We have to experience at least three positives to every negative to function normally in our personal and working lives. This is the least needed. If we want to flourish, to be at our best, the positivity ratio has to be ramped up to reach 5:1. If we fall below the 3:1 threshold, we will be trapped in a downward spiral of languishing and failure. At the same time, if there is too much positivity, if the positivity ratio goes above 11:1, then flourishing breaks down, because if there are no complaints, no problems and no conflicts, then it means something negative is happening below the surface.
To understand why this is so, we need to understand how our emotions work.
We have both positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions occur when we sense opportunities. Negative emotions occur when we ward off threats. Both are necessary for our survival.
Before that, we have to have some working knowledge of our brain.
Our brain has three evolutionary parts:
Reptilian brain: This is the brain stem. This is involved in the four F’s: feeding, fighting, fleeing and sexual behaviour.
Primitive mammalian brain: This is the limbic system. This gives us the ability to have a new set of emotions: passion, love, rage, dread and forming attachment to offspring. It also gives us the ability to learn from experiences and to store that learning in memory, freeing us from being slaves to instinctive and automatic responding. There are two parts of this system that are important:
- Hippocampus: helps us remember the facts of our experiences: their context and the where and the when and the how.
- Amygdala: helps us store the emotional meaning of our experiences.
Modern mammalian brain: This is the cerebral cortex. This is what helps us think and create complex things about almost anything. Now, let us talk about positive and negative emotions.
The negative emotional system: It is not as if the modern mammalian brain is in control of everything. When emotion is strong enough, it can completely shut down the modern mammalian brain and take charge. Emotions are not bad. Even negative emotions are not bad. They are necessary for our immediate survival. Fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, shame, jealousy and envy all have their own uses at times. They help you focus on a threat and deal with it satisfactorily. Like, you run to safety, you grab your child from danger. But they can also surface when we don’t really need them and that can prevent us from flourishing. But why does this happen? It is all because of the amygdala. All information goes through the amygdala before it goes through the thinking brain. The amygdala sets of an emotional response even before the information reaches the thinking brain. The emotional response is not logical, it reacts by comparing the new experience to others stored before. This comparison is not done in a logical way. It is done by way of association.
The positive emotional system: The ten major positive emotions are love, joy, gratitude, contentment, interest, hope,pride, amusement, inspiration and awe. They help us engage with life and be open to possibilities. The positive emotional system originates deep in the midbrain, spreads to the front left hemisphere. They are rich in dopamine receptors and when this system is activated dopamine is released and dopamine stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centres and gives us happiness. It also stimulates the vagus and releases more oxytocin. All of this helps us be calm, tend and befriend others and helps us flourish. The positive emotional system helps us broaden and build our menu of possible responses while the negative emotional system contracts and makes us react in a stereotyped way. They stimulate interest, curiosity and positive engagement. They help you cope and recover rapidly. We all have a negativity bias in everything in our lives because the negative system is essential for survival. We react more to negative things than positive things. But we can change. The way to do it is to build the positive with deliberate effort. Because of the strength of the negative we need five times more positives than negatives. Then you start using the positive emotional system more. Gradually, the negative emotional system gets less traffic. We should also consciously try to cut the frequency and intensity of the negatives. By constantly building our capacity to experience positive emotion, we see its beauty and pleasures and start using it as the route of choice in our lives.
So this is the flourishing ratio:
Number of positives/Number of negatives=5-11=Flourishing
Number of positives/Number of negatives=3-4=Normal
Number of positives/Number of negatives= < 3= Languishing