My research with Marcel Losada has actually been closing in on an answer to this question. We’ve concluded that a ratio of at least three-to-one—three positive emotions for every negative emotion—serves as a tipping point, which will help determine whether you languish in life, barely holding on, or flourish, living a life ripe with possibility, remarkably resilient to hard times.
Without going into all the math behind this ratio, I want to stress that this isn’t an arbitrary number. It emerges from a wide ranging analysis we conducted, including analysis of flourishing business teams that we then tested in flourishing individuals and compared to family researcher John Gottman’s work on flourishing marriages. In each case, we found that positivity ratios above three-to-one are associated with doing extraordinary well.
Ratios of about two-to-one are what most of us experience on a daily basis; people who suffer from depression and other emotional disorders are down near one-to-one or lower.
It’s important to note that the ratio is not three-to-zero. This is not about eliminating all negative emotions. Part of this prescription is the idea that negative emotions are actually necessary.
I actually think a sailboat metaphor is appropriate here. Rising from the sailboat is the enormous mast, which allows the sail to catch the wind and give the boat momentum. But below the waterline is the keel, which can weigh tons.
You can see the mast as positivity and the keel down below as negativity. If you sail, you know that even though it’s the mast that holds the sail, you can’t sail without the keel; the boat would just drift around or tip over. The negativity, the keel, is what allows the boat to stay on course and manageable.
When I once shared this metaphor with an audience, a gentleman said, “You know, when the keel matters most is when you’re sailing upwind, when you’re facing difficulty.” Experiencing and expressing negative emotions is really part of the process for flourishing, even—or especially—during hard times, as they help us stay in touch with the reality of the difficulties we’re facing.
So this idea of the ratio points out where we should be. But how do we get there? What are the best ways to foster positive emotions and achieve this ratio?
Here’s my advice: If you make your motto, “Be positive,” that will actually backfire. It leads to a toxic insincerity that’s shown to be corrosive to our own bodies, to our own cardiovascular system. It’s toxic for our relationships with other people. I think we all know that person who’s trying to pump too much sunshine into our lives.
I think that’s the biggest danger of positive psychology: that people come out of it with this zeal to be positive in a way that’s not genuine and heartfelt.
But there’s a Sufi proverb: There wouldn’t be such a thing as counterfeit gold if there were no real gold somewhere. So how can we tap into those genuine, heartfelt positive emotions without grasping for the counterfeit gold?
One of the things that I think is very useful is to keep in mind that there’s reciprocal relationship between the mindset of positivity and positive emotions—a mindset of positivity begets positive emotions, and positive emotions beget positivity. So if we lightly create the mindset of positivity, from that positive emotions will follow.
How to foster that mindset? It helps to be open, be appreciative, be curious, be kind, and above all, be real and sincere. From these strategies spring positive emotions.
Now some of these are pretty self-explanatory, but I do want to explain what “be open” means as a way to increase your positive emotions. The reason that this works is that so often we can be preoccupied worrying about the future, ruminating about the past so we’re completely oblivious to the goodness that surrounds us in the present moment.
But when we’re really open to our current circumstances, those sources of goodness are so much easier to draw from, and they yield positive emotions.
Another thing, I think, that can be really useful is to step on the positivity scale frequently and track your positivity ratio. When I published my book, I created a free website that allows people to figure out their positivity ratio for a given day. It takes two minutes.
It’s kind of surprising and humbling to realize that, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us aren’t above this three-to-one ratio on a daily basis.
I think knowing one day’s positivity ratio may not be too informative. But if you take this short measure at the end of every day for two weeks, you could probably get a sense of what your life is like right now. Then continue to use it as you continue to make changes in your life, as you introduce more opportunities to be grateful, or start a meditation practice, or start volunteering and giving more frequently, and then track your positivity ratio and see if it changes—see how those steps make a difference in your life.
Just as a nutritionist will ask people to keep track of their physical activity and their caloric intake as a way to meet their health and fitness goals, this is a way to keep track of your daily emotional diet so you can meet your well-being goals.
I want to close with a famous Native American story. It goes like this: One evening, an old Cherokee tells his grandson that inside all people, a battle goes on between two wolves. One wolf is negativity: anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame, and hate. The other is positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love.
The grandson thinks about this for a minute, then asks his grandfather, “Well, which wolf wins?”
The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”
I hope you enjoyed these refreshing thoughts from Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., She is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is also the author of Positivity and Love 2.0.