Reverse Engineering Positive Psychology

One of the continual challenges of research is making it generalizable to the population at large. But, as people are quick to point out, what works for the general population might not work for a specific individual.

World-wide population growth

The surprise, however, is how many people take general findings like the Positivity Ratio and assume that they must need a 3:1 ratio of positive-to-negative events, only to find themselves unhappy. Similarly, there are those who use the exercises that Lyubomirsky described in her works, only to wonder why they are no happier for having done them and what they did wrong.

Their error was not knowing themselves!

Tailoring to fit

Reverse Engineer to Fit

It is important to remember that, since research findings are designed to apply to a large group, they must be reverse engineered to the individual. The key to doing this is the Socratic maxim, “Nosce te ipsum” — “Know thyself!”

When you read about the Positivity Ratio, remember that 3:1 is the average across people. Some can manage with a ratio of 2:1, and others need something more like 6:1.

Think about yourself, your own needs, and how positive and negative events affect you. Are you more sensitive to one kind or the other relative to the people you know? If so, you are likely to deviate from the general 3:1 recommendation. For example, if positive events have a strong effect on you, while most negative events are like water off a duck’s back, a 2.5:1 ratio might be fine. If negative events are highly salient to you, you might need more positive experiences to compensate.

Likewise, when undertaking exercises to improve happiness and subjective well-being, remember to adapt the instructions to your life. Don’t throw them out, but remember that they are generalized and need some minor tweaking to work for you.

Your Own Way of Finding Flow

Street artist

The same guidelines hold for finding flow. As Csikszentmihalyi pointed out, almost any activity can be a flow activity. While activities in sports and the arts are common vehicles for flow, people need not assume that they are not experiencing flow just because they are not doing activities that are typically conducive to flow.

Whenever people ask me about finding flow, my first question is always the same: “What do you like to do?” (The second question is “What activity would you be willing to do all day if I could arrange it?”) A surprising number of people have trouble answering this question, and, even though they have read all about flow, they have trouble finding it.

Cartoonist Chari Pere illustrated a great, informative comic, Gretchen Rubin and the Quest for a Passion, part of Gretchen Rubin’s blog and recent book. While it is about finding one’s passion, it also highlights the perils of letting people tell you who you are instead of finding out for yourself.

Nosce te ipsum is an important principle throughout all areas of life. It is also one of the keys to making positive psychology work. Whether it is knowing your calling at work, your strengths, or your passion, knowing who you are and how you operate will enable you to take the research findings of positive psychology and put them to work in your own life.


Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61 (4), 305–314.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Rubin, G. (2009). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Harper.

 World Population Growth courtesy of Lauren Manning
 Tailoring to fit courtesy of Jay Tamboli

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