The Antidote To Positive Thinking – The P/N Ratio

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“Problems are never really the problem. It’s the question you ask in reaction to the problem that is the real problem.”


Part 1 – Ever feel you want to give positive thinking the boot?

Positive thinking is usually well intended but often very confused. Many positivity advocates are usually fine on the surface but beware of what lies beneath if you dare to push their buttons. They can be so focused on positivity that they feel exposed whenever they detect negativity. They see negativity as a problem to be resisted

“What we resist persists.”


Please understand that I am not having a go at people who are doing their best to make the most of life and its circumstances. It’s just that science can help us find a way to a more balanced positivity so that it works even better for us as we create a healthy relationship with both the ups and the downs in life.

So rather than react by automatically applying positive thinking, what if there is a way to respond so that we can create a clearer mindset? How about if responsiveness came more naturally and we didn’t try to force positive thinking? Perhaps real positivity is what happens when the mind is in a balanced state. Just an idea…

Part 2 – Balance isn’t necessarily 50/50

“The only true measure of success is the ratio between what we might have done and what we might have been on the one hand, and the thing we have made and the things we have made of ourselves on the other.”


When I talk with people about the relationship between positivity and negativity (or what can be called the positivity to negativity ratio), they tend to come to the conclusion that 1:1 is balanced. This would make total sense if we lived in a linear universe, but we don’t. All things are not equal.

Have you ever been with someone who is so positive it is almost as if they have lost touch with reality? At the far end of the positivity scale, a person who is too positive feels like they are naïve and if they are even more optimistic, it feels like they are in a form of denial. This happens when someone’s positive/ negative scale is out of whack or they just haven’t thought through positive thinking and its good and bad effects. It’s important to get the balance right!

Introducing Idea 1…

I want to bring together two models. The first comes from Marcial Losada (born 1939) a Chilean psychologist, consultant, and former director of the Center for Advanced Research, Michigan. Losada’s Ph.D. in organisational psychology was applied to the development of ‘high performance teams’. He investigated the nonlinear patterns associated with high, medium and low performing teams, where performance was evaluated based on profitability and customer satisfaction.

A pattern of ‘positivity-negativity’ became evident including the three ratios shown in 1.0 below:

Illustration 1.0 - PN Ratio for High, Medium and Low Performance Teams
Illustration 1.0 – PN Ratio for High, Medium and Low Performance Teams

Losada developed the idea of a critical positivity ratio (also known as the Losada Ratio). The positivity to negativity ratio figure of 2.9 provided a cut off point. For simplicity, we will use the figure of 3; so that is 3 times the positivity was needed to balance out one instance of negativity. Below 3, he noted that people generally failed to flourish. Above 3, they would flourish.

Losada’s findings found its fair share of resistance in the scientific community. I am still not sure if it was for his findings in general or for the 2.9 figure itself. If it is for the latter that would make sense as people in different environments have varying attitudes to life and a different ratio may work fine for them. The right P/N balance makes you feel like you are swimming upstreamI have worked with the positivity/negativity ratio (P/N) and have found that the wrong balance makes us feel as though we are swimming upstream whereas the right one feels more like flowing with the current. A positive to negative ratio can work for us or against us. Imagine walking into a headwind and how much effort that takes versus what it feels like when the wind is at your back. However, the wind is not an enemy; it is just a form of energy.

Aeroplanes use wind when they are landing. They generate wind with their flaps as they come into land. The extra resistance ensures that they stop before the end of the runway.

Just as the wind stops aeroplanes from shooting off the end of the runway, resistance is a dynamic that has it uses: the ‘1’ or negative aspect of the Losada Ratio is critical. For example that ‘1’ can provide constructive feedback.

As a Mindset Coach, part of my role is to assist people in finding what they already do really well so they can develop it even more. I have found a formula that allows me to provide constructive feedback in a helpful way. The formula is to give two or three positives and then note what could be even better.

For example, Susan had started a new healthy eating plan but was being a little bit hard on herself as she had an injury and was not able to do as much exercise as she would like. My feedback was:

  1. Positive 1 – She had started to feel better about how she was fitting into her clothes.
  2. Positive 2 – She had applied for a promotion at work which she had hesitated about for so long.
  3. Positive 3 – She had booked a pampering session with her friends as a reward for the great work she had being doing with her eating plan.
  4. Even Better – My comment was that she might be wise to notice that she was a very visual kind of person who held in mind an ideal vision of herself. This was great, I said, but only if she was aware of it. If she wasn’t then it meant that even when she was 99% of the way to achieving her goal, she might still feel like a failure.

Ok, let’s get back to Losada’s idea in terms of the P/N ratio and expand on it. The ratio of positivity to negativity can be:

  • 3:1 A person generally feels good about the world.
  • 4:1 A feeling of genuine optimism is experienced.
  • 5:1 A mindset of seeing problems as opportunities.
  • 6:1 A mindset where problems are fleeting as solutions flow so well.

Note: the wording I have used for each ratio is based on my own experience. I am hoping that as you become more experienced with shifting your own P/N ratio, you will find your own words.

Let’s now look at the range of the P/N Ratio. Illustration 2.0 below shows that 3 is the bottom end of the scale while 6 is at the high end. This is based on Losada believing that there is a point at which positivity becomes somewhat overpowering and loses its usefulness.

Illustration 2.0 - P/N Ratio as a spectrum.
Illustration 2.0 – P/N Ratio as a spectrum.

Losada looked at both ends of the scale, the lower end (value of approximately 3) and also the upper (value of approximately 6). He provided a range within which a person would generally flourish.

