SASSC The Expert Interview
November 1, 2016

Today’s Expert
Barbara Fredrickson
UNC – Chapel Hill

Interviewed by
Marcela Otero
University of California,

First off, I wanted to thank you so much for taking the time to do this! It really means a lot to us students who want to hear from successful academics not only what they think it takes to be successful in the field, but also what their perspective and experiences have been over the years. To start, could you tell us a bit about your research and the current focus of your work?

Well I’ve been studying positive emotions for much of my career, almost all of it, and today I have two main offshoots of the Broaden and Build Theory that I’m working on. One is what I call the upward spiral theory of lifestyle change- it’s kind of how to use what we know from affective science, both from Broaden and Build and from Kent Berridge’s work on liking and wanting and also bringing in automatic cognition, to explain a finding that’s out there which is that people are more likely to stick with health behaviors, positive health behaviors, like regular exercise and eating right or mediation to the extent that they experience enjoyment in those activities.

And where I think this is important is where a lot of times we think of positive health behaviors as, you know, we just have to do it. It’s just will power- ‘no pain no gain’. But in terms of long-term maintenance, which is where the only health benefit comes from, I’m interested in seeing what gets set into motion once people enjoy something. So we’re looking at how (enjoying something) sets up non-conscious processes that drive motivation, and also the extent to which positive emotions are involved. We know that positive emotions build resources and that some of these resources, not all of them but some, actually amplify the positive emotions you get out of a behavior. A real clear cut example that makes sense to most people who haven’t thought about that in this way is your aerobic capacity for physical fitness- the more you are active, the more your aerobic capacity improves, and the more that improves, the more you enjoy being active, so it builds on each other. We also find that other things function in the same way like the more people enjoy things, the more they start prioritizing positivity. That’s an individual difference that we’ve measured and the more people prioritize positivity, the more positive emotion they get out of the same activity, so it’s an upward spiral that’s not just about maintaining the same level of affective reward with an activity, but also a way to explain how those affective rewards increase over time which then really kind of knits people to their health behaviors. So that’s one area, the upward spiral of lifestyle change theory.

And then the second one is one I’m really excited about this year because I’m working on it during my sabbatical. It’s “positivity resonance” which is an idea that, you know, I used to think all positive emotions were all kind of the same in terms of they all have the capacity to broaden and build, but I’m beginning to see from the data, in my own lab and elsewhere from other people’s data, that shared experiences of positive emotions may have a greater capacity to build resources, and maybe particularly in physical health. And so what I’m trying to do now is find more and better ways of measuring shared positivity. We’ve got self-report measures that people can reflect on when they come out of an interaction to say a bit about how they felt but, really, I think it’s a dyadic phenomena, so I’m trying to look at it within the dyad. And I have this nice opportunity to visit Bob Levenson’s lab and look at some really rich archival data with a great team of scholars, a dream team of graduate students.

I’m wondering, when you started in the field of affective science was positive emotion something people were paying attention to?

Not at all, not at all. I mean there was a tiny bit of research on positive emotions but, well no, it was on positive mood. But at that time, and to some extent today, the science on emotion and the science on mood were totally different areas. I mean some of the people involved in the mood and cognition work, from the start admitted to me that well they weren’t really interested in mood, they were looking for something the would push around cognition. They were cognitive psychologists looking for something that would change people’s cognitive approaches. And so mood seemed to do that and became a favorite independent variable. But the emphasis of that work wasn’t to understand mood it was to understand cognition. In the mood and cognition literature, there was Alice Isen who had done tons of work on how positive mood affected generosity, creative thinking and so on, but in the emotions literature there was very little. There was some work on love coming out of kind of a more relationship science approach and a little bit on how people thought about different emotions, like in prototype theories of love and things like that, but really looking at the properties of positive emotions- not much. And, actually, when I started as a post-doc in Bob Levenson’s lab he had one line in a chapter that really caught my eye about positive emotion and it was, perhaps we’re not seeing an autonomic signature of positive emotions because their effect might be to undo. So that got me started.In my dissertation, positive emotions turned out to be really consequential on how people thought, like the emotions you feel at the ending of something matter the most, especially the positive one, so I was already getting some evidence that positive emotions had some intriguing properties and then Bob and I studied the undo effect, and I continued on with that after I left.

I think what drew me to it the most was that it was new frontier. You know, I had already done some of my work in graduate school in totally new frontier areas, and some of them just like hit a wall and didn’t go anywhere because nobody else is interested in it yet. There might be a reason for that, or it just makes it extra hard to convince people that the soil isn’t tilled already, so with the positive emotions work eventually there was interest in it but it took me 6 years to get my first paper published in this area because again, the soil wasn’t tilled. You know, there wasn’t a clear, “Oh yea, we’re interested in this!” or “Here’s another study on this topic!” There was a lot of skepticism and it felt like the bar was set higher, maybe it wasn’t maybe it just took me a while to write it the proper way, but this work kicked around for a long time.

