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The Little Things: Love in the Consulting Room

By Ryan Howes

Catharses, unforgettable mo­ments of revelation, powerful expressions of deep emotion, breakthroughs, overwhelming joy—these kinds of supercharged experiences are often prized in the therapy world as landmarks on a client’s path to change. But in the increasingly influential world of positive psychology, researchers have begun to wonder whether all that fascination with drama and intensity is obscuring a mundane truth about what really matters in human relationships: the importance of the little things in daily life.

University of North Carolina psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson, in her books Positivity and Love 2.0, focuses on the small, casual, fleeting moments of positive connection in life as the key to resilience and health, rather than grand, intense, deeply passionate experiences. She argues that a notion of love defined by romance, profound intimacy, and marriage limits our understanding of the daily chain reactions of small moments of meeting with others that are essential to mental health. Rather than the capital-L version of love that we’ve been taught is basic to human happiness, the kind that really makes a difference for each of us may be better thought of as a renewable resource, like food and air, which the body takes in, depletes, and constantly needs to replenish.

This new, biologically informed understanding of love and positivity challenges our notions of what the goals of psychotherapy might be and encourages us to demystify our ideas about the role of intimacy, connection, and resilience in our lives. Fredrickson, who will be a keynote speaker at this spring’s Networker Symposium, took time to discuss how her research highlights the micro­moments of positivity that profoundly shape our lives, relationships, and the therapeutic alliance itself in ways that too often go overlooked.

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RH: What led you to research positivity and love?

Fredrickson: I started studying emotions 25 years ago, when the majority of our field was focused on negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and depression. Even disgust had its own band of investigators. Very few people were studying positive emotions—or even mentioning them. But how could we explain why humans evolved to have emotions if we didn’t understand the positive ones? Some of the early theories proposed that while negative emotions are about survival, positive emotions were limited to a focus on reproduction, as if all of our positive emotions revolved around mating or mate selection—which they don’t.

RH: If that were the case, we’d have no joy beyond reproduction.

Fredrickson: Exactly. So I reasoned that positive emotions have to play a major role in our ability to survive and did some early tests on how positive emotions help people bounce back from adversity. What became more and more apparent was the role of positivity in expanding our awareness and broadening our thinking.

RH: Why was psychology so traditionally focused on the negative?

Fredrickson: From the beginning, I think, the field has tried to establish its relevance by treating diseases, illnesses, and disorders. When you focus on treating what’s wrong with people, you find that negative emotions that are ill-fitting to the context or that just last too long are often the source of a lot of mental health issues. But this overlooks how positive emotions can be an antidote to what harms us with negative emotions. I’ve devoted a good part of my research to understanding how the upward spirals of positive emotions counter the downward spirals of negative emotions that lead to many mental health issues. Positive emotions are crucial to helping people gain perspective and stepping back to see the bigger picture.

RH: As a therapist, I also try to help people see the big picture to feel better, but you’re focusing on how people who feel better tend to see the big picture. Is there a chicken-and-egg phenomenon going on here?

Fredrickson: Of course, it’s not really one or the other: it’s “both-and.” That bidirectionality of
reciprocal causality is required to create these upward spirals. So the more you have a positive emotion, the broader your outlook. The broader your outlook, the more positive emotion you feel, and it builds upon itself. It’s a cycle, and you can enter it in multiple ways.

RH: When some of my clients start to feel good, they begin to wonder when the hammer will drop. In these instances, you suggest finding another positive to keep the upward spiral going, right?

Fredrickson: It can be reassuring to learn that good and bad events in life aren’t equally distributed. Studies show that good events outnumber bad events by three or four or five to one. It’s just that the good events are typically subtler than the bad ones, or we let them be. Positive events are less pronounced, like “I don’t have any pain today,” or “everyone was so polite when I went to the post office.” They’re not necessarily out of the ordinary. There’s great opportunity to experience positive emotions if you choose to. That’s a place where people leave a lot of the opportunities for positivity on the table by not having an open enough attitude or mindset to absorb the benefits.

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