Positive Thinking and Positive Psychology

This week I’m delivering a presentation on Positive Psychology at Work as part of an internal sharing session. We call them Truman sessions (mostly because we’re in the Truman Brewery) and they are a platform to share information across any topic which will be of interest to the business. I’ve only done one of these before, and that was last year. It’s quite nerve racking doing a presentation like this, which is about 40 mins long with time after for Q&A. But, you know me, I’m good with the spotlight. Seeing as how I crave attention (it’s why I’m in L&D after all), this sits perfect with me.

Earlier this year, I heard Sarah Lewis talk at #HRD11 and was very inspired by her work in positive psychology in the UK, and bought her book on Friday – Positive Psychology at Work (on my Kindle for Android naturally). I’m a few chapters in and thoroughly enjoying what she has to say. She presents theory mixed with a practitioner’s point of view and where she can highlights how some organisations are currently doing the things she talks about. For me, that’s a rich mix of material which I love.

One of the first distinctions she makes is that positive thinking and positive psychology are two very different schools of thought, and there can be a lot of confusion between the two. As she says, it’s a shame that they both start with ‘positive’ as this is the only thing they share.

So how do they differ? At it’s simplest, positive thinking is changing how you think so instead of being negative, you think positive. Positive psychology is about the study of behaviour and therapies that can increase a person’s sense of wellbeing to a positive and vibrant state. Clear as mud, right?

Positive Thinking

I like positive thinking, and have done for a long time. I am a positive thinker. I don’t tend to get dragged into being negative and don’t see the point in it. There’s a place for criticism, and for being angry, but I’m a firm believer that if you focus on the positive you can change the way you perceive the problem you are facing and the possible solutions that present themselves. This isn’t to say you delude yourself into a sense of all being right in the world, but you start to think differently about the work you do, and the interactions you have.

It’s akin to ‘positive mental attitude’ that sports people are taught. If you say self-affirming statements before you start a competition you start to engage the mind in a way to help you be successful. I also use the same idea when helping people with nerves over presenting. I find though, that it’s not enough to say positive statements, you need to experience a positive thought. The task I get the group to do is to recall a recent event that made them smile and made them feel good. Once they have this in mind, and can recount the experience, their energy levels increase across their language, their body language, and their enthusiasm/passion. I then get them to use positive statements which are more reinforced due to the positive state they are in. It works a treat, but it does involve some very clear steps in helping them get there.

Positive Psychology

As with other forms of therapy, positive psychology is about helping relieve a person’s state of wellbeing and how distressed they feel. The key difference though, is not focusing on the cause of the distress, although important, but using interventions to help produce lasting effects of feeling good. Feeling good is a very subjective thing, but through proven techniques, a person’s self observed state of happiness can move from being not distressed to feeling good quite significantly, and it’s often a lasting effect.

Such interventions are things such as a gratitude visit, writing #3GoodThings, engaging in social activities, and carrying out virtuous acts. Each of these, when done in a dedicated fashion, help to increase your own perceived sense of wellbeing. They make a difference to the way you actively live your life as you are engaging in activities that help you create a sense of positivity not just in the way you are, but how others interact with you, and the impact you have on others.

Both positive thinking, and positive psychology have a role in the work environment. We can use positive thinking in the way we conduct meetings, carry out annual appraisals, provide feedback and engage staff. Positive psychology is about creating work environments that are conducive to not just a healthy place to work, but a vibrant place to work – allowing people to carry out tasks without fear of blame or backlash for mistakes; not focusing on policies to enforce behaviour, but trusting people to do the right thing; having a socially active workforce that allows people to take part when they want to, bot because they have to; having forums and opportunities for people to express opinion that are heard, acknowledged, responded to and an action taken.

The importance of relationships

I’m a relationship kind of guy. Someone who enjoys building them, cultivating them, nurturing them, and generally having them. And that’s inclusive of all types of relationships. With my wife, with friends, with work colleagues, with suppliers, with superiors, with just about anyone that I end up meeting. Human existence thrives on relationships, without them we are nothing.

