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The “Positivity Ratio” Is Bullshit… but Positivity Isn’t

“The positivity ratio” can be considered somewhat of a buzzword in the world of pop psychology.

Barbara Fredrickson’s positivity ratio simplified: people with at least a 3 to 1 ratio of positive to negative emotions tend to have more successful life outcomes. Her study uses words like “flourishing” and “languishing” to describe the difference between people who achieved the ratio and those who didn’t. 

So here’s the thing. The math on the original concept of the positivity ratio has been widely criticized and generally debunked by the psychological community. But – big but here – there is actually plenty of well-regarded evidence that a positive outlook has long term benefits to both physical and mental health. The ratio may be iffy, but the broader concept is there.

So just think positive!

I’m kidding. I wish it worked like that. Sometimes our brains’ are negative, and college life does not help.

We deal with exams, social pressures, financial stress, uncertainty after graduation (I’m freaking myself out right now). And what’s worse, we’re made to feel guilty for thinking negatively all the time. Not only do we beat ourselves up, but when we express how we’re feeling, we’re met with responses like, “what are you complaining about, your life is great.”

mask, hiding feelings, sad, happy

But here’s something that might make you feel a little better about that—we’re wired that way. Negative thoughts have their purpose, and if we didn’t have them, our ancestors probably wouldn’t have made it.

If great-great-great grandpa was endlessly positive, that wild wolf running towards them gnashing its teeth would have ended up with a delicious dinner while he stood thinking, “oooh, cute puppy!”.

Another reason negative emotions have their place is to provide much needed contrast. If you never felt sadness, true joy would just be bland. Negative emotions are unavoidable, and for good reason.

But, we can absolutely aim to increase our positive sentiments, so that we can feel better now and later.

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    First, it’s important to identify what the particular negative emotion you’re feeling is, and where it’s coming from. Frustration after a conversation with your parents, anxiety over all your upcoming assignments, try to think about the exact source of what you’re feeling and why it bothers you so much. Once you’ve determined exactly what’s going on, it can be addressed head on.

    An important technique often referenced in cognitive psychology is known as reframing.

    It involves:

    • consciously looking at a situation from a different perspective
    • actively working to change its meaning
    • ultimately, changing its effect

    It doesn’t need to be anything huge.

    Realistically, you’re unlikely to be able to force a completely new and uplifted view on a bad situation. However, just thinking something as simple as “I can take this as a lesson,” or “I can at least appreciate *this small thing *,” can make dealing with it a more bearable and positive experience.

    It takes practice, and it can feel weird to actively talk to yourself in your own head. But over time, this conscious coaching can become second nature, and hopefully you’ll find that you’re able to think just slightly more positively.

    Key note here: you may also be dealing with a more serious mental health issue. Do your best to avoid self-diagnosing, but if your feelings are sustained and darker than what you might ordinarily experience, this may be a larger issue and require more specialized treatment. The techniques here may also help, but please seek out other support as well. Look into your campus psychological services or find out if your health insurance covers therapy. Here’s a link to help you get started.

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