Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes psychological research that strongly suggests human beings have stronger responses to negative events or stimuli than to positive ones. That makes sense; for survival reasons, it is “wise” to be able to recognize threats or aggression rapidly. Once humans understand this fact of our natures, however, we ought to be able to put its effects into rational perspective…if we are rational human beings.
Kahneman cites a study that looked at marriages and found that, in a marriage the spouses described as “happy,” each partner said or did five pleasant things for every one unpleasant comment or action. The five-to-one ratio turns out to be a steady one in other types of psychological research into mood, threat-response, and attitude assessments among employees, family members, and groups.
In other words, we have to do five nice things to outweigh the emotional effect of one unpleasant thing. Which is, by the way, irrational. A rational equation would be one-to-one for a neutral emotional grounding, and two nice events would (rationally) make up for one nasty remark. Philosophers would agree, but given that human nature is not as rational as we often like to believe, philosophers also readily understand the problem of what Stephen Covey has called “the emotional bank account.” That one negative situation taints our moods pretty severely, even though it should not. The emotional bank account draws down very rapidly if we consider that 5-to-1 ratio.
I propose that we learn from this research to practice five actions as we navigate the challenges of getting along with other people:
1) Try harder to do those so-called random acts of kindness. Smiling is a good start.
2) Repress at least a few of our negative markers (frowns, sarcastic remarks, resentful sighs).
3) Identify more good things people do so we realize that good things do occur.
4) Try to teach ourselves to be more rational when negative things happen.
5) Remember that others are recalling the one bad thing, just as we do, and let it go.
It’s harder than you’d think, but it isn’t impossible. Neither easy nor hard: the middle way.
Here are five good things I encountered today:
Pansies (viola × wittrockiana). Daffodils (narcissus). Chickadees (poecile atricapillus). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3 (1932).