The 20-60-20 Rule for Maintaining a Positive Attitude

It's no big news to say that some days are better than others. There are times when nothing goes as planned as well as periods when everything seems to fall into place just the right way. It's my conviction that how we handle the challenging times in our life goes a long way in determining our overall happiness.

One technique I've found useful to help people manage a healthy emotional stance in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs is what I call it the "20-60-20" rule. This simple idea centers around the assumption that about 60% of whatever we experience in life is pretty much consistent with our expectations, being neither exceptionally positive or negative. Another 20% of our experiences are very satisfying or exceed our initial expectations in some way. This leaves the remaining 20% to be relatively unpleasant or less satisfying than we would like, often resulting in some degree of disappointment and frustration.

Of course this ratio is subject to a lot of variation, but generally I’ve found it to be a pretty reasonable and useful guideline. As an example, for every five movies you watch, three will generally hold your interest for one viewing while one is likely to be a real disappointment to you -- but ONE will be a film that you will enthusiastically recommend to your friends. Similarly, for every five articles of clothing that you buy, one will become a favorite addition to your wardrobe, three will serve their purpose adequately, but one will rarely emerge from your closet until you finally get rid of it. Dine at ten new restaurants and it's likely that two will become personal favorites, you'll have bad experiences at two others and the remaining six will be just about what you expected them to be. The examples go on and on.

All this is to say that life generally imposes an "inconvenience tax” of 20%. It’s a good accounting practice to go ahead and "write off" about 20% of your life experiences to circumstances that don't go your way. The best advice you can take when dealing with these inevitable hassles and disappointments is to not take them personally since they're generally not your fault.

But here's where we tend to get into trouble. It's so easy for any of us to get soured by the petty little inconveniences of life. Someone cuts you off in traffic…..your call was never returned…..the cashier was rude…..your team lost…..the dog won't stop barking…..the line to the bathroom is long… can’t find your keys.….you catch lots of red lights.....the service technician didn't arrive on time…..the list is as endless as your attitude allows it to be. If we aren't careful these inevitable “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (to use Shakespeare’s phrase) can infect our attitude so much that they drag down the rest of our perceptions. The "middle 60%" seems more of a burden and before you realize what's happening 80% of life seems annoying and unfair. This leaves only the top 20% of your experience to hold your attitude together, and that's like asking only two dogs to pull the whole sled. It’s just not going to happen. And it doesn't need to.

On the other hand, when you devote special attention to the exceptionally pleasing or positive 20% of life you are likely to perceive the middle 60% in a much more uplifting light. This simple strategy supports and sustains the helpful perspective that 80% of your life is primarily positive. This is tremendously effective in counteracting the inevitable “bottom” 20% that contributes to a negative state of mind in so many people.


Bill Herring, LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta psychotherapist and counselor with decades of experience helping improve the lives of individuals and couples.  In addition to his general adult practice he is well known for helping people who struggle managing the limits of their sexual behavior.

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