Yes, and then it took off! That’s encouraging because as a graduate student, I often find that it can seem risky to go into those untilled areas and really put yourself at a place where, you’re already at the low end of the totem pole and now you put yourself even lower because, as you said, the area hasn’t even been developed yet. What was your experience doing this with the study of positive emotion?

Well, I never thought strategically about it. I have been a big fan of just pursuing your interests and for me what made something interesting was that we didn’t know much about it, and that continues to get me excited about doing science, it’s like “this is what the tools of science are for!” And so, that did create some problems in terms of the ease of publication or even just having colleagues to talk to about the work, but I think just the sheer fascination for me came from it being a big intellectual puzzle that was really fun for me to try to solve. And, yea, I survived (laughs). But it wasn’t necessarily easy and there was a lot of nail biting.

Nail biting because of the uncertainty about how things would go?

Well, uncertainty, you know, I had a very unusual trajectory as a junior person before tenure because I had three different research areas by the time I was coming up for tenure but none of them were “deep”, you know? Well, they each had some theoretical depth but they didn’t have deep publications, so that posed a challenge. I had to find a creative way to, and I got a lot of advice from senior faculty about how to, frame things so they seemed more coherent.

So senior faculty helped you frame your program of research?

Yes, and how to communicate the connections between them. I guess that’s sort of a perspective on how to grow your career, which is that you’re never done! I mean you get your PhD and you’re just at the beginning, and one thing that’s really important to recognize from the start is that you’re always going to need mentors, you’re always going to need people who are one, two, three, six steps ahead of you to help you figure out how to pitch your work. I mean it’s not necessarily how to do your work, but how to frame it, how to handle professional issues. You know, I still have my group of what I call and consider my “wise ones”. People that, when I’m facing a professional issue, I don’t go it alone, and it took me awhile to learn that because I think my own tendency would have been to go at it alone. But at every turn it’s always been beneficial for me to get over that hump and ask, you know, “How would you deal with this?”

And what advice did you get as a graduate student that stood out to you at the time, or has helped you out along the way?

Well, I got a lot of encouragement to follow my interests, which I think was really part of the ethos at the Stanford graduate program. I mean still, but certainly at the time (we were encouraged to) think big thoughts, go figure something out. It wasn’t assumed that you would do your mentor’s research and I think that allowed me to bring creativity to the table. I mean, to some extent I did do aspects of my mentors’ research with Laura Carstensen and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, but there was always an emphasis on trying to bring your own signature to it and that helped pave the way for continuing to develop your unique approach, your unique aspect of this, even though your doing your work within a domain.

Something that comes up for students is the idea of how much they should be focusing on empirical studies or developing their own theories, which I’m not sure at the grad student level people can do without first doing the empirical work. But what do you think should be the split?

You know, I think focusing on the empirical work but trying to make it programmatic, you know, one study builds off the other. And the theoretical aspects of it will reveal themselves to you along the way, I don’t think there’s much expectation that coming out of graduate school you should have your own theory. That I think is a pretty high bar. You know, we like to see lead author papers, we like to see that you really drive some scientific projects, but I remember when I was a graduate student, again I worked with Susan Nolen-Hoeksema who had response styles theory and Laura Carstensen, who while I was working with her developed socioemotional selectivity theory, so I saw her put all the building blocks together there. Well, I knew she was working on these building blocks and one day I read this miraculous paper of hers that had put it all together and I said, “Wow, that’s really neat!” and it was a really nice integration of her work. And then I remember leaving graduate school thinking, “I’ll never be Susan, I’ll never be Laura!” I don’t have a theory. I just started off my career thinking “I’m really behind”. You know, Susan was brilliant and she came in and had her theory in graduate school, so she’s just uniquely brilliant, you know, she started her job at Stanford as a 24 year-old or something? I mean she was super young and so it really daunted all of us graduate students (laughs), but she was a great, great person and mentor, I miss her a lot. So yea, I don’t think you should expect to have that more than at the glimmer stages, do you know what I mean? Like here’s a direction. I mean, it’d be great if you had your domain, where you know you’re working, and then you have some findings and some phenomena. And then, as you build out that research program, the theoretical perspectives can come.

Well, thank you so much for your time and answers. I think I can speak on behalf of a lot of graduate students when I say it has been helpful and encouraging to hear your perspective on being an academic and a graduate student!

Of course, you’re welcome. I’m glad I was able to help build a bridge between the generations!