In Sikhi we are taught that the company of those around us is a blessed thing and we should seek it out whenever possible. In psychology we are taught about various facets of relationships and the importance of them on mental and psychological wellbeing. In the workplace we are often taught to be collegiate and be helpful to those around us, those we work with and those working either under us or on behalf of us. In society we are taught that doing things for the greater good is the ideal to have. That we should aim to do things which will bring some positive contribution to society. Personally my parents have taught me that relationships are the very cornerstone of a happy home life.

I’m in agreement with all that. It makes sense, you can see how it works and you can see how it can fall apart. When people don’t invest the time to do these things you can see the reactions from others. Why did they act like that? Don’t they see the harm they are doing? Do they lack self awareness? Are they socially inept? Do they not care about there around them?

Sadly, not everyone is geared up to this mentality. I say sadly because it is something we are all capable of doing, and I believe we should do. This has nothing to do with personal tendencies for space, privateness, extraversion, introversion, personalities, or any other individual trait. This is, I believe, a fundamental aspect of human life that we should be highly conscious of helping to grow.

Many ills in society, family, communities, individuals can be seen to have a link with the level of relationships people have in all of those groups (and others). I’m cautious to say there are causal links, as research is constantly being carried out about the power of groups both negative and positive.

But, if we took the time to genuinely develop relationships that have meaning, we can see intuitively that a general level of positivity and constructive behaviours would arise. As I’ve said above, regardless of your personal bent, we are all capable of doing this. Some are naturally better at this than others, and some have difficulty with it. But just because it is difficult does not mean it should not be something we aim to strive for.

Social Capital and what goes around

Have you ever stopped to think about why some people seem to take things in their stride? You know the kind. They seem to be jolly in most things, quite light-hearted and seem to enjoy life more than others. Yeah, them. The tree-huggers. Them and those bloody smiles. Well you can do it too! And all for free… hang on that quip didn’t quite work.

Here’s the thing. It is for free. But importantly it’s within your power to make a difference. It’s your social capital. It works for you because you make it work. If you want to get all zen about it, you could argue it’s karma. But karma is slightly more complicated than that. And if you wanted to get all universal about it, you could argue it’s the natural way of the things. But the universe is definitely more complicated than that.

At a more understandable level, it’s to do with what you choose to do on your way home. When you go home this evening, or go about your business this evening, what are you doing with your interactions with other people? Are you creating experiences which will serve you well in the future? Are you making a concerted effort to help someone else? Are you genuinely being involved in someone else’s life for the better?

Your social capital that you develop is only down to you. Those people in the first paragraph, they’ve worked at building their social capital. Not because they’re conceited or opportunists. But because they see the value in it. They see the value in being genuine, positive and helpful in society. Ah, yes, in society. Social capital goes beyond just individual interactions. It’s about how you interact with society.

And how does it come back to you? You think differently about the opportunities presented to you. About the circumstances you’re faced with. About the people you meet. About the life you lead. About your friends. About your family. About your life partner. About your work place. About your commute. About the train service. It all changes. Not because they’ve changed. But because you see other possibilities.

So, how’s your social capital?

What’s your day been like?

Some people are naturally ‘people people’. I don’t mean they are extraverted, or introverted. I mean they just like people. I’m like that. I just like people. I like talking, I like listening, and I like to learn about others. When I’m on holiday, I’ll ask 101 questions to tour guides and the like so I get what it’s like to be in that place.

One of the best things that positive psychology tells us about improving our wellbeing is that seeking out the company of others is of huge benefit to our psychological wellbeing. In a previous post, I spoke about positive energy networks. But that was focused at work. Personally though, there are some very pertinent actions we should be encouraging to help each other understand how to live a better life, and to be happier in this life.

If you recall, originally, therapy and the likes aims to take people suffering from some sort of depression or other mental anxiety from a state of ‘-1’ to ‘-5’ to a state of ‘0’. ‘0’ in this instance meaning ‘normal’. Positive psychology aims to take you from a state of ‘0’ to a state of ‘+5’. And that’s what fascinates me. That’s where I think we can do so much more in our lives to truly make a difference to ourselves.

