In a 2005 article in Amer­ican Psychol­o­gist, Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada suggest that ratios of posi­tive to nega­tive emotions above about 3-to-1 and below about 11-to-1 are what humans need to flourish. In sepa­rate research studies — Fredrickson on posi­tive emotions and Losada on char­ac­ter­is­tics of high-performing busi­ness teams — each found a 3.0 tipping-point.

Ratios for people who were languishing were below 3-to-1. For the vast majority of people studied, posi­tivity ratios hovered around 2-to-1. Most moments were posi­tive but this didn’t seem to be enough to seed flour­ishing.

John Gottman, a leading expert on the science of marriage, found similar data in his Family Research Lab at the Univer­sity of Wash­ington. Among flour­ishing marriages, posi­tivity ratios were about 5-to-1. Languishing and failed marriages had ratios lower than 1-to-1. Gottman iden­ti­fies disgust and contempt as the most corro­sive emotions in a marital rela­tion­ship. However, an atmos­phere where needs can be commu­ni­cated honestly promotes marital success. For example, guilt derived from viewing actions as improper or immoral is more toler­able than shame derived from a sense of dimin­ished self-worth.

Losada’s math­e­mat­ical model predicts that the posi­tive affect will begin to decay at or above 11.6-to-1. Looking at Gottman’s data on predicting successful marriages, Fredrickson and Losada suggest that some degree of appro­priate nega­tivity promotes flour­ishing. They also cite exam­ples where insin­cere verbal and non-verbal expres­sions of emotion (false smiles, patron­izing) have detri­mental conse­quences gener­ally recog­nized as nega­tivity.

Fredrickson writes,

Whether we seek it or not, nega­tivity has a way of finding us. Even when we jump our highest, we most often find ourselves closer to the floor than to the ceiling in the gymna­sium of life.

As is true in many realms of life, more is not always better. Prob­lems may well occur with too much posi­tivity. Yet I see a more useful lesson hidden in the upper limit to flour­ishing: nega­tivity is also a neces­sary ingre­dient in the recipe for a flour­ishing life.”

Next steps to consider

For indi­vid­uals: Thriving comes from posi­tive affect, so spend time in envi­ron­ments promoting a 3:1 posi­tivity ratio. Put your­self in places that make you feel good; mini­mize toxic places.

For spouses and part­ners: Thriving marriages may require even more posi­tive exchanges. Expect to give 5:1; hope to get 5:1. Keep nega­tivity appro­priate by focusing on behavior (condi­tional strokes). Stay away from the most corro­sive expres­sions (nega­tive uncon­di­tional strokes).

For fami­lies, groups and teams: Human flour­ishing in large scales (fami­lies, groups, teams) emulates the struc­ture and process observed at lower scales (indi­vid­uals). Help your family, colleagues and clients focus on what is posi­tive (what works) and posi­tive outcomes (how together you want life to be), and create expe­ri­ences with posi­tivity ratios of 3:1 to 11:1. Avoid toxic expe­ri­ences of shame, contempt and disgust. Add ongoing feed­back processes to your shared expe­ri­ences. See Stretch your perfor­mance with Plus-Delta.

Fredrickson chal­lenges us to choose hope over fear. To be open, be curious, be appre­cia­tive, be kind and above all, be real. What gives you more joy? What makes you come alive?

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