As with the 3 figure, I believe that the 6 figure is not anywhere as useful as the idea that there is a range/band/zone where a person can maximise the use of their energy levels and energy resources. This could help us understand what affects a person’s ability to motivate themselves.

Introducing Idea 2…

Dr Joe Marshalla Ph.D, a leading expert on the development of human personality and its perception of reality, gives us more information about negativity to positivity (N/P) as a ratio as opposed to positivity to negativity (P/N) one. The model he shares is:

  • 1:1 = One negative thought to one positive thought. Considered as ideal.
  • 2:1 = Irritable.
  • 3:1 = Unstable.
  • 4:1 = Post traumatic stress disorder.
  • 5:1 = Manic depressive.
  • 6:1 = Borderline personality disorder.
  • 7:1 = Schizophrenia.
  • 8:1 = Psychosis.

You may have noticed that we are seeing a mismatch as the 1:1 shown as ideal does not match with Losada’s findings where 3:1 is a minimum for a healthy mindset.

So we can see that even the experts have differing opinions. I have discovered by testing the ratios in day-to-day life over a two year period that most people are floating around the P/N ratio 1:3 to 3:1 zone in their daily lives.

Illustration 3.0 - The P/N Ratio as a spectrum that could make up the average person’s day-to-day experiences.
Illustration 3.0 – The P/N Ratio as a spectrum that could make up the average person’s day-to-day experiences.

Part 3 – The three dynamics of leverage

As I worked with the ideas of P/N and N/P ratios, I saw that energetically, a leverage perspective could be used and three categories utilised:

  1.  Coping
    This can be described as a feeling of working yet feeling they are not achieving what they desire. It can often be captured by one step forward – two steps back.
  2.  Surviving
    This can be where a person is neither flourishing nor diminishing. This may not be good or bad, it could be where a person is taking a break. It will often depend if the person is slightly towards coping or slightly towards the other category.
  3. Thriving
    Where life feels like it is improving. It can often be captured by a feeling of assisted energy as if you are being helped along, like walking down a gradual incline.

To place this in a modern day context, the topic of life/work balance is being discussed more and more. Science is directing us towards working less but at the same time working more effectively and efficiently.

Illustration 4.0 - The three dynamics of life/work balance.
Illustration 4.0 – The three dynamics of life/work balance.

I’m not judging people in any stage, whether they are struggling or thriving. The ups and downs are there for everyone to experience. What we are looking for is to utilise what we learn from life experiences as much as we can so we enjoy what fills our day as much as possible. If we spend enough of our life thriving, we can naturally handle a certain amount of surviving and coping.

Part 4 – Applying the P/N Ratio in day-to-day life

The great news is that it’s just the habitual thinking underneath that makes for someone’s P/N ratio so it is possible to gradually and incrementally make lots of small habitual changes that then allow you to feel more energised about your life.

Imagine you had a coin and you put it in your pocket. Then, each day, you did the same. It wouldn’t take many months before just standing up would be an effort. Imagine instead that you put that coin into a savings jar towards something you would like to have. Within months, you would start to see the jar fill. The initial difference between the effort of lifting the coin into the jar would over time prove to have been worthwhile. This is the equivalent of having your thinking work for you so you see solutions quicker and quicker.

The following steps could prove very useful for you:

  • Step 1 – Increase your awareness that positivity/negativity as a ratio affects your energy levels, your productivity and enjoyment in life. By reading this article you have already started this step.
  • Step 2 – Test out with one item in your life. It could be as simple as not complaining about the weather.
  • Step 3 – Start incrementally building on the things in your life which already work for you. This will gently rob the time and energy from the items that don’t work for you. Like starving weeds in your garden by adding a chemical that takes away its ability to take nutrients from the soil and sun.
  • Step 4 – On a regular basis, give yourself a reward for caring about yourself. Your ability to work and reward yourself is at the core of your motivation.

Part 5 – The Power of an Incremental Change Mindset

Making small incremental changes has advantages that are often too simple to see:

  1. They take little energy.
  2. They are low risk so you can always revert back if it doesn’t prove to be useful.
  3. When one change is made at a time, we get to truly know if that one change was effective. Making lots of changes at a time is harder to relate to cause and effect.
  4. This is what successful people are already doing even if they are not aware of it. The illusion is that successes are always big. They are in reality lots of mini (even micro) improvements which are compounded over time.

small incremental changes take littl3e energyI like examples so let’s look at one from arguably one of the best sports coaches in history, Vince Lombardi. I won’t go into too much detail here but what he did in essence was ask each of his team players and even the people involved with the team to make a commitment. He simply requested each of them to make a small improvement every year. You might think that this is falling short but Vince understood the compounding effect. When every player and the people helping those players make a small improvement, together that improvement is significant. He proved this not just with his team and their success but with their attitude and commitment which kept getting better year on year. No improvement was disregarded; they were all counted and appreciated.

If you take this into your own life and make just a small improvement in a number of areas, they will compound together to make a significant difference.

Summary points:

  • Positive thinking has its place but can often be a cover for failing to tackle the real cause of a problem.
  • The mind sciences are revealing that the ratios of positivity to negativity and vice versa could hold a key to how we operate on an energetic level.
  • A positive to negative ratio of 3:1 to 6:1 seems to be where we are energised and feeling positive while also being well grounded in reality.
  • Habits are fundamental to how we apply our energy and if we shift these, we affect our P/N Ratio.
  • The ability to focus on making just one incremental shift at a time can itself be a great skill to develop..
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