There’s plenty to personally do in terms of the food we eat, the exercise we take, the work/life balance we try and achieve. But there’s also something very conscious we need to do about the people we connect with. And this is quite possibly the hardest thing to be conscious of, while at the same time being the most rewarding.

When I leave home in the morning, and I start that daily routine, at what point am I connecting with someone, and at what point am I just a passer-by? Mostly, I won’t care about my fellow commuters, we happen to be in the same space because of circumstance, not through choice. But then someone falls over. Or someone falls ill. Or someone gets irate with another passenger. Or someone sneezes. Do we intervene? Should we? What benefit is there to us? What difference does it make if I offer assistance?

You arrive at work. You say pleasant hello’s to the security guard. Walking to your desk/office you do more of the same. And then you start to do your work. Where have you connected with any one of those people? Do you need to? Are they important enough to you? And what about when you go about your work. Bob comes to have a chat with you. Brenda sends you an email asking for that information. Billy needs an urgent response to that question. Are these transactions or are these times to connect and make a difference?

You talk with your friends at some point. You share some banter. Talk about something trivial. Make an effort to remember events and let them know you care. If you didn’t talk to them would your day have passed any differently? Would you have missed them? Would they have missed you?

There’s a clear bias to my questions, and it’s in line with what I want to get you to think about. This isn’t just about ‘active listening’ or ‘great customer service’. This is about your wellbeing, through the connections you actively choose to, or not make. And at the same time being mindful that your connection will have an impact on the person you’re with. Everyone gains something by being connected to.

Do you recognise it when you see it?

Over recent months I’ve seen some significant changes happen on a personal, family and work level. It’s interesting to see how people cope with change and what it means for them. In particular though, I marvel at those who seem to be able to take change, deal with it, and move on with their lives in ways that are inspiring and humbling.

There’s a lot of factors I think enable someone to be able to act like this, and one of those in particular is the capacity for resilience. I don’t think it’s limited to resilience in and of itself. I think you have to have the capacity for it. I consider myself to be a fairly resilient kind of person, but do I always have the capacity for it? Now there’s an interesting question.

There’s a bucket analogy I’m reminded of. We all have things going on in our lives that fill our ‘bucket’. And sometimes you might go through something that means your bucket has run out of capacity and you are simply overflowing and struggling. It seems to me that those who have the capacity for resilience are those who have learned how to keep the bucket from overflowing and allowing themselves to manage it as they see fit.

How do they do this? Do you recognise it in others when you see it? Do you envy them for having it? I have no easy answer for this, but I’ll bet there’s a fair few things going on they have in common.

Support Network

I’ve talked about this before relating to other topics, but the power of a support network is not to be overlooked. This is why groups such as AA (Alcholics Anonymous) and Weight Watchers and the like are so powerful – they have a strong message and an equally strong support network ready to help you.

Positive Mindset

Y’all know I have a bias towards positive psychology. But here’s the thing. It bloody works. Negative thinking takes you down roads of cynicism, despair and negative thoughts. A positive mindset allows you to stay in a place of hope, possibilities and constructive thought.

A Release Valve

It’s important to understand in the bucket analogy above, that those with the capacity for resilience also understand that the bucket needs a release valve (see how I kept that from you? Very sneaky.) The water level doesn’t decrease on its own, it has to be released. That release activity should equally in kind be something which is supportive to your lifestyle.

Living a full life

I’ll take a leaf from Sikh teachings for this one. In Sikhi, we’re taught to live a constructive life (kirat karna). This means working for the good of your family, and in a role that helps society. It also means doing work which does not harm yourself or others.

Being self-aware

Those who have capacity for resilience are self-aware enough to know when they need to do something different. Be it on a day to day basis or a life changing event, they ‘get’ that something isn’t working as it should be for them, and they set about to make it happen.

Consideration for others

This might be a contentious one. Particularly because some people don’t understand the benefit in helping others. Far too many people have a ‘look out for number one’ attitude. And this isn’t about karmic retribution either. Research into positive psychology shows us that when people carry out an act of gratitude or consideration, the lasting effect of that act can be up to weeks later. This helps to build capacity by allowing you to have a positive experience.

