The Power and Vestigiality of Positive Emotion – What’s Your Happiness Ratio?
A marriage with 5x more positivity than negativity is significantly less likely to result in divorce.1
A business team with 5x more positivity than negativity is significantly more likely to make money.2
College students with 3x more positivity than negativity are significantly more likely to have flourishing mental health.3
In general – when a human system contains 3 to 5x as much positivity as negativity, it is significantly more likely to thrive.
This means that it’s sometimes possible to reduce the complexity of human emotion into useful prediction: flourish or flounder.
This complexity can be assessed with a quick, 20-question quiz.
Looking back over the past 24 hours, indicate the greatest amount that you have experienced of each of the following feelings
What does that number mean?
If your ratio is below 1.0, you may be caught in a downward spiral of stress and negativity. You may even be depressed.
If your ratio is between 1.5 and 2.5 – that’s normal. You life has more positivity than negativity, but not by a margin large enough to trigger an upward spiral.
If your ratio is between 3 and 5, you’ve hit the sweet spot.
If your ratio is above 9, you’re approaching a danger zone – one with too much positivity and not enough reality.
But don’t read too much into your score. There are grey zones between the classifications, the results of a single day can be unrepresentative, and different ratios are optimal for different people at different times.
But the positivity ratio is my measure of choice for mental health – much like how some people measure blood pressure or cholesterol to keep track of their heart health, I have repeatedly measured my positivity ratio in order to keep track of my mental health.
I know I’ve made progress over the past 18 months because my average score has tripled from 1.5 to 4.5.
The many benefits of positivity.
During a four year study of married couples, those who started out with a positivity ratio below 1.0 were three times more likely to consider divorce, twice as likely to get separated, and two-and-a-half times as likely to get divorced as couples with a ratio above 5.0.1
During a study of business teams, those with a positivity ratio above 5.0 were found to more readily alternate between advocating their own beliefs, asking questions about the beliefs of others, talking about themselves, and talking about others. Those with a ratio below 1.0 predominantly talked about themselves and their own ideas. The result: lower profitability for their business team, lower customer satisfaction, and lower assessments by superiors, peers, and subordinates.2
More generally, the results of over 200 scientific studies of nearly 275,000 people have found that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, but also health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and our jobs, careers, and business.4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21
A positivity ratio above 3.0 can’t cure cancer, but it can offer a tremendous life advantage.
Why? Because happiness triggers the broaden-and-build response – the psychological response which flips our subconscious switch and starts generating positive emotion in abundance.
And yet because the modern world is so foreign to our ten-thousand year old DNA, the broaden-and-build response isn’t triggering.
The Emotion Mismatch
Whether it was by God or by evolution, our bodies were designed for an environment that has now disappeared.
We crave carbohydrates. Thousands of years ago that craving kept us alive. A diet of just protein or fat was insufficient to keep us alive. Because carbohydrates were rare but necessary, we craved them.
But now even though carbohydrates are plentiful, we still crave them. As a result, we’ve got an obesity epidemic. As I write this, I’m drinking a Coke. It tastes great, but nonetheless is harming my health.
Happiness is similar. The ancestral conditions which designed our happiness switch have disappeared.
At one time, the best thing you could do if you wanted happiness was to follow your emotions and instincts. That time no longer exists.
The modern world has broken our emotions. Emotionality that once helped us thrive now causes us to flounder and fail.
It’s for that reason that we have to take responsibility for our happiness in ways that we’ve never had to before, and it’s for that reason that happiness offers such a large life advantage.
You can think of happiness like a gatekeeper. Those who have it are given access to a portion of their mental resources denied to everyone else. Creativity, compassion, and confidence, three emotions once widely experienced and to great enjoyment and benefit, have now been locked away, available only rarely and in small amounts.
Let’s consider two broken emotions – fear and anger.
At one point in time, the emotion of fear kept us alive.
Our conscious minds don’t think fast enough. They evolved to help us build and execute long-term plans, not to escape deadly tigers running at 25 miles an hour.
Without fear, our ancestors wouldn’t have been able to react fast enough – they would have died, and we would never have been born.
