Chowdhury: The ‘Magic Ratio’ and sustainable happiness


Raisa Chowdhury, Columnist

Most, if not all, experiences in life come with some good and some bad. Even if you are married to your dream partner, go to your dream school, have your dream job, work for your dream company or are going on your dream vacation, chances are you will experience some negative moments. Sometimes good and bad aspects of an experience are so intertwined that it’s hard to decide whether it was good or bad overall. Is it worth having the experience at all? Should we quit now if we are ultimately going to quit anyway? Should we stop and evaluate other options? How do we ever know?

I recently read an article about the psychologist John Gottman’s “Magic Ratio,” in which Gottman established that for a newly married couple to sustain their marriage, they needed to have a positive to negative interaction ratio of 5:1; that is, a “magic ratio.” The lower the positive-to-negative interaction ratio drops, the less sustainable the marriage becomes, with a 1:1 ratio being a strong indicator of a looming divorce. In fact, Gottman and his colleagues observed 15-minute interaction between 700 newlyweds and correctly predicted the fate of their marriages 94 percent of the time.

The immediate question that arose in my mind was: If a ratio could be applied to predict something as volatile as relationships between two human beings with significant accuracy, could similar ratios be used for predicting the livelihood of other commitments that we make?  Why commit to stay in a career for five years if we can predict that the career is not made for us after one month? Can we really tell from an initial ratio of positive to negative moments whether or not we will eventually end up quitting a commitment we made?

Almost immediately after, I had an even better idea — could we actually do something to achieve a high ratio of positive to negative moments (or experiences) and ensure that we fulfill our commitments? Given that we made the commitment in the first place, chances are we had good reasons, and most of us probably would like to see them to the end.

If your dream major is shaping up to be harder than you anticipated or you are struggling and you feel like you have more negative moments in a course than positive, do you just quit one fine morning? It is likely that a low ratio makes you feel disengaged, doubtful about your initial decision and ultimately reluctant to pursue it. But almost all experiences will have some negative aspects. It could be that the major is not made for you. But it could also be that you just need to consciously take action and bump up your ratio of positive to negative moments to ensure that you see your commitments to the end.

Instead of focusing on a bad grade, long hours and the number of exams, think about the people you met through the course, how the course has challenged you and taught you something new. Always stop to give yourself credit for the hard work you have put in.

In fact, a higher ratio of positive to negative moments will likely help us feel more engaged and optimistic about outcomes of our commitments, thereby increasing our productivity in pursuit of our goals.

For instance, recent research has shown that working teams who had a ratio of positive to negative interactions of three to one among team members had higher productivity than teams who had lower ratios. Therefore a higher ratio of positive to negative interactions will actually optimize performance. If we are in a team, and possibly do not get along with all of the members and our faith in the team is dipping, what can we do? We can consciously attempt to create positive experiences to bump up the ratio. Perhaps giving each other recognition for something good we’ve have done or simply acknowledging the merits of ideas put forward by team members is a good start.

If some experience or commitment is starting to appear not worthwhile and you are considering quitting, stop for a second and think of ways to bump up your ratio of positive to negative moments; find your own very magic ratio. It just may help you resuscitate your commitment and fulfill the promises you have made to others or the goals you may have set for yourself. If that does not work, maybe then you should seriously start considering the option of quitting.

Raisa Chowdhury is a McCormick junior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].