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The Positivity Ratio Made Easy - Happy All The Time?

What if we could measure how positive we are and understand even clearer the impact our thoughts have on us? Interestingly, research has come up with a way to do just that. We are living in an amazing time where science is progressing so quickly that it seems there's something for everything these days, and regardless a few critiques, the positivity ratio is worth investigating.

What is the Positivity Ratio?

The Positivity Ratio was created by Fredrickson in 2005. To say this in the most easy to digest way, the theory states that for an individual to flourish, they need to think and feel positive at least 3 times as much as they feel/think negative. Let's define 'negative' here as thoughts that don't make you feel good and 'positive' as thoughts that provoke good feelings.

So let's break this down. As an equation, this theory would look like:

3 Positive + 1 Negative = Flourishing


3 Negative x 9 Positive = Happier Individual

Now you may be thinking 'you want me to track, tally up, and put every one of my thoughts into a ratio?! This is a joke, right?'. We have between 6,000 and 80,000 thoughts in a day (depending on which research you choose to believe), so regardless of how busy your mind is during the day, that's a lot of thoughts.

Don't panic and close the tab, give me one more minute to explain and you won't regret it! I'm not asking you to count out each of your thoughts into bundles of 3 positive and 1 negative. I'm not asking you to go into your mind palace all day and disconnect from the rest of the world. What I am asking you to do is to see the underlying point in this theory. At the foundation, we can see that it's saying to have more positive thoughts than negative. But on top of that, all be it very quietly, the equation shows that you don't have to be positive all the time to live your best life or experience feeling happier more often.

So I don't need to only have good vibes?

The short answer is: No. The medium and less explained answer is: we are humans and that comes with duality; contrast of emotions is normal and all okay. This isn't to say that I'm encouraging you to become the Grinch, but I want to explore a different perspective from the obvious 'think more positive than negative'.

Now for the more in-depth answer to help us understand more how to balance the ratio out, because a happy life is all about balance. Many of us have seen posts saying 'good vibes only', 'just stay positive' or as the song goes 'always look on the bright side of life'. However, the truth is that these encouragements to focus solely on the positive can produce toxic positivity.

You've probably heard of toxic masculinity and toxic relationships, but toxic positivity is essentially the new kid on the block; I have been unable to find any research papers on this nasty fellow prior to Halberstam in 2011 (here). 2011 still feels new to me, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who is shocked to realise that is 12 years ago, but in terms of the development and practice of Psychology, this term is still pretty new.

Okay, but when is positivity toxic?

Toxic positivity involves denying or invalidating negative emotions, while using excessive amounts of optimism. It is positivity given in 'the wrong way, in the wrong dose, at the wrong time' - beautifully put by Kessler in his book called 'Finding Meaning' (find it here). This book goes on to say that this excessive optimism or positivity in a negative situation is actually a form of inappropriate affect (affect = mood, feeling, emotion), which is where your outward reaction does not match the situation and/or your internal emotional state. I question the use of 'inappropriate affect' as what is deemed appropriate will vary by society and just because our emotions may not align with societies expectations does not make them inappropriate, but perhaps just unexpected. That's a whole different conversation and kettle of fish, so let's get back to the original point about toxic positivity. I do believe we have a lot of power over how we choose to respond to situations, but repressing emotions is a no no. So how can we choose our response and feel our negative emotions at the same time? I'll get into that a bit later.

Another point about toxic positivity is that it is also linked to gaslighting - gosh, all the terminology is coming out today. Overall gaslighting is a form of harmful communication that invalidates, minimises or denys your experiences of reality. While gaslighting can be a form of emotional abuse, especially when used by narcissists to manipulate someone into questioning their reality, toxic positivity is often well-meaning. The key difference between the two is the intent behind the action.

Tell me how I can apply the Positivity Ratio to my life

Hopefully the little divergence has given you a good idea of why you shouldn't be trying to be happy or positive all the time. As I said earlier, the positivity ratio, it is not about counting your thoughts. It is about being self-aware and creating a balance. Positivity is a brilliant thing and optimism or gratitude can work wonders, but take a moment to acknowledge your negative feelings and situations. To thrive and flourish, you don't have to be 100% positive. You can feel the way you feel and have your off moments, that is perfectly normal. Here's the key: re-focus your mind onto things that make you feel good AFTER acknowledging your current feelings and situation.

Example: Let's say you had a sucky day, and in the many ways it could suck... it did. How do you respond to this?

Answer: 'Today sucked... I didn't enjoy it. I feel kinda upset that it sucked as much as it did, BUT I am so darn grateful that today is over.

Tomorrow can be better. I have this (insert thing you enjoy) to look forward to.

What can I do right now that would make me feel a bit better?' - generally when I ask myself this question, the answer is tea.

Positivity ratios are actually something I use in coaching when the time is right and the conversation calls for more balance. The whole process draws indirectly off of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (read what NLP is here) by re-framing situations so that you can switch to perspectives that you may not have considered before.

The response I encourage encompasses my 3 A's: Address. Acknowledge. Adjust.

Address the situation. Acknowledge the way you feel. Adjust your perspective.

(Note: I just came up with this right now and I am so pleased with myself! My 3 A's are now copyrighted.)

Considering your thoughts in a more balanced why can help you to try and see both the negative (default) and the positive of a difficult situation. It provides you the chance to release all of the uncomfortable emotions by acknowledging and addressing them, and then allows you to change you perspective to feel better.

Recap time:

So remember:

  1. You don't have to be positive or optimistic all the time to be the best version of you and live your best life.

  2. You don't need to start a war in your mind against negative thoughts.

  3. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable emotions, it's okay!

  4. Aim for balance.

  5. When less triggered lean into more positive/enjoyable thoughts. If needed, find something you can look forward to or something that you can do/think about that makes you feel better.

  6. Address. Acknowledge. Adjust.


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