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Vicar's Musings for Easter 7

20 May, 2012

"The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like the cedar in Lebanon" (Psalm 92:12)

I imagine none of us want to stagnate, either in our personal relationships or in our faith. We want to flourish. The psalmist knows and tells of an ancient wisdom: that those who strive to live a righteous life will indeed flourish, like the palm tree with its deep roots drawing moisture from deep below the sandy surface. The righteous will grow and keep on growing like the mighty cedar trees that used to cover the mountain ranges of Lebanon.

In 1994 a leading relationship researcher, John Gottman, published a book entitled What Predicts Divorce? It was based on 16 years of research into the way couples relate to each other. Gottman’s interest was in how partners address issues and argue, and he observed a number of indicators that if left unchecked have a devastating impact on a relationship. Four of these he termed "horsemen of the apocalypse" due to their effectiveness in destroying relationships: "Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling." Conversely, couples with relationships that worked would approach problem solving in a much more positive manner, affirming the other person, respecting differences, being open to affectionate exchange, listening deeply and so on. Interestingly, Gottman discovered a magic ratio that was a predictor of flourishing relationships: five to one. For every negative interaction couples needed at least five positive exchanges to outweigh the damaging impact on the relationship.

This formula for flourishing relationships was subsequently shown to hold in the workplace also. In 1999 Marcial Losada published a study of 60 business teams demonstrating a clear correlation between the highest performing groups and their ratio of positive to negative interactions. Losada showed that even twice as much positivity as negativity was not enough to guarantee effective outcomes and prevent teams getting stuck on divisive issues. The highest performing teams had a positivity ratio of 6:1 across a whole day of planning and strategising. The phenomenon has come to be known as the "Losada Ratio" and has since been extended to studies of individual flourishing, such as in the work of the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson. She has shown that the active fostering of positive emotions such as love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope and awe has a direct impact on mental wellbeing and our ability to flourish as human beings.

In one sense there is nothing new here. Using Biblical language we might term these as exercises in righteousness: fostering right relationships, right behaviour and right thinking. Paul and Timothy in their letter to the early church in Philippi wrote something very similar: "Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8)

The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster



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