Most of us will have come across the idea – perhaps as part of advice around managing stress – that the human brain is hard wired to focus on the negative. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Basic survival was often a challenge for our prehistoric ancestors so they had to fine tune their senses to danger. And when it appeared – perhaps in the form of a wild animal looking for its dinner – they had to take immediate action. Positive thinking at that moment would not have served them well. Fight or flight – fuelled by fear – would have been the better course of action.
Once the threat was over – however – psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has suggested that positive emotions may have helped them develop new, more effective future strategies. Fredrickson was one of the earliest pioneers of Positive Psychology when in 1998 she asked ‘What good are positive emotions?’
This month I’d like to explain why I believe it’s a powerful component of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. But before I do I want to clarify one thing: Positive Psychology is not the same as ‘positive thinking’. Nor does it ask us to ignore the negative aspects of life. There are times when we must acknowledge our more pessimistic emotions before we can move forward. What Positive Psychology offers us is a way to shift our focus. We no longer remain mired in the problem but move to a more generative state where we can develop new solutions.
When we perceive ourselves to be under threat our attention narrows and our body prepares for immediate action. In our complex, modern world this may not be the most productive response. Positive emotions – according to Fredrickson – ‘broaden and build’. They expand our attentional focus and enhance creative thinking. In this way we find new solutions and add to our skills repertoire.
Research has revealed that simply putting ourselves into a positive state before we begin a task will improve our performance. So, for example, when I facilitate workplace groups charged with developing more balance working practices I always begin by asking them to identify and list the benefits such practices will bring. Identifying the positive impact on their own lives makes it more likely they will focus on solutions rather than objections.
Positive emotions also have what Fredrickson calls an ‘undoing effect’ that is beneficial to our wellbeing. She maintains they:
“loosen the hold that (no-longer-relevant) negative emotions gain on an individual’s mind and body”
To prove the point: think about how often you return home from a challenging day at work to the excited joy of your children or the loving attention of a pet. Suddenly you find workplace cares receding. This is what work-life balance researchers call ‘recovery time’.
We live in a complex world where multiple challenges vie for our attention every day. Tackling life with a positive focus will support our physical and mental well-being expand our personal resources and help us strengthen social bonds. As you choose to be a Balanced Leader do your best to stay positive!