Barbara Fredrickson Commencement Address

Posted on Dec 18, 2011 in Campus and Community

Winter Commencement Address
Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Dean E. Smith Center
Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011

Advance Remarks

Winter Commencement Address
Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Dean E. Smith Center
Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011

Advance Remarks

  barbara fredrickson
 Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D.

I’m guessing some of you are brimming with worry right now, even bracing yourself for an overly-saccharin message from Carolina’s Positivity Professor!

Don’t worry, this isn’t it!

What Bobby McFerrin couldn’t have known when he penned 1988’s “Song of the Year” was that his advice would not be “research-correct” by 21st century science. We know now that trying to live by the motto “Be Happy” actually backfires! It’s actually a great way to make yourself miserable.   

Before I’m through I’ll share how I’d rewrite this famous refrain to be more useful to you. Just like we need “evidence-based medicine” – to have science inform the pills we take – I think there’s a case to be made for evidence-based song lyrics – to have science inform the tunes we hum!

Song lyrics aside, it’s a profound honor for me to have the chance to address all of you on this most pivotal day, to honor the accomplishments of all of you dressed up in fresh caps and gowns, and to be here together with your crew of family, friends and faculty, all beaming with love and pride for you.  My humble aim is to share with you all two facts and two cautions about positivity – each backed by science – and then leave you whistling a new version of Bobby McFerrin’s famous song.

Right off I want to assure you that taking this time to consider positivity is not an invitation to forget about suffering and difficulties.

The warzones and areas of political unrest. The diminishing polar ice caps. The damage and heartbreak that follows natural disasters. The children who will go to sleep hungry tonight, or, closer to home, the difficulties that have beset you or your family or friends and the continuing economic crisis that is likely to affect you personally.

Focusing on positivity doesn’t require that you put your head in the sand to block out suffering. In fact, making room for positivity turns out to be a wise way to address suffering.

Indeed, we’ve found that the secret to being resilient – to bend without breaking and to bounce back from hard times – is to hold the good and the bad of human experience side-by-side, and letting your positivity and negativity inform and address each other.

And the “good” of human experience comes in many flavors.  It’s not just about jump-for-joy moments.  Positivity also comes in quieter moments, like when you feel deep-in-your-bones grateful, or at peace and completely “at one” with your surroundings. It also comes in very connected moments, like when you share a laugh or a loving embrace.  

What does science have to say about these kinds of moments?

The first fact is that moments of positivity open you.

If you’ll let me get poetic for a moment, imagine that you’re this water lily. It’s just before dawn, your blinders – these petals – are pulled in tightly around your face. If you can see out at all, you can only see what’s squarely in front of you.

Yet as the sun rises, things begin to change. Your delicate blinders pull away from your face – revealing more and more of the broader context – your worldview literally expands.  You see the bigger picture.  

This is not just a flowery metaphor.

Your brain is like this water lily. Yet whereas the water lily opens and closes when sunlight is present or absent, your mind opens and closes when positivity is present or absent.

Dozens of scientific experiments now support this idea.

Brain imaging tells us that when you’re under the influence of positivity you can’t help but absorb more of the broader context, even if your intent is to focus in on just one thing. You literally see more!

This fact that positive emotions open you up has a slew of repercussions, each backed by science:  It means that when infused with positivity you have better memory for details, more ideas about what to do next, more creative solutions and perhaps most importantly, you see and feel more connection and resonance with other people.

The 13th century poet Rumi well captured this first fact about positivity. He wrote:  “There is a way of breathing that’s a shame and suffocation. And there’s another way of expiring, a love-breath, that lets you open infinitely.”  Now, eight centuries later, we have solid scientific evidence to back up the spirit of Rumi’s message.

This isn’t the same old story about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s a new story about how feeling good helps you see the big picture. And big picture thinking – being able to grasp the broader systems in which this world’s problems are nested – is what you’ll need to come up with big solutions to the big problems that face you, personally, and face us all, globally.

So that’s the first fact about positivity, it opens you.

The second fact is that positivity nourishes you.  

Just like your daily diet of fruits and vegetables provides the nutrients you need to be healthy and flourish, so too does your daily diet of positivity.  

Like any living thing, you can either languish – barely hold on to life – or flourish – becoming ripe with possibilities and beautifully resilient. Flourishing, we know, is far more than being happy. People who flourish not only feel good, they also do good, they add value to their communities and to the world.

When people invest in activities that increase their daily intake of positive emotions, we’ve found, they transform themselves from the inside out:  They become more mindful, more resilient, they build stronger and more rewarding connections to others, both at home and at work.  They become physically healthier too, and even the very basic rhythms of their hearts change – coming to show greater calm, nimbleness and efficiency.  

The data are so compelling on this point that my collaborators and I are testing how positivity transforms you at a cellular level – by triggering changes in gene expression.   

In this way, positivity is a powerful nutrient, perhaps even powerful medicine.

At some deep level, your body knows this.

Returning to that water lily analogy: Plants know that sunlight is crucial for their survival. So they turn towards the light and stretch themselves open to take in as much as they can. Scientists call this the heliotropic effect.

There’s a similar heliotropic effect wired into your body: At some level, your body knows that positivity is crucial for your survival, so you turn toward sources of it and your mind stretches open to take in as much as you can, so you can survive and thrive.

So those are the two facts, that
positive opens and nourishes you.

Now, my two cautions.

The first is that you can’t fake it.

