How to Increase Your Positivity Ratio

Raise Your Ratios, Lower Your Stress

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Getting more happiness in your daily life can help you to get more done as well. Buero Monaco/ Getty Images

For decades, we’ve known that "positive thinking” can combat stress and negativity by helping us focus on what is working, by helping us to maintain a less dire view of what we are facing, and by enabling us to put things in perspective, among other things. Researchers and psychologists have broadened our understanding of how positive thinking can backfire if we are trying to force ourselves to deny feelings that we have, ignore potential dangers in a situation we face, or act in a way that feels false.

This has led to a focus on positive thinking with a focus on authenticity, which works well for stress relief.

How the Positivity Ratio Works

Another way that positive thinking works is less obvious, but perhaps even more powerful. Researcher Barbara Fredrickson has studied the general effects of positivity and found that there is a point at which our positive moods and mental states can lead us to a place where we are more creative, motivated, and resilient to stress. When we reach this tipping point, our perspective is more broad in general: we see opportunities we may have missed, and we believe we can make them work for us. We also see more beauty in the world, and have more appreciation for it. Our ability to manage stress in general increases, so we are less likely to fall into a downward spiral of reactivity.

Generally speaking, once we reach a point where we are experiencing positive feelings significantly more often than we are entrenched in negative ones, this self-perpetuating cycle of positivity is set in motion, and positivity and resilience become much more easy to attain and maintain.

How Much Positivity Do We Need?

More specifically, when our moods are positive three times more than they are negative, or if our positive-to-negative ratio is three-to-one, we reach a tipping point where we experience an “upward spiral” of positivity and everything appears to fall into place for our moods and performance.

By focusing on creating a 3:1 ratio for yourself, you can build positive experiences into your life. These are rewarding in themselves, but they can provide so much more for you as well. By creating ones that make you feel optimistic, grateful, appreciated, inspired, awe-struck, and just plain happy, you can build your ability to enjoy life in general and seek out even more of these positive experiences.

What Raises the Ratio

If you are knowledgeable in math, you probably already realize that there are two main ways that you can raise your positivity ratio: you can minimize your negative experiences (decrease your denominator) and you can increase your positive ones (increase your numerator). When we talk about negative and positive experiences, this means those that create these feelings within you. Many experiences can be felt as either negative or positive depending on a multitude of personal factors. This means that sometimes it is possible to shift a “negative” experience to being felt as a “positive” one if you know how.

A Caveat About Positive Thinking

Shifting your perspective to more positive thinking can be a powerful approach to increasing your positivity, and it can work in several ways. Finding the positive in a situation, attaching personal meaning, and reframing a threat as a challenge are all strategies that have been proven effective. However, as mentioned earlier, it is important to know that denying your legitimate negative feelings or trying to convince yourself that something is positive when you truly aren't feeling it can backfire and can paradoxically make you feel more stressed than less.

One reason this occurs is that you may feel that you "should" experience things in a more positive way and the fact that you aren't is a failure on your part. Another reason that attempting to force yourself to feel positivity when you strongly feel negativity is that it can feel inauthentic; our emotions are often there for important reasons, so ignoring your intuition or emotions when it is important and your feelings are trying to tell you something can create psychological dissonance. Sometimes addressing the issue that is causing stress is a more effective approach.

When working on feeling positivity, it is important to focus on positive aspects of a situation that you truly feel are positive, rather than attempting to convince yourself that you really feel differently about something that has you feeling rightly upset. This is a fine line to walk.

How to Use This Information in Your Life

Many people have found that the “positivity ratio” approach to stress management feels very empowering. This is because it provides us with a sense of control, and when we feel in control of our situation, we feel less stressed. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can control how we respond to them. When we feel that we have options and resources, we can respond from a place of strength and inner peace. We have much more control over adding pleasant experiences in our lives than we often have over preventing stressful ones. With that in mind, here are some simple ways to raise your positivity ratios.

Make A Plan

When you’re feeling stressed or slightly depressed, you may not be starting off the day feeling excited for what’s ahead like you might if you were feeling better about things. In fact, you may be seeing things in a more negative light and making decisions that create more of the same—something that is known as a downward spiral of negativity. It is often possible to turn things around with a simple plan.

