The Positivity Ratio

Barbara Fredrickson

listen_btn
Image of the Week

Imagine you’re a water lily. It’s early dawn and your petals are closed in around your face. If you can see anything at all, it’s just a little spot of sunlight. But as the sun rises in the sky, things begin to change. Your blinders around your face begin to open and your world quite literally expands. You can see more. Your world is larger. 

Just as the warmth of sunlight opens flowers, the warmth of positivity opens our minds and hearts. It changes our visual perspective at a really basic level, along with our ability to see our common humanity with others.

We know this because we’ve done studies that show this. [...] Researchers find that when you induce positive emotion, people's brains can't help but pick up on the context, even when they were told to ignore it. When people are feeling neutral or negative emotions, they don't see the context at all.

This suggests that when people experience positive emotions, they have a wider awareness -- which may explain why people have a better memory for peripheral details when they’re remembering episodes that were positive. Positive emotions quite literally help us see more possibilities.

But how much positivity do we need in our lives to reap these benefits -- how much is enough? Our research has 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.

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.

Consider a sailboat metaphor. 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. [...]

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?

A note from the Awakin team: Thanks to our community, we note that the positivity ratio has been thoroughly debunked. The author has also withdrawn her support for that construct. We should have cross-checked this one better. That said, here is a hat-tip to the awesome community of commenters who brought in a gentle balance through their life wisdom in the comments below.

Barbara Fredrickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is also the author of Positivity. Excerpt above from this article.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that negative emotions help us 'stay in touch with the reality of the difficulties we're facing'? Can you share a personal story of a time positive emotions opened up more context and possibilities for you? What helps you tap into genuine, heartfelt positive emotions without grasping for the counterfeit gold?

Add Your Reflection:

15 Previous Reflections:

  • link
    On Jul 24, 2020 Usha Shetty wrote:
    Everything comes with a purpose. Night we sleep because it is dark. Darkness implies dark times of our life where we spend sleeping, which also means it is meant to rest. Rest our body,and organs, relaxing & calming our mind and soul. It also indicates a transition period from darkness to light. In turn sunlight brings energy, hope and a dream of a good day ahead. I personally believe, every difficulty in my life made me think better and develop stronger version of myself. If I would not have faced difficulty, I probably might not understand the pain one goes through, and I would have been insensitive to their agony. Now I feel alive to understand and resolve others problem. I totally feel connected and exactly feel the feeling one undergoes. There was a time I was shunned and I did not speak, for not 4 weeks or 4 months but for almost 4 years. Faced countless emotional difficulties. But with every difficulty it evolved me, and if one does not loose hope, work hard towards the po... [View Full Comment] Everything comes with a purpose. Night we sleep because it is dark. Darkness implies dark times of our life where we spend sleeping, which also means it is meant to rest. Rest our body,and organs, relaxing & calming our mind and soul. It also indicates a transition period from darkness to light. In turn sunlight brings energy, hope and a dream of a good day ahead.

    I personally believe, every difficulty in my life made me think better and develop stronger version of myself. If I would not have faced difficulty, I probably might not understand the pain one goes through, and I would have been insensitive to their agony. Now I feel alive to understand and resolve others problem. I totally feel connected and exactly feel the feeling one undergoes.

    There was a time I was shunned and I did not speak, for not 4 weeks or 4 months but for almost 4 years. Faced countless emotional difficulties. But with every difficulty it evolved me, and if one does not loose hope, work hard towards the positivity, then happiness is inevitable. And one who has foundtrue happiness, the need to grasp counterfeit gold nullifies.




    [Hide Full Comment]

    Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 7, 2020 Ambika wrote:
    We have chosen to occupythis physical body- which is born and hence has to 'Die'. We have chosen to be in this world of polarity.
    At a personal level, I am eternally grateful to the times I do not have a migraine headache because I have experienced one. i am able to empathize with those who get a head ache. What if I have never experienced one? All the so called negative states we go through- loss, pain, disease....makes us sensitive, appreciative and ever grateful. Without a sunset how could I eulogize a sunrise? Negative and positive together creates light. when we are light beings both need to co-exist. Each adds value to the other. fake gold is shunned because i know the luster of real gold.It is the fake gold that adds value to real Gold.

    1 reply: Love | Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 7, 2020 Ava Rindal wrote:
    I love Awakin Weekly. It helps me to feel calm in a crazy world. However, the "positivity ratio" has been thoroughly debunked, the math upon which it relies was taken out of context and based on numerous theoretical and factual errors. The author of this piece has recanted her support and admitted she didn't understand the math the author of the original theory used. In any case, I thought you should know.

    1 reply: Aryae | Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 7, 2020 Deborah watson wrote:
    A philosopher I listen to states, " When you know what you don't want, you know what you do want". Emotions, for me, are a great way to show me where I am on my spiritual path. Am I heading towards joy or am I heading towards fear? Then my power of choice comes in and my opportunity to pivot or not.

    Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 7, 2020 Soulwing wrote:
    When upbringing and childhood is good and full of love, you have a reservoir and you continueto collect and create positivity. Be kind and share with those who may, not of their own choice, have had the same childhood and share extra love and kindness their way.

