion of “positivity is positive, negativity is negative.” Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity will be of interest for those seeking tangible insights into how the brain processes and is influenced by positivity/negativity or those looking to learn a new way to integrate positive thinking into their lives. It won’t blow any deeply optimistic minds, nor will it uncross any cynical arms.