Positive Change

From the moment you awoke this morning, deep in your brain, a little in-built meter has been keeping careful track of every instance of negative reaction – every niggling worry, disappointment, unsettling thought and less-than-happy memory; every frustrating interaction, every little burst of irritability, every unwelcome bit of news. This accumulating negativity is being balanced by the flow of positivity – a reassuring thought, a feeling of affection, a hopeful day-dream, a pleasant encounter, a show of understanding or appreciation from somebody important, a bit of good news.

Over the course of the day, the balance between the positive and the negative changes. This happens in a mainly automatic way, largely below consciousness. If the balance remains at 3:1, three positives to one negative, you have achieved the minimum platform needed to just to stay well and manage your life in an average way.

If the ratio falls below 3:1, and stays down, however, you are tipped into a downward spiral from which it is hard to escape. This is when someone becomes depressed; when a relationship enters a new, destructive state; or when a team or an organisation becomes dysfunctional.

On the other hand, when the ratio of positive to negative experiences reaches 5:1, this triggers the upward spiral characteristic of flourishing lives, flourishing relationships and flourishing organisations.

But too much positivity is problematic. A consistent ratio of 11:1 positive to negative often signals denial of unavoidable conflicts or attempts to hide a real problem. Remember, the ratio for flourishing is not 5:0. It is 5:1. Problems arise and things inevitably go wrong. Appropriate negativity has an important role to play in flourishing – particularly the constructive confrontation of problems and unacceptable behaviour.

We all want to flourish, to feel we are doing what we were put into the world to do. Yet, the reality is that, at any one time, barely more than 20 per cent of us are succeeding. At the other end of the continuum, 20 per cent are languishing. This includes people who may be holding down good jobs, running a busy family life, and to outward appearances be living a good life.

But, inside, they feel stranded, lost, lacking in purpose. They have a painful awareness of not using their full potential. They feel blocked, despondent, running on empty. It also includes people who are seriously floundering in their lives, who are psychologically distressed and having difficulty managing the day-to-day challenges they are facing.

In between, the rest of us, nearly 60 per cent, are managing day-to-day, but know we are capable of more. If you are languishing in life, you are five times more likely to have a depressive episode. So, flourishing, apart from its other benefits, is a protection against depression.

Why do we need so much positivity to flourish, or even manage our lives in an ordinary way? Why, you might wonder is double the amount of positives to negatives not enough? Hundreds of studies of how people function provide the answer – the greater power of negative over positive in virtually every arena of human functioning, or as one researcher put it, “bad is stronger than good”.

This, of course, makes evolutionary sense. Negative emotional reactions are the brain’s signal of threat (or perceived threat) to our survival or interests. Positive emotional reactions are there to alert us to opportunities and motivate us to avail of them. They trigger the urge to engage with life, to be open to new things, new people, new ideas, to become pleasurably absorbed in experience, to rise to challenges and to keep going in the face of setbacks – key components of flourishing.

But the trouble is if you miss a threat you may not be around for the next opportunity, whereas if you miss an opportunity, you will almost always get another. So negative emotions are designed to be more powerful in their impact – to grab your attention and keep it on the threat until you have dealt with it. But while negative emotional reactions are perfect for life-threatening situations, they can create a great deal of trouble in the complex, tightly networked social world we now live in.

We bring the heavy artillery of survival to deal with everyday threats – to our self-esteem, to our standing in a relationship or status in a group, to minor setbacks and failures. A strong negative emotional reaction can sometimes bypass the thinking system entirely and once turned on, even the smart, sophisticated, thinking brain has trouble turning it off. This tendency to over-react is exaggerated during periods of high pressure or stress in our lives. At the very times when we need to be more flexible, creative and able to stay connected to the big picture, the contracting and rigid effect of negative emotions can stymie us.

Here then is the dilemma. How can we balance the positive against the power of the negative to dominate, to overwhelm, to “stick”, to become contagious? The only way is by force of numbers. Three positives for every negative – just to manage your life, your work and your organisation in an ordinary way. Five if you want to flourish.

