Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Much Positive Thinking is Too Much? Or Not Enough?

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Get Back in the Positive Water.

Eureka! Here is some crazy crazy news from the world of Positive Thinking that is guaranteed to confuse both you eternal optimists AND those of you cynical folks who have long grown tired of shiny, happy people holding hands.

It concerns the controversy over the Magic Number, the Positivity Ratio. 

Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has carved out a niche for herself as the world’s leading expert on positivity—including all the varying flavors of emotion one might class as positive: joy, love, pride, hope, awe, amusement, compassion, appreciation, interest, gratitude, and inspiration.  In order to study the positive, she also had to class the emotions that we experience as negative:  fear, anger, doubt, boredom, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, shame etc.

In 2005, Fredrickson and fellow researcher Marcial Losada published a very famous study citing a very specific ratio of positivity to negativity—a “golden ratio,”—that tips the scales towards living a happy, exciting, fulfilling life.

This ratio was 3:1.

It was not 1:1.  It wasn’t even 2:1, which some people claim is the ratio for the average American. (How on earth would we verify this?)

No, According to the study, people who experience twice as many positive emotions as negative emotions are overall “no happier” than those whose negative emotions equal or exceed their positive ones  (I don’t quite understand how this could be, but let’s leave this technicality aside for a moment).

No, according to Fredrickson and Losada, it’s 3:1.  People who have one instance of a negative emotion for every three instances of positive emotion tend to flourish and excel, across the board.  Those with more negative instances do not. 

Unfortunately for those who had hung their hats on this golden ratio (including the unfortumate Fredrickson and Losada), last August, 2013, the math behind it was proven to be complete crap. 

Which is a disappointment, because there were so many things I really liked about this “mathematical certainty” for how much positive is positive and how much negative is also positive.

For example: for those of you who (like me) really hate it when people say, “well, everything happens for a reason.”  (Yes, okay, but this doesn’t mean it’s a GOOD reason), the positivity ration also argued that there’s a LIMIT to how much positivity is good for us to have. 

According to Fredrickson and Losada, once the ratio goes beyond 10:1, it seems that our self-efficacy turns into self-delusion.  You know all that stuff that your parents used to warn you about your “pie-in-the-sky/Pollyanna/woo-woo” thinking?  Well, if you go past the 10:1 mark, they were right—you ARE likely to crash and burn.

In other words, we WANT some of our negative emotions alive and kicking because they give us important feedback on what’s happening both internally and externally.

Despite the debunking of Losada and Fredrickson’s math, I think that this is still true.  I also think there’s still good sense in this statement from Fredrickson:

“Levity is that unseen source that lifts you skyward, whereas gravity is the opposing force that pulls you earthward.  Unchecked levity leaves you flighty, ungrounded, and unreal.  Unchecked gravity leaves you collapsed in a heap of misery.  Yet, when properly combined, these two opposing forces leave you buoyant.”  (Frederickson, Positivity, Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life)

Agreed.  Even if the research wasn't so "top-notch" after all.

All this wonderful news about negativity (or all this negative debunking of positivity) really makes me feel quite positive, because ever since I started down the Yellow Brick Road of Spiritual Healing and Self-Improvement, I’ve felt quite negative about giving up all my negative emotions. 

I especially don’t like it because I’ve spent so much of my life hiding these emotions from myself and from others, that now when I actually CAN experience a genuine negative emotion authentically, that the last thing I want is some well-meaning transformed-n-enlightened idiot in my face explaining how I will feel different once I get aligned, get in-tune, let go of my story, etc. 

Well, yes, OF COURSE I’ll feel better, but just give me a second to do this other thing, okay?  Why do we have to be in such a goddamned hurry to feel good all the goddamned time?  I mean, I agree that it feels better to feel good than to feel bad, but you know what else feels good?  Telling the truth about my own personal experience, that’s what.

The best part is that I've been that very same well-meaning idiot myself, so many times.  It IS hard to be with people who are suffering--especially me.  It's bad enough when YOU feel bad. It's even worse when it's me.

Now, in my forties, I am back to doing what I did very naturally as a little kid.  When I find someone I love who's fallen down a dark hole, first I climb down in there with them.  Yuck.  I remember what what it's like down here.  

Next, once we have both agreed that A) Yes, we are in this hole, and this hole exists, and it sucks, and B) many people who haven't fallen down this hole will tell you that everything happens for a reason, which we'll be sure to remind them of if they ever fall down it, then we can get to C) Is there any way to start building a ladder so we can take a couple steps back up towards the surface?

All in all, even if the positivity math was debunked, I think there's a lot to be said to the 3:1 ratio.  At least, at this point in my life it seems pretty sound.  

1 comment:

  1. its easy to try to cheer someone up by pointing out things for them to be happy about, but it's more helpful to plop down next to them and admit that the whole thing sucks. Maybe not as "spiritual" but definitely more humane!