Thursday, May 21, 2009
It's all in the mix...
"…even though the negative grabs more attention, most moments in life—if you evaluate them one by one—are actually positive. So the opportunities to experience positive emotions are much more abundant. Indeed, negative emotions grab our attention partly because they’re relatively rare in day-to-day living."
-Barbara Fredrickson interviewed in The Sun magazine, May 2009
I really enjoy Ms. Fredrickson’s quote from The Sun magazine because it factually states that most moments in life really are positive in quality. It just so happens that the negative ones have a more attention-grabbing quality. Finally, a scientist tells us that life is mostly good. I can see that. And, by simply recognizing this fact, life can start to seem a little better.
But in practice I’ve seen this taken to both extremes. In the yoga world I have experienced the positivity police, and in the business world I knew some negativity-mongers. Both extremes hurt.
A couple of years ago I received an abrupt notice that I had to move in thirty days from an apartment that was going to be gutted and converted into a condo. It was hard news to take because I didn’t want to move right then. I also had a fabulous month planned that would make it difficult to find time to find a new place. So I was feeling a little down about it.
I shared this with someone in the yoga community—a “friend” who tried to tell me I was wrong, and to force me verbally to see it as a positive event. And at the time it just wasn’t. This positivity policewoman really hurt my feelings with her response. It is ridiculous in my view to censor negativity. To deny it is just to shove it down, where it will eventually resurface.
And, when I was working as a Production Manager for advertising, I worked a job with some people favoring the opposite perspective. One time I was at a client meeting in an upper floor of a monolithic glass and marble building, when someone suggested that we all jump out the window rather than face the project. This comment was intended as a joke, but I felt it. It hurt.
It’s clear to me that neither extreme works. It’s shallow to limit one’s self to only seeing the positive aspects of life, and it’s equally flat to dwell only on negativity.
On the ratio of positive to negative emotions Fredrickson says, “…three (positive emotions) to one (negative) is the tipping point. The healthiest thing would be to aim above that—four to one, five to one, or even six to one. Actually there’s research that suggests married couples who share about a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative emotions with one another are in solid marriages.”
The nugget of wisdom in her scientific research is that we require a certain number of negative experiences to flourish as human beings. Just like a good story has a dramatic conflict, to be satisfying our lives, too, need some crisis. And the trick to working with this reality is to be able to balance the negative emotions with plenty of positive ones, which life naturally provides—if we are awake to see the good that shows up every day.