Positive emotions affect us in many interesting ways. They change your mental processes, the way you perceive the world and your behavior.*1 To illustrate this let me lead you through a quick exercise. First close your eyes and think about two or three things that you are grateful for. As examples it could be your family, your career success or that you live in this wonderful country of ours. Got it, ok now continue to think about your appreciation of these events and really savor the thoughts and feelings. Good now open your eyes, how did this exercise make you feel? I suspect that it made you feel pretty good in fact it might of triggered some endorphins those wonderful hormones that our body creates when we are happy content and at peace.
These wonderful things happen when we experience positive emotions. Positive emotions help us improve personal growth and increase our sense of emotional well being. In fact, positive emotions are the key ingredient that creates happiness.
So what is the definition happiness and how do emotions play a part? A simple definition of happiness is “a subjective feeling of well being.” Dr. Barbara Fredrickson in her landmark study on positivity found that happiness is when we feel more positive emotions such as joy, optimism and serenity than negative emotions such as fear stress and anger.*2
Interestingly enough it has only been very recently that scientists have studied positive emotions. Furthermore, most scientists that study emotions have focused on negative states such as depression, anxiety and fear.*3
Which brings us to negative emotions. Negative emotions come from the lower primitive part of our brain called the Reptilian brain. Think of our ancestors in prehistoric times. When they were confronted with a Saber Tooth Tiger it would trigger a fight or flight response in there lower brain. There was no time for thought they would just react without thinking. This is how negative emotions protect us.
Of course in modern times we don’t have to worry about Saber Tooth Tigers, nowadays we are confronted by other perceived threats like bills, traffic and stresses on the job. Although we have different fears and stresses our primitive brain still functions the same way today.*4
What’s interesting is that Dr. Fredrickson is not one of those positive thinking gurus that one might expect. She is no Pollyanna telling us to put a smile on before leaving your house each morning. Negative emotions, she says, are necessary for us to flourish, rather than try to eliminate negativity, we need to balance negative feelings with positive ones. But what was the right balance? Dr. Fredrickson and her colleague Marcial Losada came up with a positivity ratio that determined the positivity tipping point. To really flourish humans must experience a minimum of three positive emotional episodes for every one negative one.
Above the three-to-one ratio we grow, adapt and flourish. Below that level we languish. The ideal positivity ratio is about five to one. You can determine you current positivity ratio on Fredrickson’s website, PositivityRatio.com.* 5
Fredrickson also discovered that four out of five Americans don’t achieve the minimum three-to-one positivity threshold. So we still have much work ahead of us. We should strive to increase our positive emotions as our ultimate goal. When we increase our daily diets of positive emotions we are happier and we find more meaning and purpose in life. We are healthier, more creative and we really flourish as human beings.*6
1. Endorphinomics the Science of Human Flourishing Steve Moeller p. 50.
2. Finding Happiness by Cultivating Positive Emotions Interview by Angela Winter from the Sun, September-October 2009
4. Positivity Dr. Barbara Fredrickson pp. 19-20
5. Endorphinomics the Science of Human Flourishing Steve Moeller p. 61
6. Ibid pp. 60-63