A marriage with 5x more positivity than negativity is significantly less likely to result in divorce.1
A business team with 5x more positivity than negativity is significantly more likely to make money.2
College students with 3x more positivity than negativity are significantly more likely to have flourishing mental health.3
In general – when a human system contains 3 to 5x as much positivity as negativity, it is significantly more likely to thrive.
What this means, is that it is sometimes possible to reduce the complexity of human emotion into useful prediction: flourish or flounder.
Just as important, this complexity can be assessed with a quick, 20-question quiz.
Looking back over the past 24 hours, indicate the greatest amount that you have experienced of each of the following feelings
What does that number mean?
If your ratio is below 1.0, you may be caught in a downward spiral of stress and negativity. You may even be depressed.
If your ratio is between 1.5 and 2.5 – that’s normal. You life has more positivity than negativity, but not by a margin large enough to trigger an upward spiral.
If your ratio is between 3 and 5, you’ve hit the sweet spot.
If your ratio is above 9, you’re approaching a danger zone – one with too much positivity and not enough reality.
You shouldn’t read too much into your score, because there are grey zones between the classifications, the results of a single day can be unrepresentative, and different ratios are optimal for different people at different times.
But the positivity ratio is my measure of choice for mental health – much like how some people measure blood pressure or cholesterol to keep track of their heart health, starting last month I have been measuring my positivity ratio daily in order to keep track of my mental health.
I will continue to do so until my ratio stabilizes above 3.0.
The many benefits of positivity.
During a four year study of married couples, those who started out with a positivity ratio below 1.0 were three times more likely to consider divorce, twice as likely to get separated, and two-and-a-half times as likely to get divorced as couples with a ratio above 5.0.1
During a study of business teams, those with a positivity ratio above 5.0 were found to more readily alternate between advocating their own beliefs, asking questions about the beliefs of others, talking about themselves, and talking about others. Those with a ratio below 1.0 predominantly talked about themselves and their own ideas. The result: lower profitability for their business team, lower customer satisfaction, and lower assessments by superiors, peers, and subordinates.2
During dozens of experimental studies which raised the positivity ratio of participants, increased positivity led to increased productivity, social capital, mental health, and physical health.4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21
A positivity ratio above 3.0 can’t cure cancer, but it can offer a tremendous life advantage.
This post summarizes the 31 benefits of gratitude, which matches up well with the many benefits of positivity.
This page contains what I believe to be the most time-effective method of raising one’s positivity ratio.
This free eBook contains what I believe to be the 16 most effect methods of raising one’s positivity ratio.
This page contains more studies relevant to the positivity ratio.
What’s so special about the number 3.0?
Why do we need so much more positivity than negativity to get all of those benefits?
In economics, it’s called prospect theory. In English – we feel our losses much stronger than our gains.
Yesterday, a friend complimented my writings on this blog – my mood was elevated for two hours. Last month, a friend said the opposite, that I was wasting my time and spewing nonsense. It depressed my mood for a few days.
You receive a raise at work – you’re happy for a few days, maybe a week or two. You receive a paycut – I imagine you’ll be dejected, furious, or both for at least a few weeks.
Because we respond disproportionately to negativity, it takes 3x more positivity than negativity to fully replace anxiety with feelings of safety.
That’s why having a high positivity ratio increases your chances of flourishing.
Why do we need emotion? Thousands of years ago, it got us to do things which kept us alive and our genes propagating.
Without fear, humans would have been unable to react fast enough.
Without anger, humans would not have had sufficient motivation to adequately punish crime. Can you imagine dispassionately assaulting someone? I can’t. Remember, we’re talking about thousands of years ago – they didn’t have police and jails back then.
Each negative emotion has a set of functions which cause immediate changes in behavior. Positive emotion has a more complex role.
If caveman Joe spent all of his time strengthening his social relationships, he’d go hungry and die. But if he spent all of his time gathering food, when he got sick he’d have no one to take care of him – once again, he’d die.
Both have to happen for him to survive – he needs both friends and food.
Because long-term investment, like playing, making friends, exercising, being optimistic, exploring, and learning new skills are all calorically expensive, Joe’s body needed a signal which would help him know when he should go gathering, and when he should go investing.
That signal was positive emotion. From Barbara Fredrickson’s paper, Beyond the Moment:
When we are in a state of relative safety and satiety—when there are few threats demanding intense, narrowed attention—positive emotions allow us to pursue our long-term interests. In our ancestors, transitory states of positive emotions led to behavior that may seem pointless or extravagant from the perspective of immediate survival, but that perhaps conferred serious advantages in the long term.
A positivity ratio above 3.0 signaled safety and satiety – that Joe was surrounded by friends, healthy, had a stockpile of food, and that now was the best time to make long-term investments.
That is the function of positive emotion – to tell the body, now is the time – you are safe, so you can stop worrying about the day-to-day worries of the present, and go make true your dreams of the future.
This isn’t a pet theory of mine – this is one of the most cited findings in the field of psychology, having been referenced by nearly 4,000 papers in the 10 years since it was published (the average paper is referenced just 10 times)22.
Which is all well and good, but why talk about all of this theory?
Because I want to make this point – positive emotion is vestigial. Not undesirable or ignorable, like an appendix (after all, what would life be like without positive emotion?), but vestigial. It has lost it’s original function.
Like how wisdom teeth are now more a bother than a blessing, I believe the main biological function of positive emotion has been made near useless by the modern world.
We’re all safe; we’re all sated.
For most of us, there are no tigers or food shortages lurking around the corner. None.
For most of us, lack of positive emotion is no reason not to seek out new friends or to learn new skills. In fact, to let a lack of positivity restrict our growth behavior is counterproductive. The fastest path to happiness is to do those things which are usually done when one is happy (e.g. spend time with friends and family, develop hobbies, help others, etc…).
Just as important, the modern world demands constant long-term investment, whether we have a high positivity ratio or not. For those who wish to rise to the top, the benefits of positivity are not benefits, but requirements, to be faked or forced as necessary.
Don’t feel like networking? Too bad. Don’t feel like keeping your skills up-to-date? Too bad. Don’t feel like saving? Too bad.
If this were Tony Robbin’s blog, this would be the part where I would tell you to man up and work hard every day, whether you feel like it or not.
But this is my blog, so instead, I’ll say this:
Positive emotion has lost its primary biological function.
So do with it whatever you want. Be content. Strive for more. Wait until you’ve got a family, great job, and a big house. Or seize your happiness advantage now.
I think you know my choice. What’s yours?