Now, fear is broken.
We fear things that we shouldn’t, and we don’t fear things that we should.
Because we fear rejection, we don’t make the introductions and invitations that would create a rich social life. At one point, a person’s tribe would have a few dozen people – one or two hundred maximum. A rejection meant a permanent loss. Now, we have tens of thousands of potential friends, associates, and romantic partners to pick from. One rejection, even a hundred rejections, means nothing. Yet we still fear.
Because we don’t fear unrestrained alcohol consumption on an emotional level, 2.5 million people die every year from excess drinking. Those deaths are all preventable, but because easy access to alcohol is a modern phenomenon, the thought of excess drinking doesn’t cause fear. We have more fear of spiders despite the fact that in the U.S., they kill only a few people each year.
Like fear, every other emotion was designed for a specific purpose.
Consider anger. It served to protect what was ours – our safety, our loved ones, our food, and our property.
Imagine that you’re living in a prehistoric, ancestral environment – tribes, tents, and spears.
You’ve caught your neighbor trying to steal your food supplies. Without the food, you’ll starve during the upcoming winter.
You could let him off without punishment. After all, you caught him before he was able to eat your food. It’s all still there, available to keep you alive.
In fact, without the emotion of anger, it’s likely that you would let him off. You might tell him not to do it again, but you wouldn’t punish him. And then you’d die.
Because you let him off so easily, he’s likely to try stealing your food again. The one time that he succeeds, you and your family will die of starvation.
Can you imagine dispassionately assaulting the criminal, hurting him enough that he learns his lesson? I can’t. That’s what the anger was for.
Remember, we’re talking about thousands of years ago – they didn’t have police and jails back then. Back then, anger served a purpose. In the face of crime, it was the judge, jury, and executioner.
Now, anger is more trouble than it’s worth.
Because we have police, diplomacy, and can have reasoned discussion, anger is rarely the best response.
If others aren’t respecting our preferences, we ought to either compromise or get them to stop. But people don’t respond well to anger. Usually, compassion and patience will get better results. Indeed, replace every instance of anger with compassion and patience, and our divorce rate would be cut in half.
I’ve seen family members scream at each other. But that’s done little to change behavior and more to cause hurt and pain.
Anger is a tool of brute force – a hammer where a screwdriver would work better. Some anger is good – it motivates us to take action. But so much anger that it leads to yelling? Stupid. If at the end of the tears and pain there was change, the anger might be worth it. But the usual response is defensiveness and disinvestment.
The cues and triggers which once kept us alive now keep us from reaching our potential.
Evolution is Slow
If evolution had kept up with modern times, we’d be experiencing significantly more positive emotion than we actually do.
We’d feel more curiosity.
We would study lovemaking and be able to make our romantic partner oh so very happy. We would learn better ways of communication. We would analyze our work, polish our skills, and get continuing education. We would learn new languages and expose ourselves to different cultures and communities. We would do personal experimentation, and learn enough science and economics to make more informed voting decisions.
But we don’t. Maybe one or two of those things, but those are the exceptions. Why? Because our subconscious brain isn’t producing enough of the emotion called curiosity.
We’d feel more optimism.
Having confidence in our ability to persevere, we would embark on the toughest of challenges – starting a business, writing a book, switching careers, learning a new sport or language, revitalizing our marriage. Inner city kids who don’t study because they expect they’ll end up doing minimum wage work or worse, would instead believe in the possibilities of their future. Believing in the possibilities of the future, we would save money rather than spend it.
But because our subconscious isn’t producing enough of the emotion called optimism, we don’t.
We’d feel more love.
We’d spend more time with family. We would seek to understand others, rather than kill them by the tens of thousands. We would have patience, devoting the energy necessary to rehabilitate criminals. When upset, we would forgive rather than escalate.
But we don’t, because our subconscious isn’t producing enough of the emotion called love.
Emotion drives action. If our brain is sending us the wrong emotions, then we’ll be engaged in the wrong actions.
Why do we so often fail to complete what we know are our worthy long-term goals? Because our body is sending us the wrong emotions.
