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Here's the Magic Number That Leads to Happiness

Positive Emotions

Story at-a-glance -

  • In order to flourish emotionally, research shows you need a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative experiences
  • Flourishing mentally is described as being beyond happiness “in that it encompasses both feeling good and doing good”
  • Only 20 percent of Americans achieve this critical happiness ratio, which means 80 percent do not

By Dr. Mercola

Most Americans have two positive experiences for every negative one, according to Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist and positive-emotions researcher. This sounds like it would set you up for positive emotional health, but this 2:1 positivity ratio is only enough for you to barely get by.

In order to flourish emotionally, Fredrickson’s research shows you need a 3:1 ratio.1 That is, you need to have three positive emotions for every one negative emotion.

Flourishing mentally is described as being beyond happiness “in that it encompasses both feeling good and doing good.”2 Only 20 percent of Americans achieve this critical ratio, which means 80 percent do not.

What Are the Benefits of Positive Emotions?

Positive emotions obviously make you feel good, but their benefits extend far beyond this. In the video above, Fredrickson explains that positive emotions open your mind, broadening your awareness of the world and allowing you to become more in tune with the needs of others.

Experiencing positive emotions also increases intuition and creativity while broadening your mindset. A broadened mindset, in turn, helps you build important personal resources like social connections, coping strategies, and environmental knowledge that will help you thrive.

Indeed, according to research by Fredrickson and colleagues published in American Psychologist:3

The varied good outcomes empirically linked with positive affect support the broaden-and-build theory, which asserts that positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that increased human ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction.

The theory holds that unlike negative emotions, which narrow people’s behavioral urges toward specific actions that were life-preserving for human ancestors (e.g., fight, flight), positive emotions widen the array of thoughts and actions called forth (e.g., play, explore), facilitating generativity and behavioral flexibility.

Laboratory experiments support these claims, showing that relative to neutral states, induced negative emotions narrow people’s momentary thought – action repertoires, whereas induced positive emotions broaden these same repertoires.”

There are physical and mental benefits too. For instance, research shows that positive emotions may:4

Speed recovery from the cardiovascular “aftereffects” caused by negative emotionsAlter frontal brain asymmetryIncrease immune function
Boost resilience to adversityIncrease happinessPredict psychological growth
Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisolReduce inflammatory responses to stressReduce subsequent-day physical pain
Increase resistance to rhinovirusesReduce your risk of strokeExtend your lifespan

Your Marriage and Your Business May Benefit from Increased Positivity

The 3:1 positivity ratio for flourishing is sometimes known as the Losada ratio because Chilean psychologist Marcial Losada was also involved in the work. The ratio was based, in part, on research by Losada, who studied the interpersonal dynamics of business teams.5

He found that high-performance business teams averaged 5.6 positive interactions for every negative one, while low-performance teams had about three negative interactions for each positive one.6

This is true not only in the business world but also at home, where increased positive interactions may predict a happier marriage. As reported by TIME:7

“Losada’s five-to-one ratio also appears to be essential when you get home and try to muster the energy for a successful marriage.

John Gottman at the University of Washington has found that couples with a ratio of fewer than five positive interactions for every negative one are destined for divorce.”

Further, the number of positive interactions needed to offset negative ones increase the more distant the relationship.

Ed Diener included the following revealing chart in his book "Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth,” as posted on Ed Barker’s Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog:8

Psychological Wealth Chart

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Is the Positivity Ratio Flawed?

In 2013, graduate student Nick Brown and colleagues published a critical response to Fredrickson and Losada's paper. They claimed the mathematical claims in the paper were flawed and the positivity ration of 3: 1 “entirely unfounded.”9

The American Psychologist formally retracted the mathematical modeling elements of the paper as a result. While Losada declined to comment on the criticism, Fredrickson prepared a rebuttal, which was published by The American Psychologist in 2013.10 She stands behind the findings, noting:11

“Even when scrubbed of Losada's now-questioned mathematical modeling, ample evidence continues to support the conclusion that, within bounds, higher positivity ratios are predictive of flourishing mental health and other beneficial outcomes.

… Science, at its best, self-corrects. We may now be witnessing such self-correction in action as mathematically precise statements about positivity ratios give way to heuristic statements such as ‘higher is better, within bounds.’

While this new statement is perhaps less dramatic, it remains just as useful. Time and data will tell.”

Focus on Increasing Positive Experiences, Not Eliminating Negative Ones

In order to be happier or to flourish you might think the first step would be to eliminate negative experiences in your life, but often these are beyond your control. Instead, focus on increasing your positive experiences. This is something that virtually everyone can do.

Even ordinary moments can be a source of great pleasure, although most people don’t tend to appreciate the “little things” in life until they’re older. One study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggested that while younger people tend to value extraordinary experiences, as people get older they tend to place more value on ordinary moments, such as drinking a good cup of coffee or "having a long and fun conversation with my son."12

It’s possible to find happiness and joy in everyday moments no matter what your age, however. In fact, happy people tend to follow similar habits that set them apart from their sad and stressed-out peers. Many of these habits will directly or indirectly increase your positive experiences.

