Positivity Scholar Speaks at December Commencement

Barbara Fredrickson.

Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Fredrickson, an internationally acclaimed psychology professor who directs UNC’s Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, addressed Carolina’s newest alumni at UNC’s December Commencement. Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 presided at the Dec. 18 ceremony at 2 p.m. in the Dean E. Smith Center on Bowles Drive.

Fredrickson encouraged the new graduates, saying, “Don’t worry. Be open.” Her remarks, including a video of the event, are available online.

In the days leading up to graduation, 2,279 students had applied to graduate. Administrators anticipated awarding 1,049 bachelor’s, 921 master’s, 298 doctoral and 11 professional degrees. The latter are from the schools of dentistry, law, medicine, nursing and pharmacy.

Fredrickson, who is a Kenan Distinguished Professor of psychology, studies positive emotions, human wellbeing and how positive emotions affect people’s thinking patterns, social behavior and physiological reactions. Her goal is to understand how positive emotions might accumulate and compound to transform people’s lives for the better.

“Professor Fredrickson’s research has generated an enormous amount of interest in the fascinating topic of how positive emotions foster open-mindedness and creativity,” Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 said. “It’s very important for our newest graduates to hear from scholars like Professor Frederickson. I look forward to her remarks and am delighted she accepted the invitation to speak.”

Fredrickson’s research and teaching have been recognized with honors, including the 2000 American Psychological Association’s Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology. The National Institute of Mental Health has consistently funded her research. She also directs the social psychology doctoral program and is an adjunct management professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Her 2009 book, Positivity, cites tools for creating a healthier, more vibrant and flourishing life. “She discovered that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine,” says the book’s website.

UNC’s research magazine, Endeavors, wrote in 2008, “For 20 years, Fredrickson has been asking the question, ‘What good are positive emotions?’ Her work is illuminating the pathways by which positive emotions lead to a wide range of life outcomes such as health and satisfaction.”

“I hope to convey to our graduates that beyond all the direct knowledge they gained here at Carolina — the math, the social and natural sciences, the arts and humanities, the professional skills — they’ll also carry forward with them many indirect lessons,” Fredrickson said.

While at Carolina, Fredrickson said, students grow through the curiosity and enthusiasm shared in classrooms, the pride shared in arts venues and sports arenas, and the comfort they give each other during trying times. The experiences make them more resilient, resourceful, caring and compassionate, she said.

“Continuing to develop these skills — for truly connecting with others, with the warmth of good cheer and goodwill — is vital for continued health, happiness and success in the exciting and challenging decades to come.”

Thorp chose Fredrickson in consultation with the University’s Commencement Speaker Selection Committee, made up of an equal number of students and faculty. The selection continues Carolina’s tradition of faculty speakers at December Commencement.

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