Clarification: Since this article originally was published in the Rotman Magazine, Barbara Fredrickson's mathematical Positivity Ratio that stipulated you need a three-to-one positive to negative emotions is being questioned in this article. Barbara Frederickson responded to her critics with this article.
This is an edited version of this article and is reprinted with permission from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
The renowned psychologist Barbara Fredrickson discusses the ‘positivity ratio’ and how it can transform your life.
Negative thoughts pervade the ‘self talk’ of many people. Why is this, and what are the implications?
We are actually shaped, by nature’s design, to have our attention drawn to negative things that might be signs of threat or danger – and we should be thankful for that, because that’s how our ancestors stayed alive. But as a result, we’re hard-wired with a negativity bias, and in a way, our culture exploits that. If someone wants to get your attention, all they have to do is show you something negative.
Our minds are so attuned to looking for the negative that we often ‘leave’ our present mental moment to find it: we worry about things that happened in the past, or become anxious about something negative that might happen in the future. All of this can be quite useful, in terms of helping people spot threats; but if you live in a fairly comfortable environment, where there are no present sources of danger looming, you are likely to get pulled into ‘mental time travel’ in order to find negativity on a regular basis.
On the flip side, how do you define positivity ?
Positivity encompasses all the ways of thinking that promote micro-moments of joy, serenity, gratitude and inspiration. As indicated, negativity can dominate our thinking, but positivity has its own way of dominating, because most moments that people experience are mildly positive. So, what negativity gets in intensity by ‘screaming the loudest,’ positivity makes up for in frequency, by populating more of our life moments.
Some people crumble in the face of hardship, while others bounce back. Why is this?
When my colleagues and I study people who bounce back, we find that one of their secret ingredients for resilience is an ability to self-generate positive emotions – even during the toughest times. It’s not that these people are Pollyannas who put their heads in the sand and ignore all the bad things around them; but they are able to hold the negative and the positive side by side. For example, if a natural disaster occurs, they will acknowledge the tragedy of it, but they’re still able to say, “Well at least I’m not in this alone,” and they take comfort from that. They might feel grateful for the support that they’re receiving from others, or think, “I could really learn something from this experience,” and use it as a source of inspiration. The key to being resilient is to not let all of your positive emotions go completely out the window when things go bad: acknowledge the negative emotions that are appropriate to the situation, but keep your eyes out for a silver lining, or at least, something that can be appreciated about the situation.
Describe your Broaden-and-Build Theory of positive emotions.
The first part, ‘broadening,’ has to do with the ways positive emotions actually change the way we think, as we’re experiencing them. They have a temporary, short-term effect, which is to actually expand our awareness; they literally ‘broaden’ our peripheral vision, helping us to see more, which enables us to connect the dots more effectively. The second part of the theory, the ‘build’ part, answers the question, “So what? Why does it matter if positive emotions broaden our awareness?” It matters because the fruits of broadened awareness can accumulate and compound, enabling us to build new traits and abilities and resources that help us become better versions of ourselves. So although the feeling state that goes with positive emotions is temporary, even mild positive emotions open up our awareness. And having those moments of openness is what it takes to come up with creative solutions, make new friendships, or learn something new. These moments of openness are what put us on a positive trajectory of growth.
You have also found that there is a ‘tipping point’ to positivity. Please explain what you call the ‘Positivity Ratio.’
What we’ve learned is that people who flourish in life – those who seem to be living at optimal levels and really thriving – have a higher ratio of positive-over-negative-emotions than the rest of us. We have come up with a mathematical model and empirical data that indicate a tipping point of about three-to-one in this ‘positivity ratio.’ That is, we need to experience at least three positive emotions to lift us up and buoy us for every one negative emotion that we experience that drags us down and narrows our thinking. The reason why it isn’t one-to-one is due to those asymmetries we talked of earlier – the fact that negative emotions ‘scream’ so much louder than positive ones, and yet positive emotions are much more frequent. If you want to move the needle from just ‘getting by’ to flourishing, increasing your ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions is key to doing that.
What is the first step for a leader who wants to bring more positivity to their organization?
There is amazing power in just focusing on what is good and right in the organization, and giving some space and time to that. Too often, we get so caught up in, “What’s the next problem to be solved? What’s the next worry on the horizon?” that we fail to give words and time to savouring the good stuff that we all want to be creating. When people are doing things right, call that out; or when you are facing a major challenge, think about rephrasing it. You might ask, “What is the positive outcome that we’re aiming to create here?” Virtually every challenge you face can be phrased in negative terms or positive terms, and as a leader, the way you cast it shapes how others see it. If you cast it in positive terms, you will create more space for dreaming big and instilling hope, rather than having people narrowly focus on a problem. Of course, there are times when you do need to narrowly focus; the key is to maintain a balance.
Barbara Fredrickson is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Positivity: The 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life (Three Rivers Press, 2012) and Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Hudson Street Press, 2013). She has twice been invited to share her findings with the Dalai Lama.
The Positivity Self-Test
How have you felt over the last 24 hours? Look back over the past day and using the 0-4 scale below, indicate the greatest amount that you’ve experienced each of the following feelings:
0 = not at all; 1 = a little bit; 2 = moderately; 3 = quite a bit; 4 = extremely
1. What is the most amused, fun-loving or silly you felt? ____
2. What is the most angry, irritated, or annoyed you felt? ____
3. What is the most ashamed, humiliated or disgraced you felt? ____
4. What is the most awe, wonder or amazement you felt? ____
5. What is the most contemptuous, scornful or disdainful you felt? ____
6. What is the most disgust, distaste or revulsion you felt? ____
7. What is the most embarrassed, self-conscious or blushing you felt? ____
8. What is the most grateful, appreciative or thankful you felt? ____
9. What is the most guilty, repentant or blameworthy you felt? ____
10. What is the most hate, distrust or suspicion you felt? ____
11. What is the most hopeful, optimistic or encouraged you felt? ____
12. What is the most inspired, uplifted or elevated you felt? ____
13. What is the most interested, alert or curious you felt? ____
14. What is the most joyful, glad or happy you felt? ____
15. What is the most love, closeness or trust you felt? ____
16. What is the most proud, confident or self-assured you felt? ____
17. What is the most sad, downhearted or unhappy you felt? ____
18. What is the most scared, fearful or afraid you felt? ____
19. What is the most serene, content or peaceful you felt? ____
20. What is the most stressed, nervous or overwhelmed you felt? ____
Go back and circle the 10 items that reflect positivity, and underline the 10 that reflect negativity.
Count the number of circled positivity items that you endorsed as ‘2’ or higher.
Count the number of underlined items that you endorsed as 1 or higher.
Calculate the ratio by dividing your positivity tally by your negativity tally.
The resulting number represents your positivity ratio for the day.