Positive Emotion

When we think about positive emotions, we often think of pure happiness—that bubbly, giggling, cartwheeling feeling that we remember from childhood. But according to Dr. Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina, a prominent scientist in the field, the range of positive emotions is much broader, encompassing the feelings of love, gratitude, peace, inspiration, awe, pride, and serenity. Frederickson’s work has shown that we need a positivity ratio of approximately 3:1—that is, three positive emotions to every one negative emotion—to reap the benefits. In addition, Dr. Marcial Losada’s research on human capital and team effectiveness demonstrates that the highest performing teams have a positivity ratio of 6:1.

Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on learned optimism shows that people are the most resilient when they believe that negative events are temporary, changeable, and specific to the situation. In addition, optimism is associated with improved physical health. Multiple studies during the past 30 years have shown a strong connection between positive emotion and reduced cardiovascular disease and coronary-related deaths. People high in positive emotion also have been shown to develop fewer colds and have stronger immune systems than negative people.

What are the benefits of positivity?

Dr. Frederickson proposes that increasing our positivity ratio brings two significant benefits: It opens our awareness, broadens our boundaries, and expands our world; and it transforms us for the better.

Studies on positivity involve priming the subjects with a gift or with positive images, and then asking them to complete a task. Here are some of the results:

  • Physicians made better diagnostic decisions after positive priming.
  • Positive priming produced greater creativity.
  • Positive priming resulted in people looking past racial and other differences in others.
  • Positive subjects developed more win-win solutions and saw greater levels of interconnection.
  • Students who were positively primed performed better on academic assignments.
  • People in the positive group were more likely to see the big picture.
  • Positive priming led to greater resilience; people were quicker to bounce back from adversity.

Can we change our genetic level of positivity?

According to Barbara Frederickson, it is possible to change our natural level of positivity. However, it requires an extended effort over time—similar to the effort, time, and concentration required to reduce our cholesterol or lose weight. One of the most prominent scientists in the study of happiness is Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California. She contends that although happiness levels are partly genetic, there are certain strategies that can increase happiness.

What can I do to increase my positive emotions?

  • Meditate. Dr. Frederickson has documented the positive effect of daily meditation (specifically, loving-kindness meditation) on positive emotions. After eight weeks, there were statistically significant improvements in resilience, mindfulness, and positive relationships, as well as significant reductions in headaches and other aches and pains.
  • Do not compare yourself to others. Dr. Lyubomirsky’s work indicates that unhappy people compare themselves to others more often than happier people do.
  • Do a good deed. Doing something nice for another person produces the single most reliable momentary increase of any exercise tested by positive psychologists thus far. However, the happiness boost decreases if the action is repeated over and over, so it’s important to change it up.
  • Use one of your strengths in a new way. Identify one of your strengths and make time in your schedule to use that strength in a new way. Then, write about the experience: How did you feel before, during, and after? How difficult was it? Did time pass quickly? Will you repeat the experience? This exercise has been tested in placebo-controlled experiments at the University of Michigan and proven to have a significant impact on positive emotion.
  • Evaluate what went well. Every night, write down three things that went well that day. Research conducted in the area of gratitude indicates that those who went one step further and also celebrated their own roles in helping things go well got the biggest happiness boost.
  • Make a gratitude visit. Think of someone who has had a positive influence on your life. Write a letter thanking him, and then make arrangements to visit him in person, and read the letter aloud. Studies show that people who do this are measurably happier up to a month later.

Make a PERMA-nent difference.

Cultivating positive emotions requires consistent, long-term effort, but has the potential for wide-ranging benefits, including protective health benefits. You can assess your own positivity ratio using the free tool at www.positivityratio.com.

In our next post, we will look at engagement as we continue our exploration of PERMA, the key elements of well-being. Our goal is to illuminate how addressing each of these elements can make a positive impact on our organizations, our families, and our lives.

For more on the positive workplace, read the full blog series.