The two principles of flourishing flow from those scientific findings. First, we need to develop a conscious, active set of strategies to increase the positive – in ourselves, in our relationships and in the organisations we work in and lead. Second, we have to simultaneously learn to contain the frequency and particularly the intensity of the negative in each of these domains.

In my book, I describe 10 strategies that you can use, singly or together, to help you build the positive and limit the negative in your life. They are based on the best-available scientific research evidence from psychology and neuroscience, but also on the practical experience I have accumulated in my own life and work with individuals, couples, and with organisations. Once you understand the principles that underlie them, you can start with any one of the 10 strategies that appeal to you or seem more relevant to where you are in your life and what particular challenges you are facing. I will describe just two here.

Strategy: Actively manage your mood

We like to think of ourselves as stable entities. But our abilities, talents and personal qualities are not fixed quantities we carry around inside us, waiting to let them out. They can expand and shrink depending on how we use them. And mood is a big, big factor in how we do that.

Mood affects the way we think.

When we are in a good mood, we think fast and effortlessly. Provided we are diligent and take reasonable account of the objective facts available, positive mood improves the quality of our thinking. We come to decisions faster and are more confident about them, which makes it more likely we will follow through on them.

Provided we are reasonably self-aware, and know our typical blind-spots, positive mood also gives us more confidence in our gut instincts, allowing us to use the vast amount of personal experience we have accumulated in our emotional memory – much of which may be unconscious.

Mood affects what we remember.

Bad mood interferes with access to positive memories and increases access to negative memories. When you are in a sad and defeated mood, you will more readily access all your other sad memories, which in turn trigger more. But the effect of a positive mood on memory are even stronger – greatly increasing your access to your store of positive memories, which immediately helps you recreate the world around you in a more positive way.

Mood affects our ability to pursue our goals.

When you are in a good mood, most goals seem possible. When you’re in a bad mood everything seems too much. A positive mood triggers recall of past successes and so you have a much higher expectation of success. As a consequence, you will act in a more personally effective way and have a sense of when you have done enough.

In a negative mood, the patterns is exactly the opposite. You have a reduced sense of personal efficacy and a lowered expectation of success. Yet, paradoxically, you are also more likely to set too high standards for yourself – so you feel more burdened and are more susceptible to perfectionism. At the same time, you focus less effectively on what actually needs to be done and on the big picture, because almost all of your energy is devoted to managing your negative feelings.

These are just a sample of the effects of mood. It is true to say that when your mood changes, your entire consciousness changes with it and the more intense the mood the greater the effects. So you can’t leave your mood at the door of your life. You can’t care for your family, go about your day’s work, manage relationships, make plans, or just generally get on with things as if your mood does not matter. Your mood matters – a lot.

So it is worth pondering on the average duration of an adult mood – a full two hours. Two hours is a quarter of the average working day. For most of us, it is the only time we spend with family and friends during a day. For working parents it probably represents almost all the time they will spend with their children after work. Your mood will significantly affect the quality of these vital interactions.

Mood is highly contagious.

But here’s what is even more interesting. The effects of your mood are not confined to yourself. Your mood transfers to other people and can have the same far-reaching effect on them as it does on you. The closer, more intimate and more important the relationship, the more dependant you are on the other person, the more powerful the contagion of his or her mood. So couples, parents and children; close friends, leaders and the people they manage – are especially interlinked physiologically and emotionally. And the more emotionally negative and stressful the interaction is, the stronger the link.

Emotional contagion also happens at meetings; among people working in the same department or work team; among members of a board; among players on a sports team. The more emotionally interconnected a group is, the stronger the contagion effect. This phenomenon has been observed among work groups as diverse as policemen, teachers, nurses, people who work in call centres or on assembly lines – even accountants. The more the group members depend on each other to get the work done, and for social interaction or support, the longer they have worked together, and the stronger the moods expressed by individual members, then the more contagion there is.

