What’s Your Positivity Ratio?

by | Jul 21, 2023

The age-old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is something we learn as children. While it’s not a universal rule — sometimes saying not nice things is necessary — research on “positivity ratios” confirms there is truth to the adage.

The Losada Ratio

Marcel Losada is a Brazilian psychologist who researched the relationship between positivity and performance in business settings. He found that in order for a corporate team to be successful they needed to have more positive interactions than negative ones. Based on extensive modeling, Losada found that the ratio needs to be at least 2.903 positive interactions for every negative one. This three-to-one positive to negative ratio is known as “The Losada Ratio.”

Other researchers have confirmed Losada’s findings. Here’s what psychologist Barbara Frederickson found in her research:

We go into companies and transcribe every word that is said in their business meetings. We have done this in sixty companies. One-third of the companies are flourishing economically, one-third are doing okay, and one-third are failing. We code each sentence for positive or negative words, and then we take a simple ratio of positive to negative statements.

There is a sharp dividing line — companies with better than a 2.9:1 ratio for positive to negative statements are flourishing. Below that ratio, companies are not doing well economically.

But don’t go overboard with positivity. Life is a ship with sails and rudder. Above 13:1, without a negative rudder, the positive sails flap aimlessly, and you lose your credibility.

From Seligman, Martin E. P.. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (pp. 80-81).

But it’s not just in companies where positivity pays dividends. Studies of college students have found that those with a higher positivity ratio report better mental and social health, and seniors in nursing homes who are more positive live longer.

The Gottman Ratio

Couples therapist John Gottman thinks that three-to-one is too low of a positivity ratio when it comes to personal relationships. He listened to conversations between couples for entire weekends and found that you need at least five positive comments for every critical one to have a strong and loving marriage. Gottman notes that couples with below a 5:1 ratio aren’t likely to have a healthy relationship and having a negative ratio is “an unmitigated catastrophe.”

But Is There Causation?

I have an entire chapter in my book on causation and how hard it is to prove that one thing causes another. So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t question causation a bit: Can we really say that being positive causes companies to perform better? Maybe it’s the other way around – working at a high-performing company makes you more positive. Or maybe people other factors drive relationship success (like how often a couple is intimate as compared to how often they quarrel) and having a good relationship leads to being more positive to each other.

Yet . . .

But even if causation is suspect, there is little doubt that it’s better to work at a company where positivity is the norm and be in a relationship with high levels of positivity. And maybe high positivity ratios do cause good results (I’d like to think so).

So, what’s your positivity ratio? How often do you express positive things vs. negative things at work or in your relationships?


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