Taking a positive view: What’s the point?

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As we return to work after the summer break, our attention naturally turns to what the rest of the year has in store. Are you looking forward to the long run in to Christmas and the New Year with positivity and your glass half-full, or is it all doom and gloom and half-empty? I think the choice is yours.

We all do it: Wake up, flick on the TV, turn on the radio or check our phone and from the get-go we’re surrounded by bad news.

Terrorism, global warming, plastic filling our oceans, failing economies, failing companies, redundancies.

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 the little voice in your head screams: “Arrgh! Is the whole world against me?”

Things to notice

First, 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 your evidence for that? Totally dishevelled? Not just wet, then?

This language – the language most of us use when we’re talking to ourselves – creates a mindset where we often only see the worst in our world.

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.’ And the voice in your head says ‘Battered and bitter more like! … Right – 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. Now notice how being negative is highly contagious and can drag others down with you.

And have you ever noticed how we appear to be hard wired to see the dreadful, the downside, the dangers of any given situation? Although that stood us in great stead in the very distant past – negotiating with a sabre-toothed tiger never was a strategy for survival – the sabre-tooth is long extinct – but the mindset still survives and thrives.

The choice is yours

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 totally rose-tinted view of the world. Sometimes crap is crap. But I am arguing for a balanced view, based on real evidence. I suggest we can harness our almost forensic ability to find the flaws in things and repurpose it to find the flaws in our own self-fulfilling prophecies of doom. You’d never talk to someone else the way you talk to yourself and still expect them to excel. So, stop doing it to yourself.

And let me be equally clear. Like c.95% of the world’s population, I’m not naturally gifted as a ‘positive’ person – just ask my wife! But people perceive me as 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.

We all operate within a spectrum of positivity – I just try and operate at the more positive end of the one I’ve been gifted by my Parents and recommend you do too.

Positive psychology

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 participants, 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. Here’s something else to notice. Turns out, this positivity is also highly 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! And ‘Flow’ by Michaly Csikszentmihalyi is a great follow on read.

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 a glass half-full mindset is the way to go. But then I would, wouldn’t I?

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