A positive mood in a workplace counts – not just to the individual but to the productivity of the organisation. When people are in a positive mood, they are more co-operative, more generous with their time and expertise, more attentive and helpful to colleagues and to customers. There is less interpersonal conflict. They are better at creative problem-solving. There is less absenteeism and staff turnover.

As a consequence, the people they serve – the pupils, the patients, the customers, the citizens – get better service and are more satisfied. On the other hand, when a negative mood sweeps through a group, the performance of an entire department or team can be affected. For example, in one study in a cardiac unit where the nurses’ general mood was described as depressed, there was a death rate among patients four times higher than on comparable units.

Managing your mood.

Becoming more aware of your mood is key. When you become aware of being in a good mood, it’s a good time to get things done, particularly difficult things. When you are in a negative mood, do the opposite. If you can, try to put off difficult tasks, particularly those involving somebody else – like having a discussion about a contentious issue. A negative mood makes you more likely to misread neutral information or responses from other person as negative and to overreact. Your mood is also likely to infect the other person, making the whole interaction more fraught. One of the consequences of becoming more aware of your negative mood is that its effects on your performance diminish. You are more likely to take account of and try to limit its destructive effects.

Another effective strategy is to make a habit of paying conscious attention to the positive, even or especially when you are feeling negative. Developments in neuroscience are showing that feeling positive and feeling negative are not necessarily polar opposites and mutually exclusive; you can feel happy and unhappy, positive and negative at the same time – and you can choose to attend to either.

In the normal course of events, the process of feeling that something is positive or negative happens extremely rapidly and automatically. In fact, there are eight steps between the occurrence of an event and the eventual way we feel and react to it. While some of these are unconscious, many are capable of being controlled so that you can keep the positive possibilities in mind.

Develop a habit of being grateful

Learning to be grateful for the resources you have turns out to be a very powerful antidote to negative mood. If you record once a week three reasons to be grateful in your life, at the end of 10 weeks you will feel better about your life as a whole, have fewer physical symptoms and be more optimistic about the future – this is despite the fact that you may still experience the usual quota of stress and set-backs during that time.

Gratitude is a sense of appreciation, what one researcher calls “an interior attitude of thankfulness regardless of life circumstances”. The important word here is “regardless”. It’s easy to be grateful when things are going well and you are in a good mood. But it is when things are going badly and you are in a negative mood that gratitude is most important. Flourishing people seem to have the knack of being able to appreciate over and over again the good things in their lives and as a consequence to feel that their lives are fulfilling, meaningful, and productive.

When you develop a habit of gratitude, you are also more likely to notice other people’s generosity and more inclined to appreciate their good intentions. As a consequence, you feel more indebted to them in a positive way, and you are more likely to reciprocate their generosity. So the habit of gratitude is not just a powerful antidote to negative mood, but is the very best antidote to a culture of entitlement – a culture that promotes destructive feelings of hostility, envy, resentment, bitterness and greed .

Another reliable way to increase your positive mood is to record once a week three good things that happened to you during that week. This deceptively simple exercise has been found to be remarkably effective. If you persist for six weeks, you will feel considerably happier and less depressed. Doing it more often than once a week won’t help and is not as effective, most probably because it loses its freshness and becomes boring.

One of the most effective ways to manage a negative mood is to distract yourself. Doing something mildly pleasant – even for as short a time as eight minutes – stops the build up of rumination and worry that deepens negative mood.

Better still, take some exercise. The evidence is now overwhelming on the benefits of exercise in lifting negative mood – or even depression. Even though you may be tempted to sit and nurse your negative mood, a brisk 20-minute walk, a half hour of gardening, a swim or a session in the gym will work its magic and lift your mood, as well as make you healthier. Sometimes, especially for women, plunging the depths of a problem is counter-productive. I have come to respect distraction as a great strategy for happiness.

Strategy: Stop sabotaging yourself. Or, you can’t be driven crazy without your full co-operation

We sabotage ourselves in many ways. In fact, we have a particular ingenuity for inventing ways to torment ourselves. However, the self-defeating things we do fall into roughly three categories: following counter-productive behaviour strategies; adopting dysfunctional thinking styles; and remaining in rigid, repeating cycles of unproductive “crazy-making” behaviour.