This is far from exhaustive, I’ll bet there’s things I’ve certainly missed. And before I end this post, I’m going to extend the bucket analogy by adding this. We can also expand the capacity of the bucket by growing the bucket. As life goes on, so does the bucket continually have more poured into it. Our capacity for resilience in turn needs to grow with this so it doesn’t overflow.

Using positive psychology to create change at work

Continuing my learnings from #HRD11, one of the sessions I found truly useful was delivered by Sarah Lewis. She is a psychologist and has a particular focus on using concepts such as social constructionism, positive psychology and strengths based views. She has published a book called Positive Psychology at Work. Regular readers will know I have a bias towards positive psychology, and I was glad to not be let down by Sarah.

The following is a summary of various actions that can be used within a work context. As usual, this is only intended to provide a base level of information, there are nuances and details that I won’t be going into, and as such, this should provide some thoughts for things currently happening that you would like to change.

Sarah reinforced the importance of seeking positive experiences as part of building an environment of positivity. Previously, psychology used to be about helping those with issues increase their wellbeing from a state of -5 to 0 (-5 being unhealthy, 0 being healthy). Positive psychology aims to help individuals move from 0 to +5 (healthy to vibrancy). As such, we should aim to have a ratio of positive experiences higher than negative at about 3:1 at minimum, and at a maximum 12:1.

In organisations, there needs to be increased connectivity. A powerful motivator for a lot of people (be you an introvert or an extrovert), is to be able to connect with others. This is not exclusive to physical connections, particularly now in the ‘connected’ world we live in. Organisations have to allow for their people to be able to connect in meaningful ways. This is not to be confused with making people connect. People simply need to know there are options available, and they are fully capable themselves of deciding how they want to connect.

We should build social capital. An interesting turn of phrase with a good list of benefits:
– Reduces transaction costs
– Facilitates communication and cooperation
– Enhances employee commitment
– Fosters individual learning
– Strengthens human relationships and involvement
– Enhances organisational performance
– Facilitates organisational resilience

If we allow ourselves to act virtuously and positively, we create around us a network of people who see this happening. People are easily influenced by others’ actions, and we have long known that phenomena like peer pressure are incredibly powerful in directing how individuals will behave. Similarly, if you see someone doing something positive and virtuous, you understand there is a benefit to this, and are likely to seek out doing something yourself.

We should create micro-moments of High Quality Connections. This is about intimate, meaningful connections where we enable positive behaviours to happen. The way to do this is to allow ourselves to recognise when someone needs our time. We had an expression at my old workplace called ‘be here now’. By doing this, you build a connection with the person you’re talking to, allowing these micro-moments to happen.

Positive Energy Networks. This was really interesting for me. Who is a positive energy network? What is it? Perhaps the way to answer this is by looking at what a PEN can create:
– A stimulated environment
– Attentive to others
– Energising those around them
– Responsive behaviours
– Being hopeful and allowing others to have the same
– Generating new ideas
– Willing to devote discretionary time

In relationship to change, this was a useful way for Leaders to think about it: Most successful approach to change is to understand and work with it as an emergent phenomena.

Nourish your soul

I wasn’t in the best of moods this morning. The weekend has been a tough one on different counts. Being at work has been an effort, and I’ve not been myself really.

In a rut, I decided to break free of the chain that keeps me at my desk. I went out for a walk and was very glad I decided to get some fresh air. It felt bloody marvellous. And I missed my family, so I gave them a call. Twin 1 told me about falling onto the floor when he was having his lunch, Twin 2 told me about eating his lunch all by himself, and my wife told me about what T has been doing. And I’ve been talking with my friends, which is always a good thing to happen. And I did a little thing to help someone.

And now, after lunch, I feel nourished. My soul feels better. I feel better. I’m ready to get my head down and tackle my to-do-list.

And that’s it. Today, I offer you this. Nourish your soul. If you recognise that you are in a rut and that you aren’t being productive, force a change. In our industry, no-one is going to die, or have anything critical happen to them. So, do it. Take the time to nourish your soul. Do those things that you know will help alleviate your mood. Not just one or two things, but like I did today, a host of things. Because it’s all additive. And when you’re nourished, go back and do what you set out to achieve.