“Positive emotions change the way our minds and our bodies work—change the very nature of who we are, down to our cells—transforming our outlook on life and our ability to confront challenges.” ~ Barbara Fredrickson
Do you know your positivity ratio? That’s the ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions you experience over time. Research shows that people who experience at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions are more likely to flourish.
The Positivity Tipping Point
Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada note that a positivity ratio of about 3 to 1 (three positive emotions for each negative) is a tipping point. Above that point, people begin to flourish. Below, people languish.
A ratio of 3 to 1 includes negative emotions as well as positive. It doesn’t require going through life with a perma-grin. Negative emotions are a part of life; it would be self-deception to pretend otherwise.
Positive emotions have been linked to improved immune function, lower risk of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. In one study, healthy Canadians who scored high in positive emotion had significantly less incidence of coronary heart disease over a 10 year period.
The 3 to 1 ratio applies for organizations as well as individuals. Losada and Heaphy measured the number of positive comments (e.g. “that’s a good idea”) and negative comments (e.g. “that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard”) made during management team meetings for over 60 strategic business units (SBUs) at a high tech company. They found that SBUs with a positivity ratio of more than 3 to 1 performed better in terms of profitability, customer satisfaction and 360 degree assessments of leadership ability.
With intimate partners, the ratio is even higher—at 5 to 1. John Gottman found that married couples who did not have at least five positive interactions for each negative were in trouble.
How to Cultivate the Positive
“Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” according to Rick Hanson. A long memory for difficult, painful situations helped our ancestors survive.
So, given that negative experiences stick, what can we do to cultivate and reinforce positive experiences?
Barbara Fredrickson mentions five qualities of mind that prime the pump for positive experiences:
- Be open (to the moment)
- Be appreciative (of the good)
- Be curious (about the world)
- Be kind (to yourself and others)
- Be real (about how you feel)
Here’s a simple exercise by Martin Seligman to develop a positive mindset.
Every night for a week before going to sleep, write down three things that went well during the day. For each, also answer the question “why did this happen?”
What went well today? ____________________________________
Why did this happen? _____________________________________
Research shows you are likely to be happier (and addicted to this exercise) six months from now!
Take the Positivity Test
Calculate your positivity ratio in 2 minutes here.
Repeat the short test every day for a week to get an overview of how much positivity is in your life right now.
What’s important is not how you feel at any one moment, but how your positivity changes over time. As you make changes in your life based on the practices outlined above (openness, gratitude, curiosity, kindness, authenticity) revisit the test to look for differences.
The stakes are high. Cultivating the positive is good for your health, your relationships, and your performance at work.
Barbara Fredrickson on positivity: