In Brief

Positivity without a little negativity can be too much of a good thing, according to research presented by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, a University of Michigan psychology professor, at APA's 2005 Annual Convention.

Fredrickson and her colleagues found that people who flourish, or live within the optimal range of human functioning, also have negative sentiments, although that negativity is outweighed by pleasant emotions and moods by at least a 2.9-1 ratio.

While previous research has found that positive emotions widen people's focus, broaden their attention and build psychological resilience, this study was the first attempt to pin down an exact optimal ratio of positive to negative affect.

"[Positive emotions] provide the fuel to flourish," she said. "They enable us to become the best versions of ourselves. And now we're asking, 'How much is needed?'"

In her study, co-authored with Marcial Losada, PhD, of the University of Brazil, and published in October's American Psychologist (Vol. 60, No. 7), two independent groups--one of 87 undergraduate students and one of 101 undergraduate students--completed a 33-item questionnaire that gauged their psychological and social functioning, such as their level of positive interactions with others and their purpose in life. The participants then logged on to a secure Web site for 28 consecutive nights to note the extent to which they felt each of 20 emotions in the preceding 24 hours.

Using a nonlinear dynamics model, Fredrickson and Losada found that those who scored the highest on psychological and social functioning reported an average of 3.2 positive emotions for every negative emotion. Moreover, they found that their negative emotions acted as an "anchor for reality," since they prevented their positive emotions from hardening.

The appropriate negative feelings, she said, grounded their emotions because they were felt for a limited amount of time and were related to feedback connected to a specific situation.

"[Without negativity], you get Pollyanna with a plastic smile on her face," she explained.

In the future, Fredrickson and her colleagues aim to investigate whether the 2.9 ratio is applicable to a more general theory of positivity, namely whether the ratio represents the ratio of greatest behavioral flexibility, personal growth and resilience.