Stresses, anxieties and risks can afflict everyone at some point in their lives. And it’s human nature to concentrate on them: ignoring them can threaten our well-being.
Yet dwelling unproductively on potential risks to our safety and well-being before they happen isn’t the way to live a satisfying life; in fact it’s stressful in itself to obsess mainly about the negatives.
To live a good life between the stresses and upsets that beset us all at some point, people must actively focus on the positive things in life. Doing so helps us weather the difficulties better, too.
Psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, observes that while attending to negative situations is easier than cultivating positive emotional states, concentrating on the positive remains a necessity in order to flourish personally and professionally. Researches have found that positive emotions like happiness are linked to higher individual and team performance and achievement.
Fredrickson makes the distinction between being a Pollyanna type (which tends to make others feel that such a person is not anchored in reality) and people who maintain an upbeat attitude. She notes that people or groups that maintain at least a 3:1 ratio in positive versus negative emotional output tend to flourish. Flourishing means being generative (creative, full of new ideas), resilient (able to bounce back from adversity) and making a helpful contribution by taking initiative or collaborating towards a goal.
Psychologists identify seven positive emotions linked to increased team and individual performance. Cultivating these emotions in our companies and ourselves leads to increased personal well-being and better customer service, profitability and team performance in organizations.
When staff experience joy, they are more likely to be playful with one another and willing to experiment with new ideas and ways of doing things. Playfulness fertilizes the brain, making people open to diverse experiences. Ultimately playfulness can lead to acquiring new skills and abilities. Having fun during meetings or training lightens the load and promotes learning.
If novel ideas, situations or information is presented on the job, staff are more likely to express interest. This leads to a desire to understand more and explore the new topic, product or process. Introducing ideas or problems that have no obvious solution for staff is key. Unleashing the emotion of interest motivates staff to gain knowledge and wrestle with difficult or thought-provoking issues relevant to the company’s future.
Contented staff are more willing and able to engage in “big picture” thinking. They tend to integrate different sources of data, functions and projects to understand how seemingly diverse situations, tasks, departments or projects interrelate and serve the whole. Experiencing contentment can lead to a willingness to change how one views oneself (harried worker versus efficient task completer) and one’s world view (people are trying to take advantage of me versus most people are willing to help me if I need it).
When staff can take credit for a good outcome, they tend to entertain big dreams about the future and believe in the possibility of a successful result. Celebrating big “wins” or small gains towards a sought after goal and giving credit where credit is due is important to cultivating pride. If people feel pride in what they do, they experience the desire to achieve. Nothing is more deflating than having your work unacknowledged or, at worst, stolen. Companies that promote pride in the job maintain an achievement orientation in staff.
Offering appreciation and a thank-you is linked to greater team work. People are more likely to enjoy giving their time and energy to grateful supervisors or colleagues. Just because people receive a pay cheque doesn’t mean thanks are not in order. Colleagues who show gratitude towards others are sought-after team members in many organizations. Grateful people often create bonds with others more easily and have more trusting relationships.
If we see a supervisor, leader or colleague giving freely to another person, we tend to become more motivated to give, too. We also strive to be better people by watching altruistic behaviour. Staff who frequently witness helpfulness at work are more likely to respond ethically and compassionately to difficult situations or when called upon to aid another or solve a problem.
Positive emotions in general are not talked about at work and the idea of fostering a loving environment is even more taboo. We may be tempted to pair love with sexualized contexts and steer clear of nurturing loving types of emotions on the job. But research shows that by creating loving feelings such as warmth, caring and genuine concern at work we heighten staff ability to play, explore, create and dream. We increase team work and the willingness to trust. All the benefits of the previous emotions can be found in organizations that foster feelings of caring about others wellbeing.
Positive emotions are subtle. Joy and contentment do not grab our attention like anger, disgust or fear. Negative states and events mobilize us. So, for positive emotions to do the same thing, we must compensate for the natural tendency to zero in on the negative. Ironically, although most people have a mildly happy emotional set-point, positive feelings are harder to recall than negative ones. Hence, noticing that you are actually happy or joyful or interested or grateful at any given time takes work. To flourish means taking the time to notice when you feel good, which may be more often than you think.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.