Why are we being sent the wrong emotions? Why aren’t we receiving more curiosity, optimism, and love?
Because the modern world has warped our minds. Because the broaden-and-build psychological response that ought to be activating isn’t.
Now or Later, Make Your Choice
Let’s jump back to our ancestral environment one more time. One with scarce resources and lots of danger.
You’ve got two options. You can either go hunting and stock up on food, or you can socialize with your fellow tribesmen.
Socializing now will ensure that you get help during tough times, but if you don’t have enough food stocked up, if you don’t hunt and gather, you’re going to starve.
You’ve got two options. You can either build a hut to keep from freezing during the upcoming snow, or you can practice throwing your spear.
It will take months until you get good enough with your spear to hit something, so unless you’ve got a place to stay warm, building or stealing a hut should be your priority.
You’ve got two options. Anticipating that a neighboring tribe is going to attack and steal your food, you can launch a preemptive attack of your own, or you can try to learn their customs and improve communication.
Learning their customs could help you diffuse tensions and pave the way for trade and cooperation, but that’s not something that can be done overnight. You would be better off killing them.
For each of those choices, there were two options – a short-term option and a long-term option. The long-term options would have been ideal – having more friends, being better with your spear, and having a source of trade would be great.
But the long-term actions were risky. They required a base of safety and stability. Making friends when you’re about to starve makes no sense.
So how would our ancestors have made their choice? Through conscious thought and rational planning? No – the parts of our brain responsible for long-term planning have only recently evolved. Trusting it with life or death decisions in an environment of constant danger would have been a recipe for disaster.
How did our ancestors make their choice?
Their subconscious made their choice for them, and then communicated that choice through emotion.
Each of the short-term options would have been fueled by a negative emotion. Hunting food was driven by a fear of starvation. Building a hut over worry over the weather. Killing neighbors by anxiety over their intentions.
On the other hand, each of the long-term options was fueled by a positive emotion.
Socializing was fueled by zest and curiosity. Spear practice by confidence and optimism. Learning new customs by hope and compassion.
If your subconscious mind would want you to pick the long-term option, it would trigger positive emotion. If it would want you to pick the short-term option, it would trigger negative emotion.
Thousands of years ago, our subconscious mind did an excellent job of picking which emotions to trigger and when. Our survival against tigers, cold weather, hunger, and disease is a testament to that skill.
When would your subconscious choose to focus on the future? When would it feel comfortable investing in the future instead of worrying about immediate survival?
Your subconscious would choose to focus on the future, trigger the broaden-and-build response and generate positive emotion when it felt safe.
When it had success – food, shelter, health and reliable friendships.
And having made many long-term investments, you would after a few weeks or months have even more success. The rich get richer has been true long before money existed.
And as you were even more successful, you would be even happier and even more willing to make long-term investments. Life was a positive spiral.
Success led to happiness, which triggered the broaden-and-build psychological response, which in turn triggered emotions like optimism, curiosity, and confidence, which in turn led to long-term investment and more success, which in turn led to more happiness, and so on.
So why do we need so much positivity to activate the broaden-and-build response?
For most of us, there are no tigers or food shortages lurking around the corner.
Despite our wealth and safety, triggering the signals which indicate success and launch the broaden-and-build response has become more difficult.
- We’re less healthy. Yes, when cavemen got seriously sick they died. But otherwise, they were tall and muscular.
- We’re less social. Yes, we have facebook. But our ancestors spent most of their time… with other humans.
- We’re more stressed. Yes, we have food, shelter, and abundant water. But we’ve also got bills, taxes, demanding bosses, crazy children and 1,000 more things to worry about.
- We’re less satisfied. Yes, we’re tens of thousands of times richer. But success was once well defined. You either had food and friends or didn’t. Now success has become a rat-race. There’s always something more to be had.
Each of us could benefit from more happiness and long-term investment, but because of this environmental mismatch, we’re not getting it.
If you want to feel more positive emotion, you must take responsibility for your own happiness.
The modern world has broken your emotions. Fight back.