Book Review: “Positivity” by Barbara Frederickson


A coach-type recommended this to me as a building block of better work habits and personal progress.

I finished it feeling better than I did when I came to it (and was able to draw enough links between my feeling better and the content of the book), so I consider it time well-enough spent.

The big proposition here: Having at least three positive thoughts for every one negative thought is a tipping point at which your mental state goes from frustrated, malaise-ridden and inefficient to success-optimized for whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

Frederickson makes sure to state that having some negative thoughts is important, so as not to be lumped in with the “positive all the time” crowd (whose continued existence in today’s oh-so-cynical world I doubt at least a little).

Recently, the data–which another scientist gathered and analyzed–that led Frederickson to trumpet 3:1 as her golden ratio has come under heavy fire .

I say, who cares?

Yeah, yeah, science, numbers, rigor, accuracy, whatever. Lobby UNC-Chapel Hill for the revocation of her tenure if it makes you feel better (919-962-2211).

The fact is that the fuzzy math doesn’t make this book significantly less helpful to those of us who are weighed down by negativity.

Specific goals are good for the daily improvement of our habits, even if the “real” ratio for is 2:1 or 4:1 or 4.5:1.

I suppose the question hangs as to whether there is a magic tipping point *at all*, and if there isn’t, then the positivity rocket Frederickson is selling seats on is–ahem–challenged.

But I come to a book like this wanting to feel better, and for now, striving for 3:1 is making me feel better. Again, a specific goal glues everything together, even if it’s not the precisely “right” goal.

If the heavens don’t open up once I hit the ratio, I’m not going to feel cheated.

Now, there is the fact that in “Positivity”, Frederickson–whose writing is at times a little too chirpy and cheerful–loves to repeat how she’s a data-obsessed scientist, how empiricism and math are king, etc…

…Almost to imply “this is why you should trust me over those Pollyanna-ish laypeople spouting empty platitudes.”

So the big problems with her data are pretty funny seen in that light, but shouldn’t blow the house of cards down for someone coming to this book for help rather than academic enlightenment.

Another issue is that most of the techniques prescribed for increasing positivity are not terribly original: Meditating, deliberate kindness, avoiding depressing news and violent entertainment, and related tips that have been repeated for decades or longer.

Frederickson does promote (heavily) an original “Positivity Self Test” survey that we are encouraged to complete every day to track our progress and identify useful patterns of positivity and negativity.

Which is a good idea, but for those of us who habitually consume books and programs like this (the target market, I’d wager), our dockets of daily check-ins and journaling are already overflowing.

Parting shot: I generally dislike sub-titles on non-fiction books. I understand that a book needs to state its case before the would-be buyer puts it back on the shelf.

But “Top-Notch Research Reveals The 3 to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life” is one of the worst ones I’ve ever seen.

For shame, Random House. Hire a good copywriter to come up with your sub-title next time.