The act of creating a plan can empower you to feel more control over your circumstances and relax into your day with more positive expectations. The plan itself can involve minimizing stressors (lowering your numerator) or increasing the amount of time you spend feeling positive feelings. By planning ahead, you can consider canceling plans that can create more stress, or adding positive experiences to your day.

Maintain a Gratitude Journal

One way to raise your ratios is to maximize the positive experiences you already have in your life. You can expand the positive feelings you experience by savoring them. You can also increase your focus on what makes you happy by journaling about the things for which you are grateful.

When you regularly start or end the day by writing about three things you appreciate that day, you develop a habit of focusing on things that bring joy and lift your mood. You also make gratitude more of an automatic experience. An added bonus of having a gratitude journal is that you are left with a written record of the many things you have to appreciate in life. Studies show that gratitude journaling can bring lasting benefits for your mood and personal resilience.

Monitor Your Mood

When you become stressed repeatedly and your ratios start to shift, you may not notice a downturn in mood until you are feeling significant effects of a lower-than-three-to-one ratio. This may seem to go without saying, but paying attention to your mood is important for your long-term happiness and resilience. If you notice that you’ve felt stressed for a few days and you are starting to experience the tell-tale signs of a lower ratio, you can begin turning things around for yourself right away. This can keep things from moving in the wrong direction before raising your ratio becomes difficult.

Treat Yourself

Researchers in positive psychology have identified certain activities or experiences that are physically or emotionally pleasing as “pleasures.” They provide an immediate lift to your mood, and require little effort, like eating a cookie, enjoying a bath, or savoring a good song. Pleasures can be effective in lifting your positivity ratio, and they’re easy to add to your life. It’s important to know that pleasures usually provide a slightly decreasing level of positive experience if you use them a lot, so varying them is optimal—don’t use the same pleasures every day unless they do truly still bring you the same bit of joy. Changing up your pleasures—keeping them on a rotation—is the best way to go, and still a simple and effective way to make the most of your day.

Have Some Habits

While positive thinking is difficult to maintain day in and day out, habits that bring an emotional lift are simpler to stick with. This is because it’s often easier to change our behaviors than our thoughts. By adding some habits into your day that will create an emotional lift, such as a morning workout, a daily nature walk, or a call to a good friend during your commute home, you can add positive experiences to your day and greater levels of positivity to your habitual way of thinking. The habit of positive thinking can follow fro there.

Find Some Surprises

We can grow used to even the most positive experiences and take them for granted without realizing it. For this reason, it helps to have some variety in your day. In the morning while you're planning your day, try to add something new that you'll enjoy, something that isn't part of your routine. Having the fresh experience will maximize the joy you find in it.

Use Proven Standbys

It also helps to be aware of what truly brings you comfort and contentment, and work these things into your regular routine. If you enjoy walking the same route when you exercise, watching the same comedies at night, or eating the same favorite meals, be sure to work what you love into your daily life as much as possible. You can make the 3-to-1 ratio a regular aspect of your life.

Sources:

Adler MG, Fagley NS. Appreciation: Individual Differences in Finding Value and Meaning as a Unique Predictor of Subjective Well-B eing.. Journal of Personality February 2005.

Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of personality and social psychology February 2003.

Fredrickson, Barbara L.The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, Vol 56(3), Mar, 2001 pp. 218-226.

Garland, Eric L.; Fredrickson, Barbara; Kring, Ann M.; Johnson, David P.; Meyer, Piper S.; Penn, David L. Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology.Positive Clinical Psychology Clinical Psychology Review. 2010 30(7):849-864.

Qian, Xinyi Lisa; Yarnal, Careen M.; Almeida, David M.  Does Leisure Time Moderate or Mediate the Effect of Daily Stress onPositive Affect?  Journal of Leisure Research 2014, Vol. 46 Issue 1, p106.

Schiffrin, Holly H.; Falkenstern, Melissa. The impact of affect on resource development: Support for the broaden-and-build model. North American Journal of Psychology. 2012, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p569-584.

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