The Magic of Negative Emotion

“Sometimes happiness is a blessing, but, generally, it is a conquest…” – Paul Coelho

We are all striving for happiness. Heck, I spent a whole year doing (what seemed like) nothing but that. But happiness is a temporary, emotional state and has become such a cliché, I’m not even sure what it means anymore.

Furthermore, positive psychology is often misunderstood to be the science of happiness. It’s actually the science of well-being, which refers to an overall life success across the many domains of our lives, not just in terms of a temporary state of positive emotion like happiness. Yes, the broad range of positive emotion is included in well-being, but it’s only a part.

Well-being also respects and values the importance of negative emotion. Just as Coelho suggests, negative emotion such as anxiety, stress, anger, and discouragement are magic moments that can fuel us to make much needed change or to chase our dreams:

“…Each day’s magic moment helps us to change and sends us off in search of our dreams.” – Coelho, cont’d

Many people seem to equate happiness with the time that they can kick back, retire and drink margaritas all day, as if their life can only begin when they hit 65.  Talk about the ultimate in delayed gratification.

The ideal retirement?

The ideal retirement?

Perhaps if our day jobs are that soul-sucking, then that philosophy makes a lot of sense. But for most of us, 65 is a long way off and we may not even make it that far.

Perhaps a more useful approach would be to channel that soul-sucking emotion into something else. What will give your work meaning and satisfaction? What dreams are you postponing or burying? What can you do today to move closer to that dream? Don’t accept that negative emotion – channel those magic moments in a way that feeds your soul and spirit.

Sitting on a beach drinking exotic cocktails may be relaxing but after a while, the soul and spirit will long for more. That “happiness” gets old and is replaced with boredom or the desire for something more satisfying. So really, we’re once again left with the paradox of needing negative emotion to fuel our search for our dreams in a way that energizes us and makes us feel alive in our authentic way. Don’t wait for Senior Day on that beach in Cancun to learn that lesson when you have so much life to be living right now.

But what is that life given our soul-sucking jobs?  Joseph Campbell advises us that it’s not happiness or meaning we’re searching for, but rather the joy of feeling alive:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

What makes you feel most energized and alive? Let that be your guide to finding your authentic “happiness”.

Self-(un)fulfilling Reality, Part II

Scientists use control groups in experiments since the simple act of observing or measuring can have an impact on the experimental outcome. Our tendency to influence our environment also occurs in our interactions with others at work or at home.

However, we are often completely unaware of our influence on an interpersonal dynamic. For example, I may observe that a colleague or friend is very defensive; makes me wish they would just get their act together and not be so insecure. What’s blind to me is my role in making them feel defensive. That person may be simultaneously wishing that I would quit being so critical.

What? Me? I’m not critical!

Just because I think this other person needs to get their act together, start doing their job, quit going around talking to everyone about how it’s not their fault, doesn’t mean I’m critical!

It’s probably easy for you to see this dynamic because you’re not in the middle of it. Three observations are noteworthy. First, just because I may not have said anything critical to my poor victim, doesn’t mean that my body language, tone, or actions don’t broadcast my feelings. Second, the trait I’m complaining about (defensiveness) is the exact same behavior I’m exhibiting. This is called projection. Projection means that I hate and criticize a trait in someone else because I hate it in myself.

Finally, my subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages and projection means that I am probably influencing the outcome and dynamic of this relationship without my knowledge. Me? I’m completely innocent, right? By viewing the other as the defensive one, I am making her defensive through the criticism that I am fooling myself into believing that I am hiding from her. In other words, I am creating my own reality through my expectation of others.

We are told that children rise to the level of our expectations. This has actually been demonstrated in scientific studies. If a teacher believes an average child is gifted, then that child will outperform other students.  Others rise to (or fall) to the level of our expectations.

I believe the same dynamic holds true for adults. If you’re a manager and you believe that an employee is incompetent, lazy, careless or immature, how will you treat them? Are they likely to be engaged or given opportunities to develop or excel? What behavior will result?

Beware your expectations. You may be creating the behavior you’re expecting and being a hypocrite in the process.

Now consider flipping your critical expectations to the positive. Instead of finding what’s wrong or lacking in others, find what is admirable or excellent. What behavior are you inviting now, in yourself and others?

Now, doesn’t that feel so much better?

Hidden Variables in Conflict: Bias and Belief

When conflict arises, it seems de rigueur for parties to blame the other and to focus only on how we are right/virtuous and the other is wrong/flawed. Two psychological processes help us to understand that tendency. Confirmation bias and selective recall means we only notice or remember data that confirm our hypothesis or position but ignore or forget the information that refute it.   These tendencies may be especially pervasive when we become emotional during the conflict. As a result, we each become entrenched in our righteousness, and gridlock occurs.

