The Secret to Flourishing (In Relationships, At Work and Health)

February 3, 2013 by Ken Nowack

“Fall seven times; stand up eight.”

Japanese proverb

Is it possible to actually predict how long relationships will last, how healthy we will be or how well teams will be high performers just based on the ration of positive to negative interactions with others?

It appears that we can and that all of the above share a common positive-to-negative ratio of emotions and behaviors of about 3:1 (sometimes called the Losada ratio).

In fact, individuals, partnerships and teams appear to flourish when this “tipping point” is reached.

The Magic Positive-to-Negative Ratio for Happy Relationships

John Gottman’s pioneering research on marriages suggests that there is a “magic ratio” of 5 to 1 — in terms of our balance of positive to negative interactions. Gottman found that marriages are significantly more likely to succeed when the couple’s interactions are near that 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative. When the ratio approaches 1 to 1, marriages “cascade to divorce.”   In a fascinating study, Gottman teamed up with two mathematicians to test this model. Starting in 1992, they recruited 700 couples who had just received their marriage licenses. For each couple, the researchers videotaped a 15-minute conversation between husband and wife and counted the number of positive and negative interactions. Then, based on the 5 to 1 ratio, they predicted whether each couple would stay together or divorce.   Ten years later, Gottman and his colleagues followed up with each couple to determine the accuracy of their original predictions. The results were stunning. They had predicted divorce with 94% accuracy — based on scoring the couples’ interactions for 15 minutes.

Evidence corroborating the idea that this positivity ratio separates flourishing from languishing can be drawn from other research by John Gottman ((Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum)). He and his colleagues observed 73 couples discussing an area of conflict in their relationship.

Researchers measured positivity and negativity using two coding schemes: one focused on positive and negative speech acts and another focused on observable positive and negative emotions. Gottman reported that among marriages that last and that both partners find to be satisfying (N=3)—what might be called flourishing marriages—mean positivity ratios were 5.1 for speech acts and 4.7 for observed emotions.

By contrast, among marriages identified as being on cascades toward dissolution—languishing marriages at best—mean positivity ratios were 0.9 for speech acts and 0.7 for observed emotions (Gottman, 1994). Summarizing two decades of observational research on marriages, Gottman (1994) concluded that unless a couple is able to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative affect (5 to 1), it is highly likely that their marriage will end.

The Magic Positive-to-Negative Ratio for Team Performance

Can we accurately predict how well teams perform by counting the positive to negative interactions of team members?

From behind one-way mirrors, researcher Maricial Losada and his team in 1999 observed 60 management teams crafting their annual strategic plans and rated every interpersonal interaction of team members. Communications were coded as “positive” if team members showed support, encouragement, or appreciation towards others, and they were coded as “negative” if team members showed disapproval, sarcasm, or cynicism. They were coded as “inquiry” if they asked questions aimed at exploring a position and as “advocacy” if they provided logic or arguments in favor of the team member’s viewpoint. They were coded as “self” if they referred to the team member speaking, and they were coded as “other” if they referenced a person or group who was neither present nor part of the company.

Thje researchers identified 15 flourishing teams, defined as showing uniformly high performance across three indicators: profitability, customer satisfaction, and evaluations by superiors, peers, and subordinates ((Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740–765)). Other teams had mixed (n=26) or uniformly low performance (n=19). Their analysis suggested that the high performing or flourishing teams could be categorized as those have at least a 2.9 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions among team members.

Interestingly, signs of disintegration of team performance appeared with a positivity ratio of 11.6.  So, for team productivity and performance there appears to be an upper limit to just how many times team members can be positive before it has a detrimental impact on the functioning of the team.

The Magic Positive-to-Negative Ratio for Mental Health

Research on the importance of the positive-to-negative ratio for mental health and well-being comes from Robert Schwartz and colleagues from the University of Pittsburg ((Schwartz, R. M., Reynolds, C. F., III, Thase, M. E., Frank, E., Fasiczka, A. L., & Haaga, D. A. F. (2002). Optimal and normal affect balance in psychotherapy of major depression: Evaluation of the balanced states of mind model. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 30, 439–450)). They tracked the outcomes of 66 men undergoing treatment for depression and measured positivity ratios before and after treatment. Before treatment, positivity ratios were very low at 0.5. Schwartz and colleagues reported that among patients who showed optimal remission, indexed by both self-report and clinical ratings, mean post-treatment positivity ratios were 4.3 to 1. Among those who showed typical remission by the same criteria, mean post-treatment positivity ratios were 2.3.

Recent research by Barbara Fedickson at the University of Michigan provides one more bit of evidence about the 3:1 positivity-to-negativity ratio with mental health ((Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686)).  She followed 188 participants for 28 days asking them to keep a daily report of positive and negative emotions they experienced.  Results showed that the mean ratio of positive to negative affect was above 2.9 for individuals classified as flourishing and below that threshold for those not flourishing.

Positive Emotions and Physical Health

Three important studies also suggest that emphasizing positive emotions play a direct role on our physical health and well-being and even predict longevity:

  • Nuns whose autobiographies contained the most sentences expressing positive emotions lived an average of seven years longer than nuns whose stories contained the fewest ((Danner, D. et al. (2001).  Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82-804-813)).
  • Psychological well-being is associated with reduced risk of CHD–Whitehall II Study; 4 year study; N = 7,942 ((Boehm, J. et al. (2011).  A prospective study of positive psychological well-being and coronary heart disease.  Health Psychology, 30, 259-267)).
  • Subjective well-being/happiness, but not negative emotions, significantly predicted a 10 year increase in longevity–Alameda County Study; 28 year study; N = 6,856 ((Xu, J. et al. (2010).  The power of positive emotions: It’s a matter of life or death—subjective well-being and longevity over 20 years in a general population.  Health Psychology, 29, 9-19)).

Taken together, these studies demonstrate the power of positive emotions and behaviors individuals, relationships and team functioning.  They even suggest an upper and lower “tipping point” for all of us to consider.

So, if you really want to flourish, emphasize the positive at least three times more than the negative…..Be well…..


Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Relate

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