Motivational speakers and writers have been promoting the power of a positive mental attitude for years. Many are quite effective at generating positive emotions - feelings of hope, confidence, and optimism. Those effects, in themselves, are empowering. But we also know from decades of research that positive emotions facilitate improved cognitive performance - creativity and problem solving. The problem is, they don't always last.
Why is it that the mental and emotional state of positivity can be so fragile? Even more important, how can we make it last?
I believe the problem and the answers take us to a discussion of three basic factors:
- Application. We must link our insights, ideas, and burgeoning feelings of hope and confidence to a practical course of purposive action, one that makes a difference.
- Accountability. We need, especially at first, compelling external demands that make action imperative, that emphasize the consequential effects (price) of inaction.
- Inner Growth. We must internalize a mindset that promotes positivity, is aligned with moral values we identify with, and that grounds our sense of responsibility.
What is implicit throughout, which we must now call out as an explicit factor is the vital importance of others, what we owe to one another, and just how critical it is to have a bond of shared values that grounds us all in a sense of responsibility. Attention to the three factors initially, and renewing our attention to them over time is how we reassert and reaffirm our sense of responsibility.
What does that mean concretely?
Purposive Action can take the form of individual work streams of signal importance to the person and the business, or group-level projects that advance strategic imperatives. In either case, until we have linked our newly excited aspirations and emotional energy to such a cause, they are likely to suffer the same fragility that causes our motivations to dissipate after leaving an inspiring event.
External Demands are what distinguish accountability from responsibility. Neglect of these demands can cost us (reputation, esteem, respect, advancement, compensation, maybe our job). They exert a coercive force and involve extrinsic sources of motivation. Just as transactional leadership (vs transformational) has something to offer, so too there is no shame in confessing that we sometimes need a "reason to get up in the morning."
A Sense of Responsibility arises from within in response to values and motivations that transcend oneself and any transactional considerations. It gains and sustains power as we face squarely the moral meaning and implications of our actions and how they align with the person, and the leader, we want to be. Just as our identity evolves throughout life, so our sense of responsbility must also evolve, especially in light of new roles.
The elevated emotions and expansive optimism we feel based upon the presence and words of a great speaker, or even in the practical example of a good leader, will lose elevation. Retaining some of what was gained at those higher altitudes and in those special moments of experience depends upon how we manage the descent. Exiting the place, the state of mind, without a call to action will often lead to a freefall.
On the other hand, if we navigate our descent by anticipating the need to enter another space and state of mind, one that orients us to doing the work characterized in the three factor above...well, we could then be on the road to bridging our "high" experience to the world we live and work in on Monday morning. This usually works best when we have an opportunity to process the experience conversationally.
The positivity ratio
Researchers in the positive psychology movement have suggested that there is "rule-of-thumb" ratio of positive to negative experiences that predicts our capacity to retain an overall positive state of mind and secure the cognitive and social-emotional benefits that accompany this state of mind. The ratio is 3 to 1. That means we must aim, through conscious effort, to ensure a ratio of three positive experiences for each negative one.
- Think about how you start your day: If it often starts badly, are there things that you might do differently to change that? Remember the Serenity Prayer, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." A helpful piece of common wisdom... if we use it. It's not always the big changes that make the difference.
- Consider the ups and downs of the business day: Do you give yourself 5-minute breaks, brief breathers between meetings? Do you include other simple and pleasing sensory or somatic experiences (stretching, walking, and friendly chat with staff) that could break up the day? How can you build in time to talk with positive people and change the mix of your scheduled time?
- Check in on your own feeling and state of being: Take breathers or 5-minute breaks to close your eyes, take a couple of breaths, notice tensions and relax them. Consider what's on your mind, what are you worried about or afraid of? Be honest. Keep it that simple. Hear yourself out on these feelings. Are there really no options or choices? Must you really do it all, do it all yourself?
These are simple self-care recommendations that focus on day-to-day routines, how they may induce negative feelings, and where there may be an opporutnity for you to incorporate more positive feelings. There may be some other "bigger" changes that you could conisder in order to improve your physical and emotional wellness (diet, exercise, meditation). Doing that can bolster your underlying levels of stamina and resilience.
I hope there is something in this article that prompts you to identify ways to incorporate more positivity in your life in 2017. However, we must remember that negative feelings are not bad per se. Indeed, it is very important to understand them too, especially those that convey fear or worry. They probably have a message worth listening to. It only when we allow negative emotions to overwhelm and suppress our positive emotions that they become detrimental to adaptive functioning, growth, and happiness.