Positive Emotions, Key To A Flourishing Life?

Two people jumping for joy on oceanside tidal flats at sunset. Mountains in the background. Expressing positive emotions.

“Flourishing encompasses both feeling satisfied with your life and also functioning well in it. The way psychologists assess the second part is whether people feel as if they are learning,  growing, and making contributions to society.”

Barbara Frederickson,
Positivity: Discover the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

I walked along the Victoria, BC path that overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains in Washington State, USA. Cloudless blue sky, sun sparkling off rippling water, and the whole Olympic range standing out in gorgeous contrast. Breathtaking!

As I walked, I heard a man on a cell phone say, “I’m just finishing a two hour walk and I gotta tell you this is the most beautiful place on Earth.” His face and eyes sparkled like the sun off the water below.

His comment made me smile. Both of us were experiencing positive emotions, one of the basic components of a flourishing life. 

Being outside in fine weather for at least 30 minutes has been shown to improve people’s mood. It was sure improving this stranger’s mood, and mine. 

It was also moving us toward—or past—the tipping point, at which we begin to flourish—and deeply enjoy our lives.

How Do I Move Toward A Flourishing Life?

Simply put, Barbara Fredrickson says, “to flourish” means “to be strong and healthy and to grow well, especially because conditions are right.” 

Her definition is very close to my definition of “thrive”—to grow, develop, and prosper in relation to your own values, and the natural systems on which all healthy, wealth and well being depend.”

Too often, though, we assume we have to solve problems, and get rid of negative emotions, before we can even think of thriving or flourishing. But that’s not so.

Problem solving is a useful skill, but not a framework to build your life around. 

Sadly, many do. Fredrickson says that only 20% of US adults flourish. The rest just get by, or worse.  Upwards of 60% of US adults feel as if they just go through the motions. 

Or as Thoreau said, “…living lives of quiet desperation.”

It’s Not Just About The Money

Many people think their lives would be better, if they only had more money. But, for most people, flourishing is not just about the money—or lack of it.

Beyond the point at which basic survival needs are met, accumulating more money and material stuff does little to increase your level of flourishing.

One of the few things I recall from Sociology classes was a study that showed that, in all social classes—low, middle, upper, and their subdivisions—people thought they would flourish and be happy, if only had 25% more income. 

But that extra income moved them up the next level, where people thought they would be happy and flourish, if they only had 25% more income. And so on.

Happiness researchers define this as “social comparison.” But it lands us on the “hedonic treadmill,”running after more, and missing the good we have.

And, often blaming circumstances for our lack of happiness.

Experience Is Not What Happens To Us

Flourishing, then, is more about what you do with circumstances, and how you interpret them, rather than about the circumstances themselves. 

Even people on the streets or with challenging illnesses can flourish, especially when they’re with friends and family, and when they are open to feeling excited when they encounter something new. 

Fredrickson says, “It’s in the ordinary transactions of life—being with others and following your interests—that positive emotions grow. . . . Affluence isn’t necessary.”

The idea behind both thriving and flourishing is not to focus on getting rid of negative emotions, but rather on positive ones.

This is not “positive thinking,” or some Pollyanna prescription for happy ever after. You do not have to rid yourself of negative emotions. 

“Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish,” says Fredrickson.

Flourishing is about creating more positive emotions, and increasing your ratio of positive to negative emotions.

A man with arms outspread celebrating his flourishing life agains the backdrop of an orange sunset

What Is “The Tipping Point” Into A Flourishing Life?

“Three to one is the tipping point,” says Frederickson.

Three positive emotions to every negative one tips us from drowning in negative emotions to thriving in the midst of positive emotions.

”The healthiest thing,” she stresses,“would be to aim above—four to one, five to one, even six to one.”

Three to one is the point where life starts to get truly enjoyable.

Above the 3:1 ratio, life gets better and better—until we get so positive that we lose touch with reality. That occurs somewhere around the 10 to 1 mark.  

So, again, the idea is not torid yourself of negative emotions so much as it is to create more positive emotions. 

When we do so, we are much better able cope with the negative realities in our lives, work and relationships. And do something about them.

Research by John Gottman at the University of Washington backs up Fredrickson’s findings, especially in terms of relationships.

He showed that married couples who share a five to one (5-1) ratio of positive to negative emotions with each other create solid, lasting marriages.

Those who don’t achieve this ratio tend to slip into a downward spiral of negativity. The ratio of those on the slippery slope toward divorce is more like 1 to 1, or less.

Positive emotions are so important that getting your ratio to 3 to 1 and beyond can not only make you feel better, function better and flourish in life and work — it can add up to 10 years to your life.

But more important than your exact ratio is your desire to add positive emotions to your life every day. 

Just aspiring to be more realistically positive can bump up your ratio. It also helps you notice the positive emotions more, and the negative ones less.

So how do you increase your positivity? 

Keys To Cultivating Positive Emotions? 

“Be aware of the moment,” says Fredrickson. 

Most moments are positive but we miss them because we’re focusing on something negative in the past or future. So try to be open to what is, and enjoy it (or some part of it).

Being kind can also up your ratio. Paying attention to those moments when you are being kind helps even more. So be kind to yourself and others.

As well, be grateful for what others do for you, and for all the blessings you do have. 

And get outside in nice weather and enjoy it.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously 

I found that laughing at myself when I get angry or frustrated turns a negative emotion into a positive one. 

Now, instead of judging myself, and getting angry, I just say, “Oops! There I go again, a good person up to no good. (Thanks to Robert Fritz for this one.)

Using humour to help yourself up your ratio of positive emotions may seem simplistic to some, but it is not.

According to Victor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search For Meaning, “Humour, more than anything else can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”

Be Open To Change and Growth

Fredrickson recommends that we continue to change and grow. She points out that we do more of both when we connect with others, and learn from that connection. 

She also recommends acting in “beautifully unpredictable” ways, and says, “Nobody grows by doing the same thing every day.”

So vary your routine. Look for opportunities to learn and grow. 

Focus On Creating The Results You Long For

When you shift from a problem-focused stance to a results-focused creating stance—and starting creating desired results—your positivity ratio will increase. 

Note that there is a big difference between creativity—doing something differently—and creatingbringing into being what you love, and want to see exist in your life and world.

Using my life design framework empowers and enables you to acknowledge problems, and rise above them in pursuit of what truly matters.

And enjoy the meaning and purpose to be found when giving your gifts to the world.

What Are Positivity’s Benefits?

If you improve your positivity ratio, you can expect to experience even more meaning and purpose in life.

You will find that you receive more social support (and/or notice the support that’s already there).

You’ll experience fewer aches and pains and other physical symptoms of stress and dis-ease.

You’ll be more effective at what you do. Better able to focus on what most matters to you. Better able to savour the good things in life

And able to see more and better ways to create the real and lasting results you truly want—in life, work, relationships, hobbies, and whatever else truly matters to you.

Most important, with all of this, you will experience a deep, authentic happiness—in spite of the problems, issues and obstacles you face

Oh, yeah, you’ll sleep better, too.

How Do You Find Your Positivity Ratio?

Fredrickson offers a positivity ratio assessment where you can check how positive or negative you felt in the last day, and see what your ratio is. 

Try it, it only takes 2 minutes.

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