Positive Psychology and the Losada ratio

Research by Seligman (1) shows that how we perceive the world is of great influence on PTSD and feelings of burn-out. Seligman investigated how people have emerged from challenging situations despite high adversity. He discovered that having more positive thoughts than negative thoughts - in a balance of 3:1 contributed to conquering challenges. This balance is called the Losada ratio - named after the Chilean researcher Losada. He and Barbara Fredrickson discovered that companies with a balance of 2.9:1 positive vs. negative statements were performing significantly better. Companies with a ratio below the 2.9 performed poorer in terms of business and economics (2). Seligman shows in his research that this ratio is also applicable to individuals and individual well-being. Seligmans research in the US army shows that a higher level of emotional fitness results in lower costs as a result of sick leave / absenteeism. Emotional fitness can be trained according to Seligman through resilience trainings. These trainings focus on flexible thinking, active problem solving and productively dealing with non-constructive behaviour. 

The importance of attention for performance in companies and organisations was demonstrated in the Hawthorne studies by Mayo and Roethlisberger, who studied improvements in productivity in the 20s and 30s of the twentieth century. In this famous study it was discovered - by coincidence - that it was not necessarily the amount of light in the factory that increased the productivity, but the fact that management was paying attention to the work process and the employees. 

How our attention is of real influence on our thoughts and our functioning is also shown by the priming experiments by van John Bargh, as described by Malcolm Gladwell. (3) This experiment that if participants were (unknowingly) exposed to words about aging and being elderly, they would walk back significantly slower after the experiment than the control group. Gladwell also mentions a Dutch priming study in which one half of the participants were asked to think about what it means to be a professor and to write this down. This group answered a set of Trivial Pursuit questions significantly better than the other half who were asked to think about what it means to be a soccer hooligan. The infamous Pygmalion study is yet another example. In this study, teachers were told that certain students were less intelligent than others. The teachers acted on this information, which had actual consequences for students'  performance, even though these were randomly assigned to the groups "intelligent" and "less intelligent". The intervention had consequences for the students on the longer term - not just short term effects. As a result of this, these kinds of studies are no longer permitted in the academic community. (4)


(1) Martin Seligman: “Flourish”, 2011, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, chapter 8

(2) This 2,9:1 ratio is not absolute; Barbara Fredrickson has updated her thinking on this. But her claim remains that up to a certain point it is important for successful organisations to have more positive statements than negative statements. Also see this link to the article. 

(3) Malcolm Gladwell, 2005, Blink, Little, Brown and Company, p. 52-56

(4) Watkins & Mohr, 2001, Appreciative Inquiry - Change at the Speed of Imagination, Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, p. 31