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.
“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?
To learn more
- Positivity Self Test — Where do you stand today? How do you measure up with respect to positivity? Take the online test to estimate your current positivity ratio.
- positivityratio.com — Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity book site
- Fredrickson and Losada’s research findings
- The Gottman Relationship Institute