It can be tempting, when first learning the scientific facts about positivity, to start humming “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”  You might think you should be wearing a permanent grin!  

But living your life by that motto backfires. That’s because no emotion is meant to last forever, or be worn like a uniform – not even the ones that feel and do good!

Indeed, the science tells us that forced positivity releases corrosive biochemicals into your blood stream and toxic insincerity within your relationships.  It’s harmful to both you and others.  

You can’t simply paper over true distress with a smile.   

That’s because just as flourishing hinges on sincere positivity, it also hinges on sincere negativity.

A sailboat analogy fits here:  You can take the mast, which towers above the boat and holds the sail that catches the wind, to be positivity.  You can take the keel, which sits below the water line and can weigh tons, to be negativity.  If you sail, you know that even though the boat is powered by wind in its sails, you can’t sail without the keel. Without it, you’d slide aimlessly across the water, without any control whatsoever.

The key is to keep positivity and negativity in proper proportion.  Yet that proper proportion is not one-to-one. Giving them equal time won’t cut it. That’s because negativity screams at you, while positivity whispers.  

Evidence tells us that the proper proportion is at least 3-to-1.  For every single heart-wrenching negative emotion that drags you down, you need at least three heart-lifting positive emotions to buoy you up.   

But these three or more positive emotions – to truly open and nourish you – must be sincere and heartfelt. The state motto for our beloved North Carolina is a useful touchstone: To be, rather than to seem.  

Now, turning to something that truly applies to you right at this moment, as you sit here listening to your commencement address:

My second caution is that many external supports for your positivity are now being removed.

Knowing that positivity nourishes you, and has helped you grow into the healthy and successful person you are today, many of you are on the brink of a painful life lesson:

As you move on from Carolina into the next phase of your life, many sources of your day-to-day positivity simply won’t be there.

You are now more responsible than ever for nourishing yourself – for generating your own sources of genuine positivity.  

That’s because for much of your life so far, your parents and family, your childhood teachers and coaches – indeed, key players within your beloved Carolina community – have worked hard to create structural supports to foster your positivity.

Beyond giving you shelter, meals and clothing for instance, stoked positivity. At first this was simply through tickles and grins and later it was through your family’s own particular rituals, at mealtime, or on weekends or holidays.

When you arrived at Carolina, older students – your resident advisors especially – created ice-breaking and bonding experiences for you to relish in and enjoy.  

Likewise, your faculty gave you fascinating ideas to ponder and discuss.

You had pep rallies, great sports events to participate in and cheer on, and a slew of performing arts to amaze you. You even benefited from organized ways to express your hope and love in times of great sorrow.    

In short, you’ve benefited from a whole web of people, institutional practices, and rituals that have provided external triggers for much of the positivity that has nourished you and helped you grow into the successful people who we’re honoring today.

This external structure is about to be dismantled. You may not notice the effects right away.  Yet months from now, some of you may notice that somehow your life seems less sparkly, your days more life-draining than life-giving.  

It’s like learning to cook for yourself.  For decades your parents cooked for you.  When you came to Carolina, for many of you, the dining halls took over that job.

How long will it take you before you learn to put the right proportion of positive emotions onto your own plate?  Into your on daily diet?  For many who sat at commencements before you – and this may be true for your family and friends (ask them later today!) – it took years, even decades, before they learned this vital life lesson: That in the “real world” you are responsible for feeding yourself your own sources of positivity.  

It easily took me 15 years before I truly got it, before I realized that in addition to working hard and tending to my family, I needed to plan my day and my week around opportunities to feel good. Fifteen years is a long time!  I even had the benefit of seeing the facts about positive emotions stack up on my desk!  My wish for you is that it doesn’t take you this long.

We know now that if you truly embrace this life lesson – and learn to generate your own sources of positivity each day – you’re far more likely to flourish. We also know that acting on this life lesson matters all the more once you leave this structured university setting.

With these two facts and two cautions out of the way, let me get back to how I’d tweak the lyrics of Bobby McFerrin’s famous song, to leave you with a science-backed motto by which you can live well.

This better motto is hidden in plain view on Franklin Street:  Be open!

Far better than making your motto “Be Happy” – which backfires – is to lightly take on the mindset of positivity, which is to be open, expansive and accepting.      

The beauty of this motto is that it reminds us to accept what the present moment offers.  Face it, most of the things that worry you involve mental time travel – something that happened in your past or may or may not happen in your future. But, oh, the present!  More often than not, the present is a gift! A gift that – if you open to it – can trigger sincere, heartfelt positivity.  

The catch is that these gifts are so subtle that you can be completely blind to them if you’re caught up in worry. Worry makes you miss out on the subtle sources of beauty, intrigue, comfort and kindness right here and right now that can light your path toward flourishing.

Consider, for instance, this pivotal Carolina moment that we are enjoying here right now.  Many of you have your family, friends, faculty – even your coaches and mentors – here to witness this threshold moment in your life. Or maybe some of your important people aren’t here physically, but you nonetheless hold them in your heart.  My hope is that you might now see these cherished people in a new light.  Each has given you life, not just in the most obvious ways, but in the more subtle ways that nourish you each time their presence melts your face into a smile.

So now’s the time to let these people know how much you appreciate all their support.

So stand up, right now, find your people in the stands – and let your thanks be known!

Next time you find yourself humming this tune, don’t forget the evidence-based rewrite:  

“Don’t Worry, Be Open!”

Thank you! Congratulations!