Psychological tipping point

I’ve mentioned Dr. Barbara Fredrickson a couple of times in previous posts. She’s the researcher, who developed the “Broaden and Build Theory” of positive psychology, which states that positive emotions broaden our awareness and perception thereby increasing our curiosity, creativity and choices.

The “Broaden and Build Theory” is the other side of the coin, so to speak, of the “Fight or Flight Theory”, which notes that we are designed to focus and narrow our vision and responses in short-term, quick-decision, dangerous situations. Both emotional responses have value – there are times when we need to react quickly, with precision and almost instinctual intent and when we need to allow ourselves the freedom to fully enjoy and explore life and its options.

The good news is, our brains are hard-wired for both. The bad news is, many of us have allowed the occasional need for fight and flight responses to spill over into many or all of life’s everyday activities. We are constantly on the lookout for emotional and physical threats, or have come to believe that bad news (i.e., psychological danger) is lurking around every corner. Our preoccupation with all things negative, stresses our bodies and may be leaving us feeling frustrated, angry or depressed.

Not to worry, after identifying and qualifying the value of positive emotions, Fredrickson took her research one step further and in her 2009 book Positivity, she quantified their value. Fredrickson and her team of researchers formulated the 3:1 positivity ratio of positive to negative emotions. The ratio is a simple but valid mathematical equation for revealing happiness levels. I like to think of it as the psychological tipping point between getting by and soaring high. 

“80% of Americans fall short of the ideal 3-to-1 positivity ratio.”

Yikes! According to Fredrickson, 80% of us are not at our best. That’s not to say we are miserable, we’re not, but we are also not as happy or fulfilled as we could be.

Fredrickson’s research shows that we need to have 3 positive emotions for every 1 negative emotion to flourish. I like that. Her work indicates that our world’s do not need to be perfect for us to flourish – negativity can still be present (as represented by the “1” in the 3:1 ratio), but as long as the ratio is 3 to 1 we are good to go. 

Fredrickson notes that a 2:1 ratio means we are getting by. We might be happy, but not at our best. Is the difference between 3:1 and 2:1 important? Here’s what Fredrickson has to say on the subject (I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.):

” . . . experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio to negative emotions leads people to achieve what they once could only imagine. Far from frivolous, tapping into one’s own unique sources of positivity is a wise and healthy investment in the future.”                   

And, here is the truly important aspect of Fredrickson’s research, with simple changes and targeted tweaking we can move ourselves from a 2:1 to a 3:1 ratio – proving it is possible to create the life you really want! You can improve your internal environment and enhance your external landscape by:

  • becoming more aware and savoring what is good in your life;
  • focusing on your strengths and what you and others do well;
  • predicting better for you and your loved ones;
  • adding a bit of mediation to your daily mix;
  • doing more of what you love – even the simplest little things,
  • and maintaining and enriching your relationships. (See also PERMA.) 

If you are interested in assessing your positivity ratio, Fredrickson has created a free online survey to help take our emotional “temperature”. (My word not her’s). To get a true “temperature” reading, Fredrickson suggests taking the survey once a day for two weeks. The survey only take three minutes to complete. If you would like to give it a try, click away. (Taking the survey even once, provides valuable insight because it shares specific examples of positive and emotional states; I highly recommend it.) 

If you would like to learn more about the “Broaden and Build Theory” or the positivity ratio, click here to listen to an online interview with Barbara Fredrickson discussing her theories and research.

In the meantime, spending five minutes a day reviewing what you do well or is going well in your life can raise your positivity level. I think that’s a wise investment, even in the current market situation.

PS I know I am a day behind, but for the moment, I’ve decided to focus my attention on all the things I am doing well in my life . . . There, I feel better, already, which is kind-of refreshing and actually makes me feel more confident about tackling my to-do-list. Hmm, this stuff really works. :-)

2 Responses to “Psychological tipping point”

  1. Wishful Thinking Ways #3 « Wishful Thinking Works: Create the life you really want Says:

    […] a pleasurable approach « Wishful Thinking Works: Create the life you really want on Psychological tipping pointDelayed gratitifcation, a pleasurable approach « Wishful Thinking Works: Create the life you […]

  2. Delayed gratitifcation, a pleasurable approach « Wishful Thinking Works: Create the life you really want Says:

    […] begins releasing different hormones and chemicals, which may start connecting to new neurons: Broaden and Build vs Flight or Fight. One little question can flip a switch in your brain and start you on an entirely new neural […]


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