Barbara Fredrickson Talks Science, Emotions, and Her New Course

Barbara Fredrickson courseraBarbara Fredrickson, Ph.D, is a leading scholar in the fields of social psychology, affective science, and positive psychology. She recently released an online course, which teaches findings from positive psychology research, along with their practical applications.

We reached out to Fredrickson to learn more about her views on positive psychology. Many people are unaware that positive psychology is a science. What is positive psychology?

Barbara Fredrickson: Positive psychology is both a movement and a science. The movement involves absolutely anyone who is interested in evidence-based approaches to improving well-being, either for themselves or for their community. I invite you to join this movement!

The core of the positive psychology movement, however, is science. As we’ve all seen, advice about happiness abounds. Positive psychology’s emphasis on science is what can help you sort out which advice is based on sound evidence, and which is misguided or bound to be ill-fated. What are the benefits of learning about positive psychology?

Barbara Fredrickson: You know that saying ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’? That’s so true of positive psychology. Our latest research tells us that the pursuit of happiness is a delicate art. Certain approaches to seeking happiness are now known to backfire, whereas others are effective.

My positive psychology course on Coursera will help you discern what works and why. Studies show that people who put what they learn about positive psychology into practice become happier, more resilient, more satisfied with life. A common misunderstanding is that positive psychology is the same as positive thinking. What are the differences?

Barbara Fredrickson: Positive thinking is just one small part of positive psychology. Plus, as an approach to well-being, positive thinking only helps you to the extent that it yields one or more positive emotions. The problem with positive thinking is that it sometimes just stays up “in the head” and fails to drip down to become a fully embodied experience. How did you first become interested in positive psychology?

Barbara Fredrickson: I began studying human emotions more than twenty years ago. At that time, almost every scientist working in this area was studying one of the negative emotions, like fear, anger, anxiety, or depression. I wondered why no scientists cared to explain why we humans sometimes feel upbeat and pleasant. I liked the idea of charting new terrain. It’s been a fun intellectual puzzle. There’s so much to discover! What is your favorite topic of research within positive psychology?

Barbara Fredrickson: My all-time favorite topic in positive psychology is the study of positive emotions. I’m fascinated by how pleasant experiences, which can be so subtle and fleeting, can add up over time to change who we become. I’m especially excited these days about investigating how positive emotions change the very ways that our cells form and function to keep us healthy. Positive psychology is often talked about as if it’s somehow separate from traditional psychology. What’s your view on this?”

Barbara Fredrickson: Positive psychology is part and parcel of psychology. Being human includes both ups and downs, opportunities and challenges. Positive psychology devotes somewhat more attention to the ups and the opportunities, whereas traditional psychology — at least historically — has paid more attention to the downs.

In my view, however, there is no meaningful dividing line between the two. A full understanding of human nature requires an integrative view. What makes you smile inside and out?

Barbara Fredrickson: Taking delight in my family, my time in nature, and in the chance to do work that I find endlessly fascinating and rewarding. My smile grows even bigger when I think about how lucky I am to have such delights be part of my everyday life.

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About the Author

With his work in positive psychology, Seph Fontane Pennock has been able to help tens of thousands of practitioners and educators all around the world. Seph strongly believes that we can deal with most of life’s absurdities by leveraging human connection and challenging ourselves, instead of using dogma or pharmaceutical drugs.


  1. mark haverly

    The statement that Positive Psychology is a Movement:
    Our ability to tame the amygdala (and the HPA axis) results in a cascade of positive behavioral and emotional effects. That is the hedonic side; self-directed neuroplasticity. Taming the HPA axis also results in improved stress management and thereby promotes physiological benefits to immune and cardiovascular functioning. That is the eudaimonic side; also self-directed neuroplasticity.
    Happiness and Hardiness in one.

    Positive cognitive, emotional and behavioral pursuits (hedonic pursuits) also serve as adaptations that may usefully promote public health outcomes and environmental and economic stability (eudaimonic pursuits).
    We have learned that evolution will naturally select adaptations that best serve the survival of the species. Positive Psychology provides a scientific framework for sustainability.
    I believe that Positive Psychology is the best bet for our survival.

  2. JeanineJoy

    I would like to know, in light of the now overwhelming evidence from diverse fields of research that clearly demonstrate significant benefits to physical, mental, and behavioral health what is being done to educate the public about the benefits and the importance of developing these skills in themselves and for schools to teach them for at least a generation or two until they become normative.

    We have tools that work, but public perception is lagging and people continue to suffer unnecessarily because they just don’t have the facts.

  3. Manuela Berger

    Thank you Steph for sharing this great interview with us! I’m a big fan of Barbara Fredrickson and her work on positive emotions. Her work has been invaluable as I have been studying emotions, especially since there are much fewer resources on positive emotions than negative emotions. I am signed up to her coursera and can’t wait for it to begin!

    • Seph Fontane Pennock

      My pleasure Manuela! Let’s try to restore that balance together, shall we? This course will serve as another stepping stone towards a more well-rounded view on not only the study of emotions, but psychology as a whole. I’m sure that Barbara will reach a lot of people from all over the world who can make a change on their respective environments and practices and that is what truly matters. Cheers!

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