Hopefully, once parties calm down, reason can prevail. But it doesn’t always happen, especially if emotions stay high around the issue and forgiveness evades either or both parties.

I have never seen a conflict where, after talking to both parties, I thought one side was completely at fault and the other entirely innocent. That is not to say, however, that both parties behaved equally well after the conflict began.

Considering the possibility that you are wrong or at least equally responsible is a hard thing to do. We are often invested in the illusion/delusion that we are perfect or always right because otherwise we will be abandoned or not OK/loved/accepted/safe/included/understood. These schema beliefs provide the emotional gasoline for that conflict spark.

And don’t think you don’t have any schema beliefs. We all do.

So consider that, at minimum, we each bring confirmation bias, selective recall and schema into any interpersonal dynamic, especially conflict.   It’s a natural human tendency, so don’t feel bad.  But don’t feel like you’re off the hook, either.

In the end, if we wish to have healthy relationships we have a responsibility to understand and manage our own biases and beliefs.

Understanding and accepting that we all have these tendencies is a good starting place to explore our roles and responsibilities when we have conflict with others. Those responsibilities include focusing on our own part in the conflict in a constructive manner. A constructive approach means understanding how our own biases and beliefs contributed to the start or escalation of the conflict, then finding strategies to improve in the future.

On the other hand, a constructive approach does not include either going to the other extreme and assuming all the blame or pointing fingers at the other’s failure to manage their own schema and biases. You don’t want to undo all that good you are trying to do by adding martyrdom or hypocrisy to the list, right?

I know it’s hard and scary work. It takes courage and honesty to really look at oneself without the usual rose- or grey-colored lenses that we’re comfortable with. But in the end, I feel it is the mature, loving and right thing to do to grow beyond our adolescent tendencies and take responsibility for our actions especially when our subconscious variables are in the mix.

“Other People Matter”

Our professors told us that this quote by Chris Peterson summed it all up on our first day in our positive psychology graduate program.   At the time, I thought to myself “oh sure.”  But it’s true.

Here’s what I learned:

  • People in positive relationships are physically healthier and heal faster.
  • People in positive relationships have more positive emotions and are more resilient. Positive relationships help children become more resilient.
  • People who give have more positive emotion than those who receive.   Also, givers tend to be more successful than takers.
  • The meaning and purpose we feel in our lives largely pertains, ultimately, to our impact on others.
  • Our motivation to do a task depends on whether we can relate the task to impact on others or relevance to a larger goal.
  • Positive relationships enable an organization to rise to the next level.
  • Employee engagement is causally related to profitability and strongly related to having a best friend at work.
  • Our well-being is directly related to how much social time we get each day. Studies show that 5-6 hours per day provides the peak amount of well-being.
  • Our entire community impacts our well-being.   The friends of my friends and the colleagues of my colleagues can measurably impact how I feel each day.

In other words, the people in our lives make our lives worth living and also help us to live a good life.  The opposite is also potentially true.

Therefore, is your attention, energy and priorities where they should be?

What You Doin’?

How much of your day is spent mindlessly doing what we always do?  Granted, much of our day has to be just that; having to consciously do every task as if we have never done it before would take all of our effort and attention.  But perhaps a few of the things we believe to be necessary tasks, are really not necessary at all.  Perhaps they’re even harmful or counterproductive. I challenge each of you to re-examine your day as you go about it.  Just one day.  Pay close attention to what you do and why you’re doing it.  Are you acting out of habit, necessity, desire, or because of someone else’s (or your own) expectations?  What are those expectations? I would suspect a significant part of our day is spent without deliberate intention.  We may find that once we carefully examine our motivation for each task, that most of our tasks are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. But likely, some fraction will not.  Some of our tasks are done out of habit of what we tend to notice or believe.  For example, if I only notice what makes me tired, then I will feel tired and find ways to rest.  If I notice things that give me energy, I will feel energized and continue to pursue those tasks.  If I notice things that make me feel sad, I’ll feel depressed and need to find ways to soothe myself.  These beliefs and habits tend focus our intentions, and thus our actions.   That is fine, as long as the task and beliefs are consistent with our authentic goals and desires. What would happen if you gave up those observations, tasks, beliefs, and assumptions that divert you from your life’s plan?  Or just modified them?  What if you then took that increasingly precious time and energy and did something that would feed or nourish your spirit? I think it’s easy as a parent or spouse to get into habits of doing things for other people, even if it’s not good for them or they’ve outgrown it.  I recall a conversation a long time ago when we discussed asking our six year old to start getting his own breakfast.  At first it felt like we had suggested we amputate a good leg.  But guess what?  He did a great job (except for the one time when he tried to put a chicken thigh in the toaster). If you can identify one thing that you have been doing out of habit that you now realize you should change, consider adding this new perspective to your daily outlook.  Remember, what we notice is habit, how we tend to think about what we notice is usually habit, and what we do as a response is often habit.  We can change our habits if they are not serving us well. Go on.  Change something.  Create new habits, perspectives and beliefs that nourish your spirit.    

