Positivity and Expanding TruthJune 8, 2011 12 Comments
“Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.”
I’ve spent a few blog posts over the last year or so looking at how the research around positive emotions and outlooks connects with more effective collaboration and change work (see “Accentuate the Positivity”: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Just a couple of weeks ago, inspired by Erik Gregory’s LeaderLens presentation, I considered the connection between positive leadership and sustainability, looking at the way in which the creation of positive environments might lead to greater adaptive capacity. Having recently explored more of the research of psychologist Barbara Frederickson, I see a greater case to be made for maintaining positive outlooks, individually and collectively, as they increase our ability to engage in creatively adaptive and regenerative work at deeper systemic levels.
Frederickson has carried out years of research, trying to understand the value of positive emotions. Up until her contributions, much of the scientific work around emotion had apparently privileged negative emotions. It was easier to understand how fear and anxiety aided human survival in the moment (“There’s a saber tooth tiger – run!”). In comparison, positive emotions came across as pleasant window-dressing. Then Frederickson developed her theory about how positive emotions (joy, serenity, interest, pride, awe, hope, gratitude, inspiration, amusement, and love) broaden and build human resourcefulness. Over time, she has come to see that positive outlooks open our hearts and minds, stimulating curiosity about and engagement with the world. Relatively speaking, negative and even neutral outlooks constrain our experiences and knowledge. The long-term implications are that we stand to learn more that might serve us in the future when we experience a higher ratio of positive to negative emotions. The tipping point, in Frederickson’s work, is a 3:1 ratio (note that negativity and neutrality are still necessary and useful, otherwise we are talking polyanna and being farsighted). From here there is a greater likelihood of flourishing in terms of building new skills, ties, knowledge, and ways of being.
I’ve been mulling this over in the context of systems thinking and change work. From a systems thinking point of view, we can look at the world with an event, pattern, or structural orientation. Focusing on events means responding to things as they arise, putting out fires when they happen. With a pattern focus, we look for connections between events, considering trends over time, and anticipating how these might impact the future. A structural outlook takes this to a deeper level and asks, “Why do these patterns exist?” What beliefs, policies, cultural elements, institutional arrangements, etc., contribute to said pattern? At this level of inquiry, there is greater leverage to be found in the deeper roots underlying single events or emerging trends. People most often operate from an event orientation, perhaps owing to our strong survival (fight or flight) instincts. What enables us to think from more from a pattern or structural level? In part, getting away from a pure urgency and “in-the-moment” mindset. Could positivity be a key to opening broader and deeper systemic inquiry? Are certain advocacy/activist mindsets ultimately limiting? Could a positive outlook be a moral obligation? Is it an evolutionary imperative?