“One ship drives east and another drives west
With the self-same winds that blow.
‘Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
Like the winds of the sea are the winds of fate,
As we voyage along through life,
‘Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal
And not the calm or the strife.”
~ poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, (1850 - 1919) “The Winds of Fate”
Researcher, author and professor, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, has studied the power of positive emotions* such as gratitude, hopefulness, curiosity, awe, confidence, and others. Her decades of research have shown that cultivating a positive state of mind can improve our physical and mental health, improve our relationships, relieve depression and anxiety, and enhance our creativity.
But hers isn’t a “PollyAnna prescription”, hell-bent on eliminating all negative emotions and just going through our days with a grin on our face. Instead, Fredrickson’s research has shown that people who have an approximately 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions on a daily basis experience better health, relationships, and work performance.
She calls this the Positivity Ratio and she’s created a simple 2-minute online test that allows anyone to assess their own “positivity ratio” at:
Fredrickson explains the ratio using the metaphor of a sailboat. The sails rise above the water, catch the wind and that “set of the sails” determines which way we go. But below the surface of the water, on the underside of the boat, is the keel. The keel has two basic functions: to prevent the boat from being blown sideways by the wind, and to hold the ballast that prevents the boat from capsizing. The keel is most essential when you’re sailing upwind.
In Fredrickson’s metaphor, the sail represents positive emotions and the keel represents negative emotions, with the height of the sail being approximately 3 times the depth of the keel. Both are necessary and each has its function. It's all in how much time, energy and attention we give to the positive versus the negative.
Another psychologist and researcher, Dr. Lucy Hone, shares what she has learned about positive emotions and resilience through her own deeply painful life experience in an excellent TED Talk (here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWH8N-BvhAw) and a helpful article (here: https://ideas.ted.com/sorrow-and-tragedy-will-happen-to-us-all-here-are-3-strategies-to-help-you-cope/ ).
Hone recommends three simple, accessible strategies for establishing the "set of [our] soul" to "decide [our] goal", even in our darkest days:
- Know that suffering is part of life and it happens to everyone (this has never been more painfully obvious than in the current crisis - but as Hone points out, understanding this can help us to avoid a feeling of "why me?")
- Carefully choose where you’re directing your attention (i.e., are we spending most of our time and energy focused on the many very real threats and potential horrifying outcomes of this crisis, or are we able to find ways to tune into the good around us?)
- Ask yourself “Is what I’m doing helping or harming me?” (i.e., is watching the news or reading one more article or set of statistics about the current COVID situation helping or harming?)
So where do we go with all of this? After taking the positivity ratio test on Dr. Fredrickson’s website, you could try out the “Three Good Things” daily practice from the “Greater Good in Action” site at UC Berkeley. Here’s how it works:
"Each day for at least one week, write down three things that went well for you today, and provide an explanation for why they went well. It is important to create a physical record of your items by writing them down; it is not enough simply to do this exercise in your head. The items can be relatively small in importance (e.g., “my co-worker made the coffee today”) or relatively large (e.g., “I earned a big promotion”). To make this exercise part of your daily routine, some find that writing before bed is helpful."
There are some more specific ideas and instructions for the "Three Good Things" practice on the Greater Good In Action site that you may find helpful:
As Willa Cather once observed,
"There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm."
There's no question, we are in the midst of an unprecedented and terrifying storm.
May each of us find safe, healthy, resilience-building ways to navigate through so that we're able to say:
"I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship." (Louisa May Alcott)
* For a comprehensive article on positive emotions and the benefits, see https://positivepsychology.com...finition-psychology/
(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bruce G. Snyder Photography, Sailboat, near Orcas Island, WA) - https://brucesnyderphoto.smugmug.com/)