Optimism 101

Are you annoyed by those pesky folk who always think things are going to come out OK? If so, then maybe you are a pessimist, a person who tends to view the glass as half empty.   Perhaps you also like to argue with optimists that you are right, that we should all take a more cynical view of the world and our future.

Actually, it’s a pointless argument. The glass half full analogy illustrates the concept nicely. Both parties are right. So it’s merely a matter of which way you choose to view it.

And yes, it is a choice. You may have an inherent tendency to go one way or another, but you do not have to be a slave to your tendencies.   That choice is both a blessing and a curse, because it means you can change but it also means it will take effort.

“Why should I change? It’s worked well for me all my life,” you might ask. I’m so glad you did (even if maybe you didn’t)!

Optimists do better in life. They’re more successful (with the exception of lawyers), more resilient, they have a longer life and better health, especially with regard to depression. They make more money than pessimists. I also suspect that people would prefer to work with and be with optimists. I would also add on a personal level that I feel much better in general when I choose an optimistic perspective. Feeling negative makes me feel pretty lousy.

So if you’re a life-long pessimist, how do you change?

  • Challenge catastrophic thoughts – Treat those thoughts as if they were coming from someone else and challenge them. Not landing the job does not mean I’m a failure. It may mean that the job market is competitive and/or I need to beef up my resume or interviewing skills.
  • Use your strengths – Using your strengths also decreases depressive symptoms. A free strengths test is at authentichappiness.com or workuno.com, or you can pay for the Clifton StrengthsFinders which provides a detailed report and analysis. Once you get your strengths assessment, commit to using them intentionally every day.
  • Challenge your perspective – Pessimists think good events are temporary and local but bad things are permanent and pervasive; optimists are the opposite.   If you’re not sure where you stand, take the optimism test at authentichappiness.com. It’s free! Then pay attention to how you interpret yourself and your world view and challenge those pessimistic thoughts. Keep doing it, and you may see a shift in your pessimistic tendencies.
  • Read a book – The book on the subject is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.   He says it so much better than I ever can.

Those of you who are still skeptical about the value of being more optimistic can also consider the degree of optimism that you may wish to achieve. Scientists also advocate that optimism stays within the zone of realistic, as opposed to endorsing the extreme that may result in passivity and unrealistic thinking (as in: this warrant for my arrest will turn out fine so I won’t do anything about it).   So more is better, but only to a point.

I contend there should also be room for dreamers and out-of-box thinkers. We need to be able to dream to make big changes, but do so responsibly. So you are the judge of how you walk that line. Dream big and then take a realistic optimistic approach to achieving it. The odds are in your favor.

250 Blogs and 1 Degree Later

Something about a milestone makes you want to sit back and reflect. So after having completed my 250th blog and now starting on a fresh Word document (no, not all 250 blogs are on one Word document), I thought I’d take a retrospective of the last 1.5 years since I’ve started blogging.

In November 2013 I primarily wrote about my kids and my failed marriage. Though my focus was quite different back then given that I’m now an empty nester and about to be remarried, I’m struck by how I was talking about the principles of positive psychology throughout the blogs even then. Forgiveness, gratitude, perspective, growth, acceptance, pride, relationships and love.

Yet I’m not the same person I was back then. Yes those heart-felt emotions are still there. But now I’m aware of the body of evidence and work that surround those concepts, what they mean for our well-being, and how science shows that those emotions are not accidents. Or they don’t have to be.

Fortunately for me I’ve been an amateur positive psychologist my whole life. I’ve learned and applied those principles in a world where I am the primary subject. Just like any other area where you’re re-inventing the wheel, it was a long and slow learning process only recently accelerated at warp-speed by going back to school. I remember one of the best days of my life was when my girlfriend told me my perspective was all about this new field of positive psychology, and then suddenly I had something to sink my teeth into.   Now I feel like I’m trying to live by those principles every day, every minute, and I could not feel more joyous or engaged with my life.

We are practitioners, not clinicians. I don’t do therapy, though I do have coach training (which is distinctly different from therapy BTW) from outside the program. Instead, we focus on the good things in our lives and on ways to build them both in individuals and organizations in order to grow well-being, a concept distinctly different from ‘happiness.’ We do not diagnose, analyze the past, or treat mental illness.

In school, my mission to help others become the best possible version of themselves crystallized. Sort of. Like any other calling (as I view callings), I have a direction, and now I have the tools. I have this blog, and the pedestal of the lectern, and hopefully venues in the future through which to live my mission.

In this manner, I can change the world, one person at a time. How about you?