The Power of Positivity in Work, Life and Change Projects

Version 7

    Hey readers,


    I hope everyone is well? I’ve just returned back from my 3 month sabbatical - which was amazing. I don’t want to make you too jealous, but I spent a lot of time with friends and family back in NZ and travelled around Europe and the US, and also managed to do lots of horse riding, wine tasting, painting, yoga, meditation, hiking and also started studying Psychology. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to disconnect from work, and to spend time doing things that I love, and have wanted to try. I’m now feeling happy, healthy and refreshed. I am very grateful to my manager and the leaders at Google for allowing me this opportunity to take a break.


    The study I’ve been doing is through the University of South Carolina and I’ve been learning about a branch of Psychology known as ‘Positive Psychology'. I’d love to know if any readers have come across this before?


    As I’ve been learning during the past months I’ve been sharing snippets with friends and family members and now that I am back at work, I’ve shared insights with colleagues. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said how interesting this topic is, so I thought why not share to a wider group - i.e. you lot.


    I first heard about ‘Positive Psychology’ at an event in Vienna last year called HR Inside where I delivered a presentation titled ‘Inspiring a Culture of Innovation’. Nico Rose was one of the other presenters. He has a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) and delivered a very inspiring and engaging talk. I decided to find out more about this intriguing topic...


    For those of you who haven’t heard of this branch of Psychology before let me explain briefly what it is. Essentially it is the study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. I don’t know about you - but for me this is pretty interesting: Who wouldn’t benefit from being happier and healthier? Historically Psychology has focused more on how to help people overcome problems, whereas Positive Psychology is about helping us each to thrive and be the best versions of ourselves. Martin Seligman is considered the founder of Positive Psychology when he made this topic his main theme when he became president of the American Psychological Association in 1998.


    Before I get any further into this article let me dispel one misnomer: Positive Psychology is not about ignoring the negative things in life, or making out that everything is great. It is about consciously (and authentically) placing more focus on positive emotions and being more open to positive emotions and moments day to day. Science shows that this improves both our mental and physical health (particularly improvements in our cardiovascular health and immune system). The impact of positivity is huge - studies suggest it can help us live up to 10 years longer. Check out some of these articles to see more about the proven health benefits: ‘Do Positive People Live Longer?’ ‘It’s True! Optimists DO live longer’Happiness Associated with Longer Life’.


    **Please note I am not claiming to be an expert in this subject (yet!). Simply, I wanted to share four specific insights that I thought might be interesting for this group to apply during change projects or any other work or life related situation.


    1) Positivity will help inspire innovation and experimentation


    We all know how important innovation is for an organisations ability to stay relevant. Innovative thinking is needed to help redesign business processes and to deal with the challenges that arise during change projects. I’m guessing that most people are familiar with the importance of ‘failing fast’ and experimenting as fundamental behaviours to help drive innovation? But did you realise that positivity might also have a role to play in inspiring innovative thinking? Research into the science of emotions show that a positive mindset, and positive emotions have the impact of expanding someone’s thinking. In contrast, negative emotions typically force us to narrow our focus (coming from the times when our ancestors faced threat and they had to be super focused to stay alive).


    Negative emotions have a clampdown effect, where positive emotions broaden our perspective and inspire us to be open to multiple different things.


    Keep this in mind when facilitating transformation labs, brainstorms, or looking for solutions for problems or working in other ways that require new types of thinking and innovation. I’d suggest establishing some ground rules at the start of the session whereby you ask participants to keep positive and open minded and not to rule out or criticise others ideas - no negativity at all. During the Transformation Labs that we run, one of the ground rules is that people must use expansive phrases such as "Yes, and..." rather than what often comes more naturally to people "No, but..." Even if some of the ideas are rubbish (which some are bound to be!) Get everyone to keep a positive and expansive mindset throughout the entirety of the idea generation or brainstorming element of the exercise. Of course at some point further into the process you’ll need to embark on a process of eliminating the ideas that you’ll not be moving forward with - but during the time you are looking for people to be expansive and creative - keeping emotions and language and behaviour completely positive will help maximise your chances of getting more varied, diverse and creative ideas or solutions.



    2) ‘Positivity ratios’ and helping people flourish and build resilience


    Research has shown that people who flourish in life (those who are resilient, successful and happy) tend to experience between 3-5 positive emotions to each negative emotion. Experiencing a positive emotion isn’t just about the big ‘OMG I’ve just won the lottery’ (although I am sure that would bring a lot of positive emotions!), but about finding joy and positivity in even the smallest things in life, such as (but not limited to):

    • Enjoying a nice coffee (or glass of wine / cold beer (outside work hours of course!))

