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Having a positive outlook can help people bounce back faster from tough times. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Having a positive outlook can help people bounce back faster from tough times. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Rotman Magazine

Leadership and the power of being positive Add to ...

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.’

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