Well, we all do it: Wake up, flick on the TV, turn on the radio or go to our personalised home page and from the get-go we’re surrounded by bad news.
Terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, global warming, failing economies, failing companies, redundancies – all ringing in our ears as we steel ourselves for what lies ahead.
Hardly a motivational way to start the day, is it?
Then you drive to work – and the traffic is worse than it’s ever been. The nearest car parking spots to the office are taken – that always happens. Then it rains – the hardest rain in years. And then you meet the new boss for the first time, and you’re looking totally dishevelled! And you cry: “Arrgh! Is the whole world against me?”
Point one: Notice our innate ability to catastrophise. The worst traffic ever. Really? Always happens. What, every day? Hardest rain in years. Truly, in years? What’s the evidence? Totally dishevelled? Not just wet then?
This language – the language we all tend to use – encourages us to see the worst in things.
And then you walk into the office and pass that ‘motivational’ poster on the wall that says: In some small way, every day, I get better and better. “Grrr. Battered and bitter more like! Right [through gritted teeth] – now to inspire the team…”
Inspire the team? I don’t think so, not in that frame of mind. You’re more likely to come across as an ‘energy thief’, sucking the life out of those around you like a Dementor from Harry Potter. Second point: Being negative is contagious; you can drag others down with you.
Third point: Have you noticed we appear to be hard wired to see the dreadful, the downside, the dangers of any given situation? Sure, that stood us in great stead in the very distant past – negotiating with a sabre-toothed tiger never was a strategy for survival.
But there is a way forward. Even in today’s real world, more often than not, we can make choices, as educated human beings, about our behaviour. Perhaps uniquely on this planet, we can choose whether to listen to that little voice in our head, which is usually our fiercest critic and has an uncanny ability to drag up evidence of negative experiences from our past. Or we can thank that inner voice for ‘sharing’ and tell it ‘push’ off (or words to that effect!) – because it is not helping, thank you – and choose to act in a different way.
As John Milton put it in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.”
Let me be clear. I’m not arguing for a rose-tinted view of the world. Sometimes crap is crap. But I am arguing for a balanced view of the world, based on real evidence. I suggest we can harness our almost forensic ability to find fault in things, to find the flaws in our own self-fulfilling prophecies of doom. I believe you’d never talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself and still expect them to thrive. So stop doing it to yourself.
And let me be equally clear. Like 95% of the world’s population, I’m not naturally gifted as a ‘positive’ person – just ask my wife! But people perceive me upbeat and full of energy. That’s not a natural aptitude – I have to work at it. You see I believe you can train your mind to notice the potential positives in a specific situation – as well as acknowledge the challenges – and then take a more balanced view.
So how have I come to this conclusion? After all I’m not trained in psychiatry or the related fields.
Many years ago I spoke at a conference in Sweden and weeks later was contacted by the PA to one of the delegates asking me to speak at an Oncology Conference. Well, I’m not an oncologist either, I’m a professional and passionate communicator, so I asked what topic he wanted me to speak on. After much to and fro, through his PA, we agreed he didn’t know either, but he did know he wanted an ‘injection’ of my positivity at his conference.
This conversation triggered a desire to better understand how people, including me, can learn to see the potential positives in any given situation – and then take a more balanced, potentially more empowering and inspirational view. This positivity is also contagious, as was clearly the case in Sweden.
My research has seen me inspired by the work of Martin Seligman and others involved in the Positive Psychology movement. I’ve found Seligman’s seminal book Authentic Happiness very helpful – and not a tree being hugged in sight!
In the past year or two, there’s been more and more interest in the benefits of positive psychology in the workplace. Some of the highlights of psychologist Sarah Lewis’s book Positive Psychology at Work are nicely summarised in a recent blog post by Daniel Hunter on the Fresh Business Thinking website.
So what is the point of taking a positive view? Well, as we discuss in a workshop we run on this topic, the point is that ‘positive’ people seem to be more attractive to be around, they seem to have more choices in life, they seem to have more control, and perhaps most tellingly of all they seem to be more successful.
I think it’s a prize worth working at. (But then I would, wouldn’t I?)
In my next post, I’ll offer some thoughts on how you can train your mind to take a positive, or at least more balanced, view – and help those around you do the same.
In the meantime, listen to the language you and those around you use. Does it suggest a positive interpretation of the world or impending catastrophe? And keep a look out for black Saab convertibles – you don’t see many of those these days, do you? More on them in my next blog, too.