Scientists used to think that all human beings have an inborn “happiness set point” that doesn’t really change. For some people, the more pessimistic gloomy people, that set point is lower, for some people, the eternal optimists, that set point is higher. Of course everybody will react to a tragedy like the loss of a loved one, or an exciting event like winning the lottery, but after a while, scientists believed, people would revert back to their own happiness set point. That view turns out to be wrong. There are several things people can do to increase happiness in their lives. One way is to increase the ratio of moments of positive emotions to moments of negative emotions.
A recent article in Utne describes the research of Dr. Barbara Frederickson, who has become an expert in positive emotions. Through decades of research, Dr. Frederickson has discovered that happiness is not some stable state of being that you get to when you live “happily ever after”, but something that is based on the cumulative effect of experiences of positive emotions. Dr. Frederickson defines positive emotions much broader than simply pleasure. Other examples of positive emotions include inspiration, gratitude, feelings of warmth and kindness to someone, and awe. According to Dr. Frederickson, positive emotions teach us what we need in our lives, physically and emotionally, and how we can continue to meet our needs in the future, which she calls the “broaden and build” effect. Positive emotions, just like all other emotions and states of mind, are fleeting and impermanent. But it is the ratio between positive emotions and negative emotions that determines people’s level of happiness.
Frederickson found that the “tipping point” is three experiences of positive emotions to one experience of negative emotions. The most ideal ratio is six to one. She found that this ratio worked in many different ways. For example in businesses or teams of people she measured positive interactions versus negative interactions. The most effective teams had about six positive to one negative interaction during their meetings. Low performing teams had more negative than positive interactions. When teams started having a three positive to one negative interaction ratio, they became a more high performing team. The same ratio was also found in many other situations, for example, she found that the three to one ratio was a tipping point in whether a couple stayed married or wanted a divorce.
I thought this was a fascinating finding. We can apply this directly to our lives to increase our happiness. When you pay attention to the people you interact with on a day to day basis, such as colleagues, spouse, friends, family members, children, etc. you can do your part to increase the number of positive interactions you have with these people to get to the three to one tipping point ratio and eventually build to a 4-6 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. For example, when you notice yourself criticizing your spouse, you can make sure that you then have at least three positive interactions with your spouse afterwards.
Another way to increase positive emotions is through mindfulness: being fully present each moment and appreciating little things about the situation you are in. For example, when you are stuck in traffic you can appreciate the song that is on the radio or look out of your car window and appreciate the blue sky. You can increase the moments you experience appreciation and gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal. Dr. Frederickson also found that people who learned loving kindness and compassion meditation experienced increases in positive emotions. You can train yourself to have more feelings of kindness and compassion towards other people in your life, which directly leads to an increase of positive emotions and more happiness for you!