"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
Toward A Flourishing Life
I regularly walk 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.
And it was no doubt moving us both toward the tipping point at which we begin to flourish.
The 3-1 Tipping Point Into Flourishing
Simply put, "to flourish" means "to be strong and healthy and to grow well, especially because conditions are right."
Barbara Frederickson, author of Positivity says, "three to one is the tipping point. The healthiest thing would be to aim above — four to one, five to one, even six to one."
She's talking about the ratio of positive emotions we experience relative to negative emotions. 3 to 1 is where life starts to get truly enjoyable. Above that ratio, it 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 the idea is not to get rid of negative emotions so much as to create more positive emotions. Then we can better cope with the negative realities in our lives, work and relationships. And do something about them!
Fredrickson says that only 20% of US adults are flourishing. The rest are just getting by, or worse.
Upwards of 60% of US adults feel like they just going through the motions. Or as Thoreau said, "…living lives of quiet desperation."
Research by John Gottman at the University of Washington backs up Fredrickson's findings. 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 one to one, or less.
It's Not Just About The Money
It's not just about the money — or lack of it — for most people!
Beyond a certain point, at which basic survival needs are met, accumulating more material stuff does little to increase your level of flourishing. Flourishing is more about what you do with your circumstances, and how you interpret them, 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."
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!
How Do You Find Your Ratio?
You can just pay attention and guesstimate how often you feel positive and how often you feel negative. You can keep a sheet of paper or a notebook close and write down your positive or negative feelings and note the ratio.
Fredrickson has a positivity ratio website where you can assess how positive or negative you felt in the last day, and what your ratio is. Try it, it only takes 2 minutes.
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.
This is not a prescription for becoming Pollyanna. You don't don’t have to get rid negative emotions. "Negative emotions are necessary for us to flourish," says Fredrickson. It is the ratio of positive to negative that determines whether you flourish or not. Happiness results as the overall outcome of many positive emotions.
So how do you increase your positivity?
Cultivate 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 just be open to what is, and enjoy it (or some part of it).
Being kind can help up your ratio, and paying attention to those moments when you're being kind helps even more.
As well, being grateful for what others do for you, and for all the blessings you do have can help a lot.
Get outside in nice weather and enjoy it.
I find that laughing at myself when I get angry or frustrated turns a negative emotion into a positive one. Instead of judging myself as a "klutz" or "an idiot", I just say, "Oops! There I go again, a good person up to no good. (Thanks to Robert Fritz for this one.)
More sophisticated methods include practicing mindfulness and loving kindness meditation. I outline numerous methods for adding positive emotions to your daily life in my e-book Emotional Mastery: Manage Your Moods and Create What Matters — With Whatever Life Gives You!
Be Open To Change and Growth
Finally, Fredrickson recommends that we continue to change and grow.
She points out that we do both more when we connect with others, and learn from that connection. She 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, shift from a problem focused stance to a creating results stance, and be kind to yourself and others.
If you improve your daily positivity ratio, you can expect to experience more meaning and purpose in life.
You will find that you receive more social support (or notice the support that's already there more).
You'll experience fewer aches and pains and other physical symptoms of dis-ease. You'll be more effective at what you do. You'll be better able to savour the good things in life and see more and better ways to create what matters most to you.
And you'll sleep better, too.