I study positive emotions.
I realize this can sound frivolous, especially at a time when we’re facing widespread unemployment, when we’re sending soldiers into repeated tours of duty, when we’re confronted with a global environmental crisis.
But after two decades of research on positive emotions, I’ve come to realize that understanding positive emotions can help us address these problems and more.
I’m not just talking about jump-for-joy positive emotions. There are a whole range of positive emotions out there, including feelings of gratitude, feelings of serenity and tranquility, and feelings of love and closeness for the people we care for.
My colleagues and I have learned how positive emotions change the way our minds and our bodies work—change the very nature of who we are, down to our cells—transforming our outlook on life and our ability to confront challenges. Indeed, the science of positive emotions is key to helping people deal with adversity and live a meaningful life.
Far from being trivial, we’ve found that positive emotions broaden our awareness in ways that reshape who we are, and they build up our useful traits in ways that bring out the best in us, helping us become the best versions of ourselves.
Positive emotions open our mind
In my research, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two core truths about all of the different kinds of positive emotions.
The first is that they open us: They literally change the boundaries of our minds and our hearts and change our outlook on our environment.
Now let me get poetic here for a moment. Imagine you’re a water lily. It’s early dawn and your petals are closed in around your face. If you can see anything at all, it’s just a little spot of sunlight.
But as the sun rises in the sky, things begin to change. Your blinders around your face begin to open and your world quite literally expands. You can see more. Your world is larger.
Just as the warmth of sunlight opens flowers, the warmth of positivity opens our minds and hearts. It changes our visual perspective at a really basic level, along with our ability to see our common humanity with others.
We know this because we’ve done studies where we induce positive emotions in some people—by giving them a gift, making them have a positive experience, or showing them images of cute puppies or a beautiful sunset—but not others. In one of these studies in my own lab, we showed people a figure (see image on the left) and asked which of two comparison figures most resemble it. As you can see, one of the figures (the three triangles) resembles the top figure in its general configuration, while the other (the four squares) resembles it in its local details.
What we found was if we induced positive emotions in people, they were more likely to step back and say the figure of the three triangles was most similar to the top figure. They were seeing the big picture.
One of my favorite studies along these lines comes out of Adam Anderson’s lab at the University of Toronto. The researchers observed people’s brain activity while showing them photos of a face placed against a house in the background (see image on the left). They asked the people to judge whether the face was male or female but to ignore everything else in the picture.
There’s a part of the brain that lights up when we see a human face, and there’s also a brain region that lights up when we think about physical places, like a house. Which part would light up here?
The researchers found that when you induce a positive emotion, the “place” area lit up—people couldn’t help but pick up on the context of the photo, even when they were told to ignore it. When people were feeling neutral or negative emotions, they didn’t see the house at all.
This suggests that people are inescapably attuned to context when they’re experiencing positive emotions. They have a wider awareness, which may explain why people have a better memory for peripheral details when they’re remembering episodes that were positive.
If positive emotions open our awareness and increase the expanse of our peripheral vision, that means that they help us see more possibilities. And there are lots of benefits that flow from this.
- People are more creative when they’re experiencing positive emotions; when solving a problem, they come up with more ideas of what they might do next. This enhanced creativity has been directly linked to having a wider awareness.
- People are more likely to be resilient. I have conducted a whole line of research showing that people are able to bounce back more quickly from adversity when they’re experiencing positive emotions.
- Kids’ academic performance improves. Research has shown that kids do better on math tests or other tests if they’re just asked to sit and think of a positive memory before they take the test.
- There are medical benefits. Really neat research shows doctors make better medical decisions when they’re given a bag of candy—a really small way of inducing positive emotions. Keep that in mind the next time you go to your doctor’s office!
- Positive emotions make us more socially connected to others, even across groups. My former students Kareem Johnson and I found that positive emotions allow us to look past racial and cultural differences and see the unique individual behind those traits. They help us see the universal qualities we share with others, not our differences. And other experiments show that if you induce positive emotions, people are more trusting and come to better win-win situations in negotiations.
So positive emotions don’t just help us see the glass half full—that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. They also help us see larger forms of interconnection. They help us see the big picture.
Positive emotions transform us
The second core truth about positive emotions is that they transform us for the better—they bring out the best in us.
Now one interesting fact about all living things is that scientists estimate that, on average, we replace one percent of our cells each day. That’s another one percent tomorrow, about 30 percent by next month, and by next season, 100 percent of our cells from today—that’s one way of looking at it. So maybe it’s no coincidence that it takes three months or so to learn a new habit or to make a lifestyle change; maybe we need to be teaching our new cells because we can’t teach an old cell new tricks.
But one of the things I think is even more exciting is that the latest science suggests that the pace of cell renewal and the form of cell renewal doesn’t just follow some predetermined DNA script. Our emotions affect that level of cellular change.
What this suggests is that if we increase our daily diet of positive emotions, we broaden our awareness over time and change who we become in the future.
With this in mind, I was inspired by some of the newest research on meditation to look into how people might use meditation to elevate their basic levels of positive emotion—the amount of positive emotions they feel day-in, day-out.
In particular, I looked at a form of meditation called loving-kindness meditation, sometimes called metta, which asks people to take that warm, tender feeling they already have toward a loved one and learn to generate it toward other people, ranging from themselves to people with whom they have difficulties and eventually to all sentient beings on Earth.
