Optimum Happiness Requires
Both Positive and Negative Emotions

by Lisa Jacobson, MAPP

I am certifiably happy. At least my Positive Affect Negative Affect Score (PANAS) says I am. But who wouldn’t want to be happier? Positive emotions do more than signal optimal functioning, they also produce it (Fredrickson, 2005). While working at happiness can lead to more, it must be in proportion to a healthy dose of negativity. In other words, the overall balance of positive and negative emotions contributes to subjective well-being (Diener, Sandvik, and Pavot, 1991).

My defense begins with an introduction of research about positive emotions; it follows with an examination of the Losada 3:1 positive affect to negative affect ratio; and concludes with addressing three pivotal issues relating to the importance of emotional balance and proportion: i) Is happier better than happy?; ii) Can too much positive be negative?; and
iii) Can negative emotions be “positive”?

In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychology Society. He used that position to call for more research in positive psychology, emphasizing the disparity between the volume of research in mental pathologies and health. Barbara Fredrickson answered Seligman’s call by pulling together an overview of research spanning a century from The Play of Animals (Groos, 1898) until 1998. Her paper, What Good are Positive Emotions? decisively lays out compelling arguments supporting the form and function of positive emotions. “Positive feeling is a neon ‘here-be-growth’ marquee that tells you that a potential win-win encounter is at hand” (Seligman, 2002).

Essentially, Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory explains what positive emotions do. They broaden the breadth of thought-action repertoires and build enduring physical, intellectual and social resources (Frederickson, 1998). Fredrickson advances a paradigm shift describing both form and function of joy, interest, contentment, and love. She discards two former presumptions: i) Positive emotions must yield specific action, and ii) Emotions must spark tendencies for physical action. Instead, she posits positive emotions as more cognitively based. She coins new terminology, Thought-Action Repertoire, aptly describing the breadth of cognitive activity effectively building physical, intellectual and social resources (Fredrickson, 1998).

If our aim is to live a “life worth living” then we need to use all available tools, not just the ones in the top of the tool box. It pays to dig deeper, to find the right tool for the task at hand. Think of it this way: negative emotions are survival tools; positive emotions are flourishing tools. Any effort we spend improving our positive to negative ratio (PNR) is worthwhile. Just as our blood pressure (BP) is a momentary indicator of the pumping mechanisms of the heart, our PRN is an indicator of our momentary positive affect.

Researchers are beginning to study and understand where positive emotions come from and how they help us lead fuller lives. Studies spanning decades conducted by Alice Isen demonstrate how positive emotions help us flourish. Isen’s findings include: improved negotiation processes and outcomes; promotion of generosity and social responsibility; self-efficacy; motivation toward accomplishment; and openness and flexible manipulation of new information. “Positive affect is a source of human strength … promoting thinking that is not only efficient, but also careful, open-minded and thorough” (Isen, 2002).

Also, Isen and others have demonstrated specific cognitive outcomes: unusual thought patterns (Isen, Johnson, Mertz and Robinson, 1985); flexible and inclusive thinking (Isen and Daubman, 1984); creative thinking (Isen, Daubman and Nowicki, 1987); and receptiveness (Estrada, Isen and Young, 1997).

Working at becoming happier is possible and worthwhile but a few words of caution are in order. The following questions address those concerns.

1) Is Happier better than happy?

The answer depends on where one’s PANAS ratio falls within the Losada Zone (above 2.9 and below 11.6). Mathematician and psychologist, Marcial Losada cautions us that humans have a natural negatively bias, rooted in evolution. Even though we no longer have predatory threats like those posed to our ancestors, we still need a certain amount of negativity. “Positive Psychology focuses on strengths and what is good in us and rightly so. But our research says, keep the Positive-Negative Ratio (PRN) within the Losada Zone (above 2.9 and below 11.6) if you want to be safe and happy” (Losada, 2007).

2) Can too much positive be negative?

Yes. The limit exists in the out-lying area above the Losada zone. Using Lorenz equations, Losada saw a disintegration of complex dynamics of flourishing as it approached 11.6346. Fredrickson cautions readers about the importance of appropriate and genuine positivity. Fake smiles lack credibility (Frank, Ekman, and Friesen, 1993) and correlate with brain activity typical of negative emotions (Ekman, Davidson, and Friesen, 1990). Fredrickson suggests “feigned positivity may be more negative than positive” (Fredrickson, 2005).

3) Can negative emotions be “positive”?

Yes. In fact, it is necessary to have precisely one negative affect to every 2.9 positive affects in order to flourish. The PANAS is a ratio, depicting the relationship between positive and negative affect. Type or degree of negativity strength is noteworthy. Fredrickson and Losada use the term “appropriate negativity” because certain types of negativity promote flourishing more than others. For example, relative to flourishing, genuine constructive criticism trumps the contempt behind mean spirited ridicule. In marriage, expressions of disgust and contempt have far more damaging tendencies than honest conflict or differences of opinion (Gottman , 1994).

In sum, there is much evidence to support my argument that working at being happier is worthwhile and life enhancing. Certifiably happy or not, improving my PANAS proves beneficial as long as it lies in the safe and healthy nest of the Losada Zone.

Lisa Jacobson, MAPP (Masters, Applied Positive Psychology)


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