How is it that a single sour event can appear to throw a wet blanket over an otherwise happy time? Unless you’re a Teflon coated optimist the sad fact is negativity affects us far more strongly, cuts deeper and lasts longer than positivity. There’s a glue-like quality to negativity that can be hard to shake off, yet we seem to need both positivity and negativity in our lives in order to function at an optimal level.
Positive emotions are hugely beneficial but if we weren’t able to lift our foot off the throttle we’d have an absence of reality to keep us in check. Too much positivity can lead to unrealistic and disappointing outcomes. An example might be the person who sells the house, invests everything in a business they know nothing about and then goes broke. However, too much negativity reduces our options and distorts the way we see the world. It constrains behavior because of anxiety and the prediction of failure or disappointment.
The idea of a ‘positivity ratio’ developed from a series of observational studies in a variety of different contexts. Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson, for example, argues that positive emotions are a vital component for health and she indicates a tipping point of 3:1. This, she says, means our positivity ideally needs to outweigh our negativity by a proportion of 3-to-1. As the author says:
“Negativity pervades your self-talk and your judgments. It bleeds into exchanges with your kids and your colleagues, eroding goodwill. Making matters worse, negativity breeds health-damaging negative emotions – like anger, contempt, and depression – which seep into your entire body.”
Moods of course are shaped by the dynamics of the moment, so what we are talking about is finding ways to shift the general balance away from negativity and more towards positivity. The good news is there are a host of small things we can change in order to tip the balance in our favor. For example, doing a small kindness for another person, being outside rather than staying in, singing, being involved in something creative, having a coffee and watching the world pass by, sharing time with friends.
The number positive emotions we experience is much more important than their intensity. The more you experience, the more likely it is you develop a platform of positivity from which to grow and develop. It's also important to allow time to reflect on these positive emotions in order to count our blessings. Negativity doesn't need to be invited in, but it's easy to forget sometimes that positive things do happen in life and sometimes they are as simple as a cup of coffee, the smell of newly-baked bread, or a walk in the fresh air.
If you are interested in assessing your current positivity score you can take Prof. Fredrickson’s free online test.
Sheldon, K. M., Lyubomirsky, S. (2006) How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, April 2006; 1(2): 73–82