People in my studies were novice meditators, but as they learned loving-kindness meditation over the course of eight weeks, their daily levels of positive emotions subtly shifted upwards. And this boost in positive emotions helped them build some important resources.
One of those resources was mindfulness, their ability to stay in the present moment and maintain awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and surroundings.
Also, their close and trusting relationships with others improved from the time they started learning meditation to a few weeks after the training ended.
We also saw improvements in people’s resilience—their ability to bounce back from difficulties and effectively manage the challenges they encountered—and reductions in aches and pains and other signs of physical illness.
These results suggest that if we increase our daily diet of positive emotions, we emerge three months later as more resilient, more socially connected versions of ourselves.
The positivity ratio
So positive emotions can clearly carry some profound benefits. But how much positivity do we need in our lives to reap these benefits—how much is enough?
My research with Marcel Losada has actually been closing in on an answer to this question. We’ve concluded that a ratio of at least three-to-one—three positive emotions for every negative emotion—serves as a tipping point, which will help determine whether you languish in life, barely holding on, or flourish, living a life ripe with possibility, remarkably resilient to hard times.
Without going into all the math behind this ratio, I want to stress that this isn’t an arbitrary number. It emerges from a wide ranging analysis we conducted, including analysis of flourishing business teams that we then tested in flourishing individuals and compared to family researcher John Gottman’s work on flourishing marriages. In each case, we found that positivity ratios above three-to-one are associated with doing extraordinary well.
Ratios of about two-to-one are what most of us experience on a daily basis; people who suffer from depression and other emotional disorders are down near one-to-one or lower.
It’s important to note that the ratio is not three-to-zero. This is not about eliminating all negative emotions. Part of this prescription is the idea that negative emotions are actually necessary.
I actually think a sailboat metaphor is appropriate here. Rising from the sailboat is the enormous mast, which allows the sail to catch the wind and give the boat momentum. But below the waterline is the keel, which can weigh tons.
You can see the mast as positivity and the keel down below as negativity. If you sail, you know that even though it’s the mast that holds the sail, you can’t sail without the keel; the boat would just drift around or tip over. The negativity, the keel, is what allows the boat to stay on course and manageable.
When I once shared this metaphor with an audience, a gentleman said, “You know, when the keel matters most is when you’re sailing upwind, when you’re facing difficulty.” Experiencing and expressing negative emotions is really part of the process for flourishing, even—or especially—during hard times, as they help us stay in touch with the reality of the difficulties we’re facing.
So this idea of the ratio points out where we should be. But how do we get there? What are the best ways to foster positive emotions and achieve this ratio?
Here’s my advice: If you make your motto, “Be positive,” that will actually backfire. It leads to a toxic insincerity that’s shown to be corrosive to our own bodies, to our own cardiovascular system. It’s toxic for our relationships with other people. I think we all know that person who’s trying to pump too much sunshine into our lives.
I think that’s the biggest danger of positive psychology: that people come out of it with this zeal to be positive in a way that’s not genuine and heartfelt.
But there’s a Sufi proverb: There wouldn’t be such a thing as counterfeit gold if there were no real gold somewhere. So how can we tap into those genuine, heartfelt positive emotions without grasping for the counterfeit gold?
One of the things that I think is very useful is to keep in mind that there’s reciprocal relationship between the mindset of positivity and positive emotions—a mindset of positivity begets positive emotions, and positive emotions beget positivity. So if we lightly create the mindset of positivity, from that positive emotions will follow.
How to foster that mindset? It helps to be open, be appreciative, be curious, be kind, and above all, be real and sincere. From these strategies spring positive emotions.
Now some of these are pretty self-explanatory, but I do want to explain what “be open” means as a way to increase your positive emotions. The reason that this works is that so often we can be preoccupied worrying about the future, ruminating about the past so we’re completely oblivious to the goodness that surrounds us in the present moment.
But when we’re really open to our current circumstances, those sources of goodness are so much easier to draw from, and they yield positive emotions.
Another thing, I think, that can be really useful is to step on the positivity scale frequently and track your positivity ratio. When I published my book, I created a free website that allows people to figure out their positivity ratio for a given day. It takes two minutes.
It’s kind of surprising and humbling to realize that, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us aren’t above this three-to-one ratio on a daily basis.
I think knowing one day’s positivity ratio may not be too informative. But if you take this short measure at the end of every day for two weeks, you could probably get a sense of what your life is like right now. Then continue to use it as you continue to make changes in your life, as you introduce more opportunities to be grateful, or start a meditation practice, or start volunteering and giving more frequently, and then track your positivity ratio and see if it changes—see how those steps make a difference in your life.
Just as a nutritionist will ask people to keep track of their physical activity and their caloric intake as a way to meet their health and fitness goals, this is a way to keep track of your daily emotional diet so you can meet your well-being goals.
I want to close with a famous Native American story. It goes like this: One evening, an old Cherokee tells his grandson that inside all people, a battle goes on between two wolves. One wolf is negativity: anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame, and hate. The other is positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love.
The grandson thinks about this for a minute, then asks his grandfather, “Well, which wolf wins?”
The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”