Focus on the Positive


I am guilty of sometimes focusing more on the negative than on the positive. I magnify the bad and do not see the good. Can you relate? Do you do that with your spouse and children? If so, my guess is that they reciprocate and do it to you as well. It’s pretty normal; in a lot of ways, it’s human nature.

Dr. John Gottman is a name that might be familiar to some readers. He’s a psychologist and researcher who devotes his time to studying and sharing about marriage. His theory is that for a relationship to be healthy, the ratio of positive to negative feelings or interactions should be at least five to one. In other words, for every critique or conflict, there should be at least five positive comments, moments, or interactions to offset the negative experience.

I was thinking about this idea during summertime in West Michigan, so I was spending some time around bodies of water. And I had the thought that a good way to think about this ratio in relationships is to imagine two people out on the water in a canoe. I’m guessing we’ve all seen (or have been) people trying to figure out how to properly steer a canoe. The way to go in the direction you want is to figure out the right number of strokes that each person should be taking on each side of the canoe. The person in the back has more to do with the direction you go because their paddle often serves as the rudder that steers things as they push through the water near the rear of the vessel.

Without getting too far past my understanding of water-based movement, I’ll just say this: If the number and power of strokes is “off” between the front and back of the canoe, you’re not going to be heading in the direction you want to go. Gottman’s research says that the same concept applies to marriage. If your interactions with your spouse are “off”—in other words, too frequently or vehemently negative—then your relationship is not going to be headed in the direction that you want it to go. While Gottman’s research is specifically focused on marriage, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to imagine that it would apply across other close relationships. This is because nobody likes to feel like they’re getting critiqued and corrected all of the time.

So, I’m trying to put this into practice in my life. When my grandkids are over at our house and playing, I notice myself sometimes going into “correction mode,” telling them to stop doing certain things and start doing other things. However, when I stop and think about it, I see that ninety percent of what they’re doing is great; I’m simply focusing on the ten percent that’s negative.

I challenge you to join me in working to highlight the positives way more frequently than we focus on the negatives and the areas where we’d like to see some improvement. Work to meet the five to one ratio, but go well beyond it if you can. When we do this, we’ll help ourselves get a better picture of just how much good is going on around us and we’ll be encouraging our loved ones as well. When we start doing that instead of putting so much focus on the areas of improvement and negative behaviors, we’ll all be winning more often at home.