Innovate November 2018

Calling all Optimists: The Power of Positive-Oriented People and how to Become One!

Written By: Jennifer Webb

The morning was beautiful, the plane was on time, and the couple behind me in the Southwest “A” line were grumbling that they felt like cattle in a chute. Why would anyone put people on a plane in this silly formation? Southwest’s boarding model did not align with what they were accustomed to, and they didn’t like it. Their proverbial glass was at least half empty, if not more so.

Pessimistic thinking is contagious. Research indicates that those who continually gravitate toward the negative in a situation can cause harm to themselves and everyone around them. Put simply, if people are thinking negative thoughts at work (or any place where they can impact others) then their negativity spreads to others within their scope of influence quicker than a contagious strain of flu. One person’s neurons mirror another’s thought patterns and voila, those who were feeling good start changing their attitude. And the scariest statistic is that approximately 80 percent of any group can be influenced by strong personalities, while 10 percent are very positive and 10 percent are quite negative. All it takes is the 10 percent with the negative bent to influence the others, and you’ve got 90 percent of people in any work environment suffering from a pessimist’s perspective.

Think about it. The most prevalent emotion at work – all all across the U.S. – is anger (58 percent), and the least common emotion at work is joy (19 percent).

Pessimists are sicker, lose more days at work and contribute appreciably to lowering the morale wherever they are. While doing research on this article, I remembered talking to a gaming employee years ago when I lived in Nevada. She said she was giving up a rather lucrative job in the industry because she was tired of the attitude of gamblers; they were all pessimists. When I pressed her she said every time gamblers won, they begin to speculate on “what if?” What if they had only stayed on the seven for one more round? Then they would really have made some big bucks. They were never happy with what they won, only looked at their winnings from the perspective of how things could have been better if they had only played a bit differently.

On the other end of the spectrum, optimists tend to be more resilient, are better at regulating their emotions and can typically maintain their optimistic mindset even when the circumstances are extremely stressful, says Emily Esfahani in an article published in “The Atlantic.”

She goes on to explain that Dr. Dennis Charney, dean of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, examined approximately 750 Vietnam war veterans who were held as prisoners of war for six to eight years, tortured and kept in solitary confinement. He found something unusual about this group. They did not suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and of the 10 characteristics that set them apart from their fellow soldiers, the No. 1 difference was they were all optimists.

Optimists will see alternatives, which leads to problem-solving and creating new solutions. And if that isn’t enough to bring out the latent optimist in all of us, Suzanne Segerstrom, professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, says, “People who are optimistic are more committed to their goals, are more successful in achieving their goals and are more satisfied with their lives.”

Apparently, they will also be the employees who never use up their sick days. According to a recent Harvard School of Public Health study, positive psychological well-being, including self-acceptance and positive relations with others, is linked to improved heart health. Optimists have less cardiovascular disease and lower levels of triglycerides, and they are just plain happier.

It pays to be an optimist. Hire optimists and teach others optimistic thinking. If it isn’t something found in our DNA, how can we adopt an optimistic frame of mind to cope more efficiently and end up in that small minority of people who actually experience joy at work?

Optimists tend to be more resilient, are better at regulating their emotions and can typically maintain their optimistic mindset even when the circumstances are extremely stressful.

The great news is that research indicates there is a plethora of tools to help anyone create new habits and become a card-carrying optimist. Seeing what’s right about a situation rather than what won’t work is actually pretty easy.

Here are some ideas to increase your optimist quotient:

Think specifically, not globally; there’s a huge difference.

Pessimists talk in absolutes, like nothing and everything and always. In other words, everything is bleak. All bosses are unfair. All spouses are unfaithful. I always fail when I have to get up to speak.

While those who think specifically see frustration or challenges in only one area: My one boss, Bob, is unfair. I’m not good at speaking at the once-a-year corporate retreat. The problem focuses on just one thing.

Act optimistically, even if you aren’t feeling particularly hopeful.

According to research, if you act like the future can be positive, you’re apt to start thinking that way and then you’re more willing to put in the time and energy to make that come about. Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” said there would be times he would be wallowing in self-pity and would have to go out and talk about positive thinking. He would “act as if” he felt positive and inspired and upbeat, and once he was finished speaking, he actually felt like he had only pretended to feel pessimistic earlier.

Pay attention to when you start to think like a pessimist.

Charles DuHigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” said it is important to identify the routine of a habit. MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit; a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward. When we pay attention to what triggers our negative thinking, what we do once it is set in motion and what the reward might be (I knew the boss would yell at us if we didn’t do it his way…I told you) then we can start to create change.

Appreciate what you’ve got and what you’ve got to look forward to and savor the good when it happens.

Experts say to linger on what worked, allowing yourself to feel pleased, proud or whatever your chosen emotion. The longer you can enjoy it, the more it will insulate you. Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff of Loyola University say savoring may allow us to be more aware of pleasure and the conscious attention to the experience of pleasure, which keeps us mentally present in the now.

Find meaning in what you’re doing.

That might mean revamping how your team or employees look at opportunities or company core values, or it might mean looking outside work at what you can do to make a difference, perhaps adopting a charity at work or finding something that gives you joy (volunteering, mentoring, coaching a sports team).

Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” discovered that when people feel there is purpose, it is the catalyst to survive anything and move forward. And finding meaning in what we do on a daily basis can change how we look at what works and what doesn’t. Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, says the meaningful life uses our signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than we are.

List your successes.

When we see the negative side of the equation, we forget all the successes we’ve had. Keep a running list of your successes, which is a good reminder of what worked well and the skills and ingenuity it took to create the success. And keep a list of successful people who have overcome big obstacles. Know your strategies for mentally handling challenges and overcoming them. For example, many grad students have tremendous knowledge and incredible IQs, but when something doesn’t work, such as a job interview, a date, or a test they flunked, they fall to pieces. You’ve got to have the strategies and resources to bounce back since the ones who are the most resilient – the optimists – are always ahead of the game.

We can’t outperform faulty thinking, but we can change it. Optimism is weeding out negative beliefs that have grown roots, and once we take better care of our own inner agendas and become aware of where our thinking is cutting into our productivity and well-being, then we can start to make necessary changes.

Think about it. Would you rather work with, be stranded on a desert island with, or in general hang around with someone who will tell you why something will never work? Or would you rather be with someone who sees infinite possibilities and sets out to find ways to make them happen?

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