My son Dylan turned one year old this week. The past year of watching this little peanut develop into a tiny human being has been an incredible, wonderful amazing adventure. I joked when he was born that I was beginning a lifelong experiment in positive psychology as I would be trying to apply as much knowledge as I can in helping him to live the good life.
But I underestimated how much I would learn by observing this little man finding his way in the world. It has been an emotional rollercoaster and observing how those emotions take hold in the earliest days of human existence, makes me realize a lot of simple truths about humanity. Here are 5 lessons in psychology that you can learn from a baby.
1. Bad is stronger than good. Psychology has discovered an inherent “negativity bias” that we all seem to have. We tend to react more often and more strongly to the bad things that happen than we do to the good. In a small child, we can see how even when they are happily playing or cuddling with a parent, a wet diaper, a hunger pang or a loud noise can send them into tears. Once they start crying it is not so easy to tip them back towards happiness. Even their favorite toy is not always enough to bring a smile back to their face. They may be upset until the source of their discomfort has been eliminated. Our bias towards negativity seems to start from day one.
2. Suffering is a part of life. Most people seem to think that any unhappiness they feel is a result of decisions they made along the way in life. If they had done something differently, achieved something greater, or found some other circumstance, then they would be happy. But spending time with a young baby, you realize, moments of extreme unhappiness start way before you are old enough to start screwing up your life.
Babies come into the world crying–their way to communicate their discomfort and ensure that more capable grown-ups come to their aid. Watching my baby burst into occasional fits of sobbing at the slightest provocation makes me realize that pain, sadness and misery are a part of life, and an important part of how we communicate with (and summon support from) those around us.
3. Emotion is not unidimensional. If my infant son was crying in his first several months, I would try and swing him in the air, which is usually always sure to get him laughing and smiling. But sometimes he would seem to be laughing and crying simultaneously! He still feels the distress of a wet diaper, but he also really loves to be swung around, and the strong emotions, both positive and negative, seem to fight a small war for control of his facial expressions.
While there are debates about the relationship between positive and negative affect, psychology has shown us that positive and negative affect do not live on the same continuum. While the relationship may not be orthogonal, there is an independence between the two which is counterintuitive (i.e. most people think being more happy and being less sad would be have a much higher correlation than they actually do. This independence leads us to seemingly paradoxical research findings, such as the fact that women experience more negative emotions than men . . . but also more positive emotions.) Research on infant emotions shows this same independence.
4. Both positive and negative emotions are important for human flourishing. Barbara Fredrickson, a researcher from University of North Carolina, described a 3:1 positive to negative ratio as optimum for human flourishing. I’m skeptical that you can identify an exact optimal ratio that can apply to all humans, but the point of her research is valid: flourishing requires more positive emotions than negative—but both are important.
Although I haven’t seen research on a “positivity ratio” for infants, I would guess that it is quite different. When a baby is first born, they appear to experience mostly negative emotions. They are hungry, tired, scared, sad. They need help and they need those negative emotions to communicate those needs to their caregivers. As they grow older, they begin to discover positive emotional expression, showing smiles and eventually laughter. In support of Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions, the smiles seem to coincide with the awareness and exploration of the world around them. Negative emotions protect us from harm. Positive emotions help us to learn and grow.
5. People are fundamentally good. One thing that has amazed me is how Dylan seems to want to share with others at such a young age. He constantly reaches out with his food or his toy and seems generally interested in sharing his enjoyment with others. It is amazing to see this sign of “goodness” at such a young age.
In this wonderful video on morality by Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, he shares some of the research he has done showing that children as young as 3 months old seem to be able to tell the difference between good and bad and seem to want to reward good and punish bad. At a very young age, babies begin showing signs of empathy and wanting to soothe others in distress. As Dacher Keltner (a guest blogger on Psychology of Wellbeing) says, we are literally “Born to be Good.”
There’s a lot to be learned from watching how babies think and emote (see the “baby lab” at Yale for some research.) I’ve learned a lot in the past year, and we haven’t even gotten to the “terrible twos” yet. If you’re interested in learning about psychology, you have several options: 1. you can attend an expensive university, 2. you can read my blog 🙂 or 3. you can come babysit Dylan (maybe this Saturday night?) You’d be surprised at what he might teach you.
References and recommended reading:
Bloom, P. (2005). Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. Basic Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. Crown Archetype.
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton and Company. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life