I’ve read a couple books in the last few months that are basically self-help books, each with their own very different audience and with very different tones. One I read for myself, and one I read for work. You can probably guess which one I liked best.
The first is Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity, which I decided to pick up after a friend sent me a copy of an interview she’d done for Sun magazine. The interview had so many interesting bits of information of the sort I found myself immediately wanting to share with others, so I thought taking a look at the book would be worthwhile, and it was. Fredrickson is a psychology researcher and professor, and the book is part of the positive psychology movement of recent decades.
The term “positivity” is a better one than happiness, since it contains within it a whole list of positive emotions, including joy, love, curiosity, contentment, gratitude, amusement, hope, inspiration, wonder, and pride. Fredrickson has done lots of studies on the effects of these positive emotions on people, and what makes this book so interesting to me is that the science behind it seems sound (or at least she does a good job presenting it convincingly in the book). The basic argument is that if we think of the number of our positive and negative emotional experiences as a ratio, if we are able to get that ratio up to 3-to-1, meaning we have three positive emotional experiences for every negative one, then that’s a tipping point that can fundamentally change our experience of life. Once we reach that point, we become more open to life, more curious, more imaginative, and more resilient.
By nature I’m uncomfortable with this kind of schematic argument — it seems too simple — but I don’t have any reason to mistrust the research that’s behind it, and there’s much in the book that does ring true to me. Fredrickson describes what life is like for people with low positivity ratios, which includes most of us, and that picture sounded familiar — one of just getting by, of the kind of low-level dissatisfaction many people feel. The key to thriving, she argues, is to make a conscious effort to create positive emotions and to fully experience the ones we already have. A major part of the book is devoted to describing ways of doing this, and her recommendations (which she backs up with descriptions of studies she has done) often fit with things I’ve learned from yoga classes and books about spirituality. Her recommendations include things like making a conscious effort to savor the positive things that happen to us, to practice insight meditation or lovingkindness meditation in order to open the mind and heart, to find distractions that will get us out of negative ways of thinking, and lots of others.
The book is typical of its sort by being way too repetitive and not terribly well-written, but still, I’m glad I read it. The book is part of a series of books I’ve read recently that are loosely about spirituality, psychology, and self-help (including Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart and Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga). What’s been interesting to me about reading these books is the cumulative effect of reading them one after another, which has felt almost as important as what the books themselves say. They aren’t all saying the same things, of course, but there are connections among all of them and some of their arguments overlap. I’ve read them slowly, too, which means that I spent weeks or months looking into them now and then and contemplating their ideas. So I feel like I’m slowly absorbing some of the ideas and am able to make them a part of my life. It’s a process that I’ve enjoyed and benefited from.
The other book, the business/self-help book I read recently for work? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.