Whether they know the science behind it, or they just believe it to be best practice, athletes with any competitive experience lean on the concept of mental preparation or visualization. The techniques typically involve imagining the complex tasks they must perform well to succeed in their sport. The quarterback recites the play calls and commands the huddle, in his mind. An episode from last year’s Hard Knocks depicts this visualization when backup quarterback T.J. Yates sits in an empty room pretending to run the Atlanta Falcon offense, successfully picking up the defense, audibling to the right play call, and torching the imaginary foe.

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Photo credit: MartaZ* via Flickr/Creative Commons

But more than football, athletes of all kinds perform these visual mind games. A downhill skier will walk the course, imagining successful lines and fast times. A tennis player visualizes the perfect serve.

Beneath all of these visualizations is a core truth about positivity. Human beings respond well to positivity. They, in fact, thrive.

The Ratio

In fact, research suggests that human beings flourish much more consistently when they encounter 3 positive emotions for every negative emotion. This principle defines the positivity ratio.

The positivity ratio is, in fact, a calculation of an overall emotional state based on the emotions you are currently feeling. Have you felt silly, amused, or fun-loving? That’s a positive emotion. Have you felt guilty, repentant, or blameworthy? That’s a negative emotion. Over the course of 20 or so questions, you can begin to see where you stand on the positivity ratio.

What these athletes working through visualization are encountering is the benefits of positivity. In addition to the good feeling it provides, positivity can widen the scope of attention, broaden your behavioral repertoire, increase intuition, enhance creativity, speed up recovery from injury or disease, prevent stress-related disorders, provide resilience in adversity, and increase life span. So, in short, it’s a pretty big deal.

But an adequate positivity ratio is extremely rare. In fact, only 20% of Americans accomplish it.

The State of Nature

And intuitively, it makes sense. Everyone experiences good and bad emotions on a daily basis and our moods reflect that variety of positive and negative emotions. Brains have been wired to respond to threats against survival so we all tend to focus on that threat instead of seeing the positive things happening in life. When we experience positive and negative emotions at an equal level, the scale tips toward the negative and life feels unrewarding.

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Photo Credit: Daniel Lobo via Flickr/Creative Commons

These negative emotions trigger fight or flight behavior. While it might help us focus and increase our reaction time, it also challenges your health, especially if you work a desk job. Consistent stress can negatively influence your health rapidly. It can increase cholesterol production and decrease its rate of removal. It can position you to encounter a higher chance of blood clotting. It can take a toll on your immune system. It can even influence your memory.

Much of this negativity is a result of our own doing. As a society, we change jobs quickly. We are expected to take on high workloads. There’s a consistent stress on finances as we try to keep up with the Joneses. Generally, we’re too busy and our perfectionist ways lead to negative self-talk.

So how do you get there?

To start, take the test and take it often. You can find it at PositivityRatio.com. Secondly, find some balance through skills and hobbies that can relax and refresh you. This suggestion is especially important for people stuck in mid-level and entry-level roles where they don’t feel like they have much autonomy to change the system. Maybe it’s reading a book. Perhaps it’s joining a rec-league basketball team. Maybe it’s serving at an animal shelter.

If you’re in a management position, take steps towards creating a positive environment. Provide support, encouragement, and appreciation. Be an advocate for your team. But don’t avoid conflict, as an appropriate approach to conflict can be affirming as well, provided the end goal is collectively in mind.

So business people should take a page out of the sports playbook and think positively. It might mean visualizing a great day at work. It might mean harnessing the things you can control in your life to provide some balance. It could mean approaching team management a little bit differently. But shifting the ratio toward positivity, at least 3-1, but even higher is better, will be good for you, good for your team, and good for business.

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