Research Paper By Brandy Morris
(Business Coaching, CANADA)
I have been waiting my entire life for happiness to become trendy. For as far back as I can remember I have been known as the happy girl. The silver linings queen. Princess Positivity. Little Miss Sunshine. Let’s just say, I smile a lot. So as the happiness movement grows, I get more and more excited to witness the world come alive in a new way. Facebook is flooded with quotes that inspire a positive outlook. People are creating websites and movements dedicated to creating joy through kindness. Positive psychology is becoming more widely accepted. Books about finding happiness fill self-help shelves in bookstores (and even a few in the business section).
Too much of anything can be a bad thing, yes?
A lot of people are just scanning the aisles of the happiness movement. They’re reading the covers, seeing the catch phrases, and watching the highlight reel a la TED talks. Unfortunately, that means they also might be missing some key points. They hear “positivity good…negativity bad” and just like that labels are created that aren’t exactly accurate. I would go so far as to say that these labels can be damaging to our overall sense of happiness in the long run. We try to force ourselves to “be positive”.
The Happiness Conundrum
Here’s the thing a lot of people didn’t know: I was only known as happy. A lot of my emotions were swept under the rug as I slapped a smile on my face and powered through life. Deep down, there were times when I was completely miserable. I didn’t become truly happy until later in life when I discovered that if I allowed myself to actually feel negative emotions it didn’t take away from my most natural state of joy. In fact, experiencing fear, sadness, guilt, and anger, as they came up actually increased my happiness overall.
Lately, I have been witnessing a lot of people falling into the same trap I did. They are pushing down their negative emotions in the name of being “happy”. They ignore unpleasant emotions because, let’s face it, they just don’t feel as good. There is such a thing as too much happiness. We need negative emotions to live a balanced and fulfilled life. When the pursuit of happiness becomes an obsession, it’s a dangerous game. We stop caring about the authenticity of our positive emotions, pull out our brooms and just sweep the bad stuff under the rug where we don’t have to face it.
I think that we, as coaches, run the risk of accidentally perpetuating this problem. In a well-intentioned attempt to help our clients look at the sunny side of life, the true path to joy can get lost in translation. If we are too selective with the tools we use in creating a positive outlook, the client might get confused about what it really means to be happy. That being said, we can just as easily be a great resource for promoting a more sincere positive outlook in each of our clients.
Before we really dive in, I need to clarify a few things. I am not saying that we should not encourage positive emotions in our client; quite the opposite is true. I believe the happiness/positivity movement is valid and important. In my opinion, a true and sincere positive outlook leads to a beautiful and fulfilled life. The intention behind this article is to help find the balance, highlight the need for an authentic approach to life, and share some thoughts about how coaches can steer our clients to a fulfilled and positive life without wandering too far past the threshold.
So what is a healthy balance of positive and negative emotion? In her book, Positivity, Barbara Frederickson speaks to the positivity ratio tipping point. Her research suggests that in order to be considered truly positive, we need to have at least three genuine, positive emotions to every negative one. The average person sits at about 2:1. When we cross that threshold into the 3:1 zone, we will start to flourish in many ways: we see more opportunities, we are more resilient, and we become better versions of ourselves. This is not just about trying to get to the highest ratio possible. According to Frederickson, our positive to negative emotions should not surpass the ratio of 11:1.1 Why is the ratio not 3:0? Why would there be a max?
Negative emotion creates change and prepares us for action
When we observe our negative emotions, it can bring us in touch with our inner wisdom so that we can understand where change is required in our world. Some psychologists state that significant personality change requires a trauma or personal crisis to stick.2 It’s in these trying times when we tend to invite some of our deepest wisdom. When working towards an avoidance goal, such as “I will stop smoking”, fear of negative consequences of continuing the behaviour can do wonders for creating resolve to actualize the goal.3 I also believe that negative emotions are a great indicator of limiting beliefs that need to be uncovered.
I had a friend who was taking an anti-depressant to help him quit smoking. After a few weeks on the drug, he had to take himself off of it. I remember him telling me, “I was so blissed out! My apartment could have been on fire and I would have just smiled in the middle of the room and watched it burn around me.” Evolution shaped our emotions to ready us to take physical action.
A healthy, positive adult will experience negative emotions when something is not quite right or needs to be addressed. The emotions help us to make good decisions.4 Fear shows up in dangerous situations to trigger our flight or fight mode. Anxiety and nervousness help us to stay focused and perform well when we need to most. Disgust prevents us from eating spoiled food. Anger and frustration can fuel our assertiveness. Guilt reminds us to treat others with respect and kindness. The key to a positive lifestyle is being able to get ourselves within the ideal positivity ratio and not allow these emotions to become overpowering and unmanageable.
Trying to ignore negative emotions is toxic
When we try to force ourselves to “be positive”, we are at risk to harm ourselves and our relationships. We inhabit the land of insincerity, forcing ourselves to smile in the toughest of times and ignore the real emotions we are experiencing. Being falsely positive often creates a rift between us and the rest of the world. No one wants to open up their most vulnerable sides to someone who is going to dismiss their fears, frustrations, and challenges with a “look on the bright side” in the name of being happy.1
Emotions, the full spectrum of them, are part and parcel of being a healthy human being. By setting the bar too high, we end up creating within ourselves the very thing we were trying to avoid. When we are unable to maintain our positive outlook it can create feelings of disappointment and frustration within us.5 Wanting to be happy can create very different effects from actually being happy. When a study of 43 women was conducted to test this idea at the University of Denver, the results were quite interesting. Two groups of women watched a clip about intimacy and relationships; one group having read an article about the importance of happiness and one reading a more neutral article. The women who had read the article about happiness reported a sense of loneliness after watching the video while the neutral group did not. It seems we need to be careful what we wish for; or maybe just about how we are wishing for it.6