The Positivity Ratio

boatWhen it comes to attitudes towards life, human beings fall anywhere on a wide spectrum. Some of us generally take a ‘glass half full’ and some a ‘glass half empty’ approach to life’s experiences. Other folk are anywhere in between the two, and a few people fail to see anything in the glass at all!

Where do you usually stand in this continuum?

As you ponder that question, you may also like to reflect on the fact that a body of research over several years now is showing that for success in life and work, a prevalence of positive emotions is a key factor.

For example, research by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues has shown that positive emotions are important for our professional success as well as our health and well-being – and they also change the way our brains work.

Her article from the American Scientist in 2003: The Value of Positive Emotions makes for interesting reading. You can also visit Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory to find more details.

Her research indicates that a ratio of 3:1 is an important factor – in other words a ratio of three or more positive emotions to one negative emotion “will help determine your odds of languishing or flourishing”.

Good news for the ‘glass half full folk’ perhaps – and not so good for those at the other end of the spectrum. And let’s face it, even for those of us who predominantly have a positive approach to life, we can never carve ourselves a permanent spot at the ‘glass half full’ end. Why not? Life happens! We all have days, weeks – even months or years – when life throws us events or experiences that make it challenging if not impossible to maintain a positive attitude.

However even in the face of those horribly disrupting and disheartening events, there are ways in which we can help ourselves to ‘flourish’ rather than ‘languish’.

Here are just a few tips:

  • Fostering a supportive network of people around you who care about you and who can provide support in times you need it – and this means giving the necessary time and effort to building those relationships.
  • A practice of mindfulness – paying attention, without judgement, to your experiences in the present moment. Mindfulness exercises can be helpful here.
  • Other reflective practices such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi – or running, swimming, walking etc. Anything that allows you the time and space for deep reflection and relaxation.
  • Don’t ‘be positive’ – if you make this your model, it backfires. A ‘hyper zeal’ to be positive that’s not genuine or heartfelt is not beneficial. Instead, be open, be appreciative, be curious, be kind and be real – in other words “create a mindset of positivity“. (Fredrickson’s words)

Rock balancing on another rockAnd a final very important word on the balance between positive and negative emotions. It’s NOT about staying in the positive all the time! As Fredrickson says, “negativity is necessary”, using the metaphor of a sailing boat. All the parts of the boat above the water, including the mast and tall sail, represent positive emotions. The part below the water, the keel, represents negative emotions.

And just as a boat can not sail without a keel, so we need our negative emotions to help us stay on course in life. Experiencing negative emotions is also important to flourishing – it’s the balance and ratio between positive and negative that matters!

As those of us who work with Appreciative Inquiry would say, it’s not just about positivity, It’s about generativity – the capacity to focus on the new possibilities, new ideas and our highest hopes in order to transcend the negative.

You may like to watch the video below from the Greater Good Science Center, in which Barbara Fredrickson explains this Positivity Ratio.

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