The ratio of positive to negative experiences
One of the more intuitively obvious markers of well-being is the experience of positive emotions, events, and interactions. Essentially, positive experiences will make us feel good, and the more positive encounters or moments we have, the more positive emotions we will feel.
Against this backdrop, many researchers have looked at the idea of positivity ratios, i.e., seeking an ideal ratio of positive to negative experiences. This has, at times, proven to be a controversial area. Most notably, in 2005, when prestigious academic journal American Psychologist published a paper by Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada proposing an exact ‘tipping point’ which marked the boundary separating flourishing individuals from those who were languishing in life. In this research, the authors proposed that a precise ratio of 2.9013 positive experiences for every 1 negative experience encountered was required before an individual could be said to be flourishing. The ratio was then said to ‘top-out’ at 11.6436:1, with this latter figure explained as suggesting that the experience of a certain level of “appropriate negativity” may be necessary to push flourishing towards and then sustain it at optimum levels.
However, the mathematical calculations used in this paper were called into question in 2013, and subsequently, the claims about precise ratios were withdrawn. However, it was maintained that the core point, the link between flourishing and experiencing more positivity than negativity, continued to stand.
Unfortunately, despite the mathematical element of this paper having been largely debunked, the 3:1 ratio continues to be sometimes referred to in non-psychological sources as if it was an objective fact. It is often the case that a claim gets more attention than a subsequent clarification, and in this instance that can be partially explained by the fact that the paper was widely cited and referred to for almost 10 years before the findings relating to the controversial elements were withdrawn. Why it took so long for those issues to be flagged is a separate matter, and not one to get into in this forum. Suffice it to say, the controversy arising from the errors and the time it took for those errors to be discovered did not represent career high-points for those involved.
However, despite that furore, many psychologists point to the importance of positivity exceeding negativity in many settings. Once such area is that of romantic relationships.
Psychologist John Gottman is one of the world’s best known researchers into couples, and what distinguishes happy marriages from those that are likely to end in breakdown. While we will look at the idea of successful relationships in more depth in later posts, for now we will focus on what Gottman has to say with regard to positivity versus negativity.
He refers to a ‘balance theory’ of relationships. In it, he acknowledges that ostensibly negative interactions (e.g., disagreements) can serve a useful purpose in healthy partnerships, but what is key is that any couple must experience more positive interactions together than negative. Having conducted research with couples for several decades, he has proposed that the approximate ratio necessary to ensure a healthy relationship is 5 to 1. So, in practical terms, he maintains that for every one negative interaction, a couple needs to share five positive interactions to maintain a stable, healthy equilibrium. By contrast, Gottman has also reported that couples among his research participants who ultimately divorced tended to average just 0.8 positive encounters for every 1 negative interaction, a noticeably inferior ratio.
What goes to the heart of this is the idea of couples sharing good and clear communication. Again, no-one is suggesting that negative encounters are going to doom a relationship. On the contrary, they are inevitable in any relationship in which two people are engaging on an honest level. The key point is to be aware of the need to balance those negative moments with positive encounters, and for that balance to be characterised by far more positive than negative. The logic behind this is that the negative, for want of a better description, is more powerful. One negative interaction can make a greater impression on us than one positive interaction, and so, if we want to counter the effects of a single negative interaction, then we need to experience more positive interactions, with Gottman, again, positing that a 5:1 ratio is a marker of the happiest marriages.
In 2004, Shelley Gable, Harry Reis, Emily Impett, and Evan Asher took a closer look at the area of communication styles and how that might impact on individual well-being within couples. Specifically, they examined a number of response-styles when one partner shares good news with the other. These response styles can either convey enthusiasm, point to potential downsides, appear muted, or seem disinterested. Unsurprisingly, when one partner shares good news with the other, their reaction to their partner’s response will vary depending upon which of the four tendencies has been exhibited. The authors of this study highlight that the enthusiastic response style (active-constructive) correlates with happiness within a relationship, while the other response styles – if they denominate – are a marker of dissatisfaction over time.
Just to underscore the imprecise nature of the process, the authors in this instance recommended a minimum of three positive interactions for every one negative.
The take home message from all of this is that it is good to be conscious of the need to experience more positive than negative interactions in relationships; however, it would be to miss the point somewhat to keep a mental scoreboard going and tell yourself that if your ratio of positive to negative falls below a certain level that your relationships is failing.
It would be more productive to recognise that we need to ensure that we are experiencing more positive than negative interactions. While the idea of precise ratios remains an open question, scientifically speaking, if we are experiencing more positivity than negativity with a partner, then most likely everything else will take care of itself.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.