    • Solving a couple of important issues during a team meeting 

    • Receiving good questions during a presentation

    • Having a really tough conversation, but learning some things that could be used next time you are in a similar situation

    • Having a nice conversation about weekend plans

    • Having your train run to schedule (a small miracle if you live in London and need to use Southern rail to get to and from work...)

    • A shared a moment of laughter with your child, partner, friend or colleague


    The idea is to pay more attention to and acknowledge each of these small moments of positivity.


    The reality is that each day isn’t only filled with positive moments - that isn’t real life. This isn’t about ignoring those more challenging or negative situations, but about finding more of the positive. We all need to experience a mixture of emotions - but what the research shows is that those people who have between three and five positive emotions to each negative one are going to live longer and be healthier than those with a lower ratio. So rather than ignoring the small positive moments or taking them for granted as we might typically do, be conscious of and open to the positivity that you experience and that you can create or emphasise. 


    Positive people are more open to change.  Negative people are typically more resistant. Think about how this might impact how successful your change project is.


    What could you do each day to help yourself and others experience more micro moments of positivity, so that your resilience levels increase and your health is improved?


    3) Making positive connections with others


    One of the things that has been identified by the researchers is that making positive connections with others (called ‘positivity resonance’ by the boffins that study this stuff) is really impactful.


    What this means is being open to, and looking for opportunities where you can look someone in the eye, share a smile and a few words - i.e. sharing a positive connection. What the scientists found important during their research is eye contact with the other person. Meaning face to face interactions are really where the most benefit can be had. This is an interesting thing to consider for those of us that spend a lot of time on video conferences. On video conferences it is actually impossible to have true eye contact because we are either looking at the image of the other person or at the camera - but there is never a shared moment of true eye contact. Having said that ‘positivity resonance’ can be shared (to a lesser degree) through tone of voice and shared smiles - so all is not lost for those remote workers.


    For most of us there are multiple opportunities each day to share micro connections with other people. They don’t need to be connections with people we know to be beneficial (to us and the other person). This really is as simple as making an effort with our colleagues and teammates, sharing eye contact, a smile and some positivity. This will benefit the whole group - helping people to be happier and more resilient and in turn will hopefully have a positive impact on the success of your projects as well as people’s health.


    4) Being grateful


    The last thing I wanted to touch on briefly is about taking time to be grateful for the positive emotions you experience and for the connections you make. There is endless research on the health benefits of gratitude (‘7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude’, ‘31 Benefits of Gratitude that you didn’t know about’, ‘Be thankful: Science says gratitude is good for your health‘)


    One easy way of doing this is to simply take a couple of minutes at the end of each day to reflect back on the day and recall with gratitude each of the positive interactions and connections that you had that day. Even if you didn’t think there were many things to be grateful for, the process of reflecting and recalling even just a couple of things will be beneficial. Over time and with more practice and as you make more effort to appreciate the small positive moments this will become easier and the positive cycle will continue upwards.


    To take gratitude one step further - you could try Metta meditation. I’m conscious that meditation might seem a bit outside of your comfort zone - I know that the same has been true for me in the past too, however the health benefits are proven! Check out the link about for more info. If this feels like a step too far for you, then I hope at least the other things covered in the article might be simple and achievable for you: namely being open to and seeking more positivity in your day to day life, making an effort to make positive connections with others, taking the time to reflect and being grateful for both of the above.


    I am very keen to hear your feedback on this article.... Have I gone a bit too far out by talking about gratitude, emotions and meditation on a change management blog!?  If you think yes - apologies! Blame it on the fact I’ve just spent three months out of the office and am currently feeling very zen ;-) If you enjoyed it, then fab! Let’s all live 10 years longer!


    Looking forward to your comments,







    Positive Psychology Center

    Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsek, T., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science, 24, 1123-1132.

    Kok, B. E. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85, 432-436. DOI 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.09.005Moskowitz, J. T., & Saslow, L. R. (2013). Health and psychology: The importance of positive affect. In M. M. Tugade, M. N. Shiota, & L. D. Kirby (Eds.) Handbook of Positive Emotions (pp. 413-431). New York: Guilford Press.Catalino, L. I., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). A Tuesday in the life of a flourisher: The role of positive emotional reactivity in optimal mental health. Emotion, 11, 938-950.

    Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Updated thinking on the positivity ratio. American Psychologist, 68, 814-822.