However you sabotage yourself, there is one fundamental truth that you need to remind yourself of on a regular basis: You can’t be driven crazy without your full co-operation. It’s worth parsing and analysing every word in that sentence. No matter how trying, stressful or difficult the situation in which we find ourselves, no matter how little real power and control we have, the essential characteristic of being a human being is that we can exercise choice. We have a free will. The problem is not that we don’t exercise our capacity for choice. We do. But we often hide from ourselves the actual choices we are making. That is at the core of self-defeating behaviour.

Take counterproductive strategies.

These are ways of pursuing a goal that paradoxically makes failure more likely. This usually happens because we fail to understand the contingencies or rules that govern certain situations, so we don’t foresee that certain things we do will either not create the reaction we were hoping or produce an unintended reaction. There is ample evidence that far from learning from our experience, many of us hold fast to these counterproductive strategies.

The rules of entrapment.

As with many things, the origins of entrapment often lie in our earliest relationships. Take the example of a child who is reared by an overly demanding mother or a hyper-critical father. The child is made to feel that if they work at it long enough and hard enough they can fulfil even the most unreasonable expectations of what they can do.

These wordless blueprints from childhood become a series of “if-then” rules. That is why people persist for many years, sometimes for a whole lifetime, with the self-imposed rule of, “If I put extraordinary pressure on myself or keep trying to please someone who seems incapable of being pleased, then I will be happy.” They become entrapped because the time and energy they invest in this endeavour becomes fused in their minds with the similar investment in childhood, so now there is just too much investment to give up.

Hidden inside the “if-then” rules are the trade-offs and choices you are making. The stress and frustration created by using counter-productive strategies, dysfunctional thinking and self-defeating patterns are out-weighed by the immediate benefits they deliver. They relieve you in an immediate way of feeling anxious or guilty. They give you a false sense of temporary control. They shield you from the stress of taking responsibility for your own life, of risking trying to solve the problem in a different way, or of being wrong.

However ingrained our self-defeating patterns, we have an inherent capacity to change ourselves and there are effective strategies we can use. Usually we know when we are behaving in a self-defeating way but can’t quite figure out why or how because we are not conscious of the rules we are imposing on ourselves and the roles we force ourselves to occupy in certain relationships.

You can uncover those rules and roles by asking yourself this question: “What do I always do, or never do in a particular situation?” Or “What role do I always play or never play in this particular relationship?” Then try breaking that rule or changing that role. For example, if the rule in your relationship with your mother, your partner, your child or a work colleague is “I can never say no”, then pick a low-risk situation, say no and see what happens. In particular, observe what is happening inside you. Only then will you become aware of the emotional forces – fear, anxiety to please, inability to figure out what you want yourself – that may be driving your behaviour.

Only then can you start dealing with your own feelings, rather than the other person’s. Only then can you try to change your habitual response and to substitute a more enabling “if-then” rule, such as “If somebody makes a demand on me, then I will only respond in a way that is good for both of us and our long-term relationship.” You may be surprised to discover, as many people are, that the situation (and the other person) is more open to positive change than you imagined.

Don’t over-use your strengths.

The origin of many self-defeating behaviours is not a personal weakness but over-use of a strength. A high drive for achievement and excellence, the ability to get things done, idealism, conscientiousness, the capacity to care deeply for other people, for forgiveness – these are admirable qualities. But when over-used they lead to a host of dysfunctional and self-destructive behaviours: perfectionism, hyper-controlling behaviour, taking on too much and reckless neglect of self.

When you understand and frame your problem behaviour as the over-use of a strength, it is much easier to motivate yourself to change. Learning to manage your strengths is a more inspiring and energising endeavour than trying to root out some weakness. None of us really wants to be “fixed”; we want to grow into our best selves.

Originally published in The Irish Times.

Posted: 05 November 2011