Thought Leadership


Accentuate the positive

Sounds good, but companies just aren’t that interested in compassion and curiosity

February 22, 2013
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happy workerI received an email today from a professor at the Harvard Medical School. He wants me to buy a “Special Health Report” from Harvard Health Publications on the subject of positive psychology.

“Happiness can be elusive. It can be fleeting. Too often, it can be lost in our modern world's swirl of stress, multitasking, and 24/7 news,” the sales pitch begins.

It’s weird to think Harvard has gotten into the self-help, self-health movement.  The prof’s email goes on to say:

“We all know money can't buy happiness. So, how do we get it? Current research is confirming what many of us heard from our elders and spiritual leaders: satisfaction comes with being engaged, doing good, and focusing on the present.

This is where Harvard will claim it is not hyping self-help. The so-called positive psychology movement is based on empirical evidence, multiple research studies conduct over decades.

There is more to positive psychology than drawing “greater fulfillment from each day's experiences,” as the professor says. The focus of the Harvard publication does cozy up to self-absorption, perhaps the biggest criticism of self-help literature and gurus. It’s all about YOU.

Explains the professor: “Positive Psychology will help you identify your unique strong points. You'll gain an important understanding of the role of gratitude and how it can be successfully cultivated and employed. You'll learn the keys to "going with the flow" — becoming more at one with whatever you are doing. The report will also give you practical strategies for maximizing concentration and eliminating distractions.

Let’s point the compass in a different direction. Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn has a Positive Psychology Center) says workplaces can be more productive when people are in a more positive frame of mind.

And do not be mislead. This is not simply the power of positive thinking.

Visit the Penn Center at www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/

I think positive psychology is an excellent tool to assess your workplace culture, workers (on a voluntary basis if they want to answer personal questions), and yourself.

This is not some new-fangled fad.

Since at least the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the “good life” has been the subject of philosophical and religious inquiry, according to the Penn Center. Psychologists have been working in positive psychology for decades. It just hasn’t been called positive psychology. To name just a few: Rogers (1951) and Maslow (1970) who are founders of the field of humanistic psychology, prevention programs based on wellness by Albee (1982) and Cowen (1994), work by Bandura (1989) and others on self-efficacy, research on gifted individuals (e.g., Winner, 2000), broader conceptions of intelligence (e.g., Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1985), among many others. Marie Jahoda (1958) made the case for understanding well being in its own right, not simply as the absence of disorder or distress.

The rise of positive psych in recent years, especially due to the work of Seligman, is a reaction to negativity. Much more study has gone into what’s wrong with people – depression, anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, addictions – than emotions and characteristics that contribute to healthy, optimistic, and mentally alert and mindful individuals. The same can said for most corporate mindsets, especially when it comes to a “cost center” like safety. The attitude? Negative.

Easing the pain of individuals battling mental and physical demons is a moral imperative. But there’s much to be said (including better workplace safety and health) by assessing the wellness quotient of both individuals and work cultures.

How would you, and/or your work culture, fare in comparison to these findings cited by the Penn Center:

Wealth is only weakly related to happiness both within and across nations, particularly when income is above the poverty level (Diener & Diener, 1996). Get back to someone who’s been promoted in a year and see how they feel.

Activities that make people happy in small doses – such as shopping, good food and making money – do not lead to fulfillment in the long term, indicating that these have quickly diminishing returns (Myers, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000) What aspects of your safety program  have quickly diminishing returns?

Engaging in an experience that produces ‘flow’ is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate feedback on progress toward the goal. In such an activity, concentration is fully engaged in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and sense of time is distorted (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). How many people do you know who are really in the flow?

People who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, optimism, progress toward goals, well-being, and help others more (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000). Is gratitude commonly expressed in your work culture?

Trying to maximize happiness can lead to unhappiness (Schwartz et al., 2002). This is proven by the many gimmicky safety incentive programs that try to max out motivation in short order.

People who witness others perform good deeds experience an emotion called ‘elevation’ and this motivates them to perform their own good deeds (Haidt, 2000). Is “elevation” part of your safety program? Do you, and your coworkers, know it when you see it?

Optimism can protect people from mental and physical illness (Taylor et al., 2000). What’s the vibe in your workplace?

People who are optimistic or happy have better performance in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people. Further, optimism can be measured and it can be learned (Seligman, 1991; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005). Do you see evidence of this at work?

People who report more positive emotions in young adulthood live longer and healthier lives (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001). What’s the mood of your new, young hires?

Physicians experiencing positive emotion tend to make more accurate diagnoses (Isen, 1993). This can be stretched to include making accurate safety hazard diagnoses.

Healthy human development can take place under conditions of even great adversity due to a process of resilience that is common and completely ordinary (Masten, 2001). This economy certainly has given many people the chance, or perhaps “forced them’ is more apt, to be more resilient.

There are benefits associated with disclosive writing. Individuals who write about traumatic events are physically healthier than control groups that do not. Individuals who write about the perceived benefits of traumatic events achieve the same physical health benefits as those who write only about the trauma (King & Miner, 2000). Individuals who write about their life goals and their best imagined future achieve similar physical health benefits to those who write only about traumatic events. Further, writing about life goals is significantly less distressing than writing about trauma, and is associated with enhanced well-being (King, 2001). Accident investigation reports of traumatic events qualify as disclosive writing. The value of safety goals and long-term visions has been pretty well stated.

People are unable to predict how long they will be happy or sad following an important event (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg & Wheatley, 1998; Wilson, Meyers, & Gilbert, 2001). These researchers found that people typically overestimate how long they will be sad following a bad event, such as a romantic breakup, yet fail to learn from repeated experiences that their predictions are wrong. What’s your work experience with post-traumatic incident emotions of co-workers? What do you do to help them rebound and experience less anguish the next time… and in safety there most always is a “next time.”

Finally, how would you assess your work culture in these attributes that lead to wellness and a healthy culture:

Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, innovation

Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality

Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership

Temperance: forgivenessand mercy, humility, prudence, self control

Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

TO BE SURE:  here is the problem I see with all this talk and research and promotion of positive psych – the overwhelming number of workplaces just aren’t interested in spirituality, hope, mercy, love of learning. Companies have enough trouble truly cultivating innovation and creativity. Citizenship, today considered part of corporate social responsibility, is far down on the executive “to do” list unless the company happens to mine resources or suck up water supplies in developing nations and are under the scrutiny of enviro watchdogs.

So... I suggest taking the best from positive psych and use it in smaller, less corporate politically-charged ways, such as with yourself, your department, maybe your safety committee.

But you can pitch it, like the Harvard prof in his email, to higher-ups in your organization. This isn’t pop fluff. Do a little digging and you’ll find books, scientific journal articles, research projects, websites, webinars and classes. It is evidence-based psychology.

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