    1 reply: Usha | Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 7, 2020 Ken Elkind wrote:
    Positive things will happen in one's life, when they become of our purpose of Grooving. Be the One! www.groovism.org provides The One!

    Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 7, 2020 Emilia wrote:
    Actually very negative experiences are often also registered in great detail. Even the moments just before. There have also been studies that showed that happier people are less vigilant/ critical than people having 'a bad day', which results in lower scores on things such as problem solving. Seems like a fair trade-off.
    I do think that if you don't experience negative emotions you are skipping out on the experience of being alive, of having a finite body, of loosing loved ones. Grief is the counterbalance to love in a way.

    Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 7, 2020 Rajni wrote:
    Without darkness sun has no value however there is no reason to keep ourselves in darkness. We need sleep to rest and recharge our battery but our main goal is to work efficiently and wisely during awake time. Positive Thoughts yields to positive results. Negative thoughts help us keep us move positivity to higher level when we replace it with appropriate positive thought.

    I have been trying to think positively for last 12 years. It has simplified my life very much. I used to forget many things now I get prompts from inner voice. I am thankful to the universe for all the positive experiences in my life sending timely help from other, many a time miraculously. I tell others to think positively with stories and my experiences.

    Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 4, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    When light increases and when blinders open, vision expands. Opening one's mind and heart, one sees differently. Context seen is undoubtedly affected by what one is feeling. Emotions called positive help us see different possibilities than emotions called negative. I think the keel is just as positive as the mast. I think staying on course is related to all the 'parts' including the keel and the mast. Emotions are related to the person one is and experiences one has. Emotions are in response to being in touch, and if experienced as negative or positive they may help us stay in touch. Feelings considered negative likely result in narrowed awareness and feelings considered positive more likely widen awareness. The negative and positive definitely provide contrast -- and without the one you wouldn't know there is the other. Feeling satisfaction has prompted me to investigate further, expand my knowledge, and focus my vision which has opened up more context, more possibilit... [View Full Comment] When light increases and when blinders open, vision expands. Opening one's mind and heart, one sees differently. Context seen is undoubtedly affected by what one is feeling. Emotions called positive help us see different possibilities than emotions called negative. I think the keel is just as positive as the mast. I think staying on course is related to all the 'parts' including the keel and the mast. Emotions are related to the person one is and experiences one has. Emotions are in response to being in touch, and if experienced as negative or positive they may help us stay in touch. Feelings considered negative likely result in narrowed awareness and feelings considered positive more likely widen awareness. The negative and positive definitely provide contrast -- and without the one you wouldn't know there is the other. Feeling satisfaction has prompted me to investigate further, expand my knowledge, and focus my vision which has opened up more context, more possibilities and more connections for me. What helps me tap into genuine heartfelt positive emotions is satisfaction I feel in doing so. I assume what I'm gaining is real gold, but I never know for sure.[Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Amen | Post Your Reply
  • link
    On Jul 3, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    I have learned from my personal experience that life is not a straight line. It has curves, twists and turns. I have experienced negative emotions such as fear, depression and anger. They are not easy to control. Such negative emotions have made my life difficult. There are two ways of dealing with such negative emotions: denial,suppression or rationalization. The other way is to recognize them, and work on them or get professional help. Some time ago I went for one week long silent retreat. The first two days were difficult for me. I am not used to remaining silent for more than a day. It was a new and difficult experience for me. I felt restless, agitated, and bored. I accepted my difficult emotions and difficult times. After two days it was easy for me to remain silent. In fact I enjoyed the presence of silence and saw the value and power of silence. I spent a good amount of time on introspection and also seeing the peaceful beauty of nature. Silence opened up new doors of percepti... [View Full Comment] I have learned from my personal experience that life is not a straight line. It has curves, twists and turns. I have experienced negative emotions such as fear, depression and anger. They are not easy to control. Such negative emotions have made my life difficult. There are two ways of dealing with such negative emotions: denial,suppression or rationalization. The other way is to recognize them, and work on them or get professional help.

    Some time ago I went for one week long silent retreat. The first two days were
    difficult for me. I am not used to remaining silent for more than a day. It was a new and difficult experience for me. I felt restless, agitated, and bored. I accepted my difficult emotions and difficult times. After two days it was easy for me to remain silent. In fact I enjoyed the presence of silence and saw the value and power of silence. I spent a good amount of time on introspection and also seeing the peaceful beauty of nature. Silence opened up new doors of perception for me.

    Keeping my mind and heart open and maintaining self-awareness helps me to tap into genuine heart-felt positive emotions. I feel inner fullnesswhen I experience love, kindness, joy and compassion. There is fullness in such genuine positive emotional experiences. Since there is genuine fullness and richness in such living, I do not need to grasp for the counterfeitgold.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave

    [Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Right | Post Your Reply

Search Awakin Readings

Or search by year, author, or category.

Subscribe to Weekly Email

Every week, we send out a digest with a reading and inspiring stories to our global community of 94,208 people. Subscribe below.

(unsubscribe)

Contact Us

If you'd like to suggest a thought or want to drop us a suggestion, drop us a note.