How does one develop positive emotions? What are positive personality traits? And how does one foster positive organizational environments, where people thrive? All interesting questions, and questions that are in line with a stream of literature that focuses on building strengths and focusing on affirmation and appreciation rather than the traditional problem-solving and corrective approach of many disciplines that have addressed making our lives and organizations better places.
Sarah Lewis (2011) points out that what is required goes much beyond “positive thinking”, or thinking that our own positive thoughts will somehow help to generate positive outcomes. Positive psychology seeks to understand the resilience of those to whom bad things happen through no fault of their own, the impact of environmental factors on individuals’ attitude and the elements required to create a workplace that enables people to thrive. On page xxiii of Positive Psychology at Work, Lewis summarizes her book in this way:
To create positive and inspiring workplaces
- Create a workplace that feels good.
- Play to everyone’s strengths.
- Recruit for attitude.
- Encourage positive deviation.
- Build social capital.
- Make sense together.
- Be an authentic leader.
- Create conditions for change.
- Create reward-rich environments.
- Be appreciative.
The various chapters explore the means to do these things in detail. The focus of positive psychology is worlds away from the traditional focus on pathology. As Seligman says, “Relieving the states that make life miserable, it seems, has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. But people want more than just to correct their weaknesses. They want lives imbued with meaning, and not just to fidget until they die.” (Seligman, 2002: ix) It is that yearning for meaning that drive many people and what distinguishes optimists from pessimists is that they assume such meaning will be found.
Price Pritchett’s tiny opus, Hard Optimism, points out how habits of thought can be reprogrammed from pessimistic to optimistic. This switch can lead to greater success. This book proposes simple rules to move to hopefulness. While it does not present detailed data and sources for the claims that it makes, the statements are consistent enough with other authors to be credible. It does have the benefit of being short and straight to the point.
Now, if you can change your own outlook to improve your chances of success, the logical extension is that you should improve and become the best you can be. Seligman refers to that as the “maximal self” (2000: 283). Nothing wrong with that except when it backfires. Seligman, in Learned Optimism, links the maximal self to depression. How does that work? The maximal self, with our society’s emphasis on personal responsibility and individuals, leads to a lower sense of community, a decreased sense of purpose, and a waning degree of control over one’s life, sense of self, and definition of what is a good life. Unintended consequences? You bet!
So in order to be happy, one has to have a healthy degree of optimism strongly linked to realistic, non-competitive approach to success. This means being able to see possibilities and opportunities rather than focusing on obstacles and constraints. It also means being aware of one’s strengths and being able to build on them. Seligman focuses on this in Authentic Happiness and discusses what he calls “signature strengths”, strengths that one has acquired and cultivated and can choose to use at any time. He has identified 24 of these strengths and you can access which are your own signature strengths by taking the VIA Strengths Survey at www.authentichappiness.org. Would you be surprised if I told you that my top signature strength is love of learning? And the second one curiosity/interest in the world? What gets me most energized and interested? A job where I can learn and help others learn.
Why was I thinking about this? I was facilitating a workshop on career planning the other week. Career planning is a funny beast. It entails making long-term plans for our professional future in the face of uncertainty. Just the act of planning requires some optimism, otherwise what’s the point? Compound that with working in an industry with extreme demand/price swings that is currently rather depressed rather than on the way up, and I was apprehensive about facilitating this workshop. So I started digging into the “positive psychology” shelf of my library, in order to better express the arguments we usually make for having a career plan. Essentially, it is about building one’s capacity to develop and be flexible and to have the ability to appraise opportunities as they occur. A belief that opportunities will occur (but sometimes in unexpected ways) is essential to meaningful career planning. Having that belief and acting on it is the hallmark of the optimist.
The career planning workshop went well and we had some really good conversations. And I am still reading about positive psychology because it can be so interesting… especially when one of its major figures, Martin Seligman, is a self-professed pessimist who has brought so much to the world by his research on learned optimism. I might also yet be able to work myself out of my natural pessimism…
Lewis, Sarah. Positive Psychology at Work: How Positive Leadership and Appreciative Inquiry Create Inspiring Organizations. Wiley-Blackwell, UK, 2011.
Pritchett, Price. Hard Optimism: How to Succeed in a World Where Positive Wins. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, 2007.
Seligman, Martin P. E. Authentic Happiness. Atria, New York, NY, 2002.
Seligman, Martin P. E. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books, New York, NY, 2006 .