For instance, if you have an hour free, do you spend it doing something fun? Or do you spend it catching up on housework, tackling an extra work project, or otherwise working? The latter is a "minor form of insanity," according to happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener, PhD.13

And it certainly won't help you get happier. To break free of this trap, make a point to schedule your weeks around events (or ordinary activities) that make you feel truly happy and alive.

Savoring the ‘Little Things’ Is Key

People who take the time to savor pleasant moments report higher levels of happiness, regardless of where the day takes them.14 If you don't already do this, keeping a daily diary of pleasant moments and whether or not you truly savored them, might help.

You might be surprised at how much happiness is to be had in your everyday life. Try appreciating the scent of your coffee, relishing in the feeling of your soft bed, or enjoying the sunrise before you start your day. Further, as reported in TIME, strive to increase positive experiences both with friends and in your romantic relationships:15

“The best way to maximize happiness when having meals with friends is for one person to take a turn each time paying for everyone’s dinner. It’s a big hit but it results in many more ‘free’ meals for everyone, boosting happiness.

… In relationships: Divorce may have less to do with an increase in conflict and more to do with a decrease in positive feelings. It’s a better strategy for couples to increase fun moments together rather than trying to eliminate the bad times.”

If you’re wondering what your positivity ratio is, Fredrickson has a two-minute online quiz to help you find out.16

Today Is Not Just Another Day in Your Life

As you’re reading this, you may think you’re in the midst of just another day in your life. But changing your mindset to have gratitude for each and every day of your life can change the way you live for the better. In the video above, Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast shares how to let go of worry and expand your gratitude to include each day of your life.

Even the “ordinary” experiences of your day – opening your eyes, seeing a rainbow of colors, the changing sky – are extraordinary if you think about it.

If you learn to respond as if today was the first day and the last day of your life, it can help you have real gratitude and your positive experiences will likely skyrocket. Simple things are often the most profound:

  • Look at the sky – the stars in the night, the formation of clouds in the day – and know that it will likely never again look the same as it does right now
  • Look at the faces of the people you meet. Know that each has an incredible story behind it – their own and the stories of their ancestors
  • Open your heart to the gift of technology and convenience – that you can flip a switch and have light, turn on a faucet and have water

As inspirational writer William Arthur Ward said, “Gratitude can transform common days into Thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” And emotional benefits aside, showing gratitude is also good for your heart. Study author Paul Mills, a professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, said:17,18

"We found that those patients who kept gratitude journals for those eight weeks showed reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers, as well as an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote. Improved heart rate variability is considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk … It seems that a more grateful heart is indeed a more healthy heart, and that gratitude journaling is an easy way to support cardiac health."

7 Habits to Boost Your Positivity Ratio

While actively “pursuing happiness” is associated with lower well-being in the U.S., this isn’t the case in Russia, where pursuing happiness is associated with higher well-being.19 The difference is thought to be a cultural one, in that Russians equate happiness with social relationships while in the US happiness is often thought of as an individual goal. But focusing on building quality relationships typically brings increased positive experiences and happiness.

Researcher Brett Ford of the University of California, Berkeley further explained:20

“Part of the reason that wanting to be happy backfires in the US is that people get down on themselves … Also, wanting happiness can make you self-focused and disengaged, and then you’re kind of lonely, and that interferes with feeling happy, too.”

Aside from this, the simplest way to boost your positivity is simply to find joy in your daily life. At, a group of psychologists, philosophers, educators, and web professionals are dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge about happiness and depression prevention. They’ve compiled seven habits you can adopt to enhance your well-being and ultimately boost your positivity ratio in order to flourish.21

  • Relationships: Establish at least one close friendship. Cooperate in activities together often and share your personal feelings with your friends or relatives.
  • Caring: Volunteering or caring for others is associated with increased happiness. You can do this as part of an organized group or simply by reaching out to a loved one, colleague, or neighbor in need.
  • Exercise: Regular exercise enhances well-being and lowers your risk of depression.
  • Flow: The tendency to become so absorbed in an activity that you're able to forget about your worries, obligations, and even physical pains is called "flow" – and engaging in activities or goals that help you find your flow is key for your mental and emotional health.
  • Discover meaning: Finding a greater meaning in your life, via spirituality, religion, or a sense of purpose, is associated with happiness.
  • Discover and use your strengths: The happiest people are those who have discovered their unique strengths and virtues and use them for a purpose greater than their own personal goals.
  • Gratitude and mindfulness: Grateful people have greater positive emotions. Practicing “mindfulness” means you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now, which is ideally done regularly throughout your day. This, too, is associated with enhanced well-being.