News & Insight
June 2010

Real Results through Positive Thinking

Valerie White, Ph.D.

The only constant, as they say, is change. This is of course true in both business and in life. Many changes are out of our control, but how we respond to them is never. And, in continually working to respond in the most positive and constructive ways, changes themselves start to move more consistently in the direction we desire. When we truly and deeply understand that we are not victims of circumstances but that we are very much in control of how we experience events, even negative ones, and that we are in control of how we create, through our thoughts, beliefs and actions, more positive experiences, then we are genuinely empowered, regardless of what is happening around us.

In recent years there has been a strong convergence of research findings from disparate disciplines regarding the power of the mind in physically impacting the individual and the external environment. For centuries Buddhists have recognized how cultivating and practicing focused attention can enable equanimity and compassion, among other things, under virtually any circumstance. Extremely practiced Tibetan Buddhist monks have even been able to heat cold wet blankets placed on their bare backs while meditating in freezing temperatures. Star athletes know that deliberately rehearsing, as if they are actually experiencing the plays or routines is critical in maximizing their performance. Psychological troubles such as depression and difficult to treat obsessive compulsive disorders are often best alleviated with certain kinds of self talk that physically change the brain and feelings and behaviors. Even pain experienced for years in phantom limbs has been removed by tricking the brain into believing the limb is still there and then relieving the pain in the imagined limb.

There are at least two critical components in the above examples as well as in a myriad of others that are of great importance. One is that the brain does not generally know the difference between what is physically real and what it simply thinks about or vividly imagines. The clear implication of this is that we are not dependent on the physical reality of things for our reactions or moods but rather we can create or modify moods based on what we think about. The other is that how we direct our attention is what is critical in physically impacting the brain and our experiences. Without this focused attention brain changes and the experiences that go with these do not happen. Also critically important is how we choose to assess what we are beholding. Our beliefs, or repeated and accepted views of things, clearly impact the assessments and evaluations we make. For example, if we do not believe that we have any control over our lives we will not look for or be open to ways to gain that control. Having an awareness of and recognizing when these beliefs may be limiting or counterproductive is essential. It takes consistent practice to consciously exert this control. But the payoffs of this discipline are substantial.

During the past decade, the field of positive psychology has amassed an impressive body of research that speaks to the importance and benefits of positive emotions in well-being for the individual and for the individual's sphere of influence. The field has identified the kinds of thoughts and activities that can increase levels of happiness and well-being. And, it turns out that there seems to be a threshold ratio of 3:1 of positive to negative emotions, above which people begin to flourish and to reap exponential benefits from keeping their emotions in the positive spectrum. The 20% or so of the population that falls in the flourishing range are healthier, enjoy better relationships, are more creative, open and solutions oriented, are more altruistic, less prejudiced and, among other things, what we all ultimately strive for, happier. What this percentage shows, though, is that the majority of us need to do some work to take things to the next better level (Fredrickson, 2009).

If we are not as satisfied as we could be in the important aspects of our daily lives then it is imperative we make changes. If you are not feeling good then it is a signal that you need to find a different way of looking at the topic or situation to get to a genuinely better feeling place; and, whenever possible you should not continue with the action until you can do that. Disciplining ourselves to find what is still good about what we initially view as a negative situation is essential to shifting thoughts in the right direction. Spending some time just enjoying how it feels to imagine our situations as we want them to be, rather than as they are, and focusing on those good feelings can be very effective. Also, having a strong intention about something makes a difference. Set your intentions in the direction of looking for what you like and want and feeling as good as possible. Remind yourself frequently about this. Different forms of meditation and non-judgmental observations of reactions can open a world of possibilities and keep you from becoming engulfed in negativity. Finding things that you can genuinely appreciate and taking time to bask in those appreciations enhance feelings of well-being and allow you to mentally get back on track and to take control.

Just as individuals reap tremendous benefits from keeping their emotions on the positive end of the scale, so too do organizations that put positive psychology practices into place. Organizations that invest in employee engagement and satisfaction have less turnover, fewer sick days and get more productivity from their people. Giving employees the tools to exercise control over their thoughts and moods is a win for both individuals and organizations. Treating people with respect and kindness and making efforts to help find ways for employees to use their strengths and talents in new ways benefits all. Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses in development planning can take behavior and results to the next level. Senior management should also question their own intentions and beliefs. Does their organization strive to create the best possible work environment and simultaneously deliver on the bottom line and do they believe both are possible? In other words are the organization's intentions and beliefs compatible? The wonderful thing about these approaches is that they are doable, inexpensive and have positive impacts. However, individuals and organizations alike must strive to create and then live and experience them to see the incredible differences they can make.

WJM Associates Faculty member Valerie White, Ph.D has been coaching and assessing senior executives for over 15 years. She also serves as an advisor for companies undergoing major organizational change. Valerie is the co-author of the multi-nationally published "First Impressions: What You Don't Know About How Others See You."

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