How to Be Positive

Image by Tetsumo/Flickr

Pretty much every job in the world has its bad moments.

Super Bowl-winning quarterback? By the end of the season your ribs, shoulders, knees and arm are so sore you probably have trouble turning over in bed.

Brilliant inventor/entrepreneur? I recently heard Elon Musk on the radio and he sounded like he was in physical pain having to do another media interview. The only time he perked up was when the host asked him an engineering question, which hinted at what he really loves to do.

Nobel Prize-winning scientist? You have to labor for 20 to 40 years before (maybe, please, maybe) the world takes notice. You have to beg for grants and rely on an endless stream of graduate students.

Normal professional? At various times, you will be underpaid and overworked. You may be forced to work for an idiot, or to promote someone you really, truly don’t like. You may feel caught in the middle, or underappreciated.

Yeah, but... I've been pretty negative

The most likable people generate their own energy. Their attitude does not depend on everything going well and everyone being so grateful for their good work.

They are just positive because they are positive.

I know all the reasons this is hard. I know what it’s like to be grumpy, discouraged, and frustrated. I’ve had years in which nothing in my career seemed to be working. Was I positive the whole time?

No.

And that was probably a big part of the problem.

Kim Cameron, Associate Dean of Executive Education at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, cites the power of the heliotropic effect. He writes:

This effect is defined as the tendency in all living systems toward that which gives life and away from that which depletes life—toward positive energy and away from negative energy. All living systems have an inclination toward the positive—for example, plants lean toward the light, people learn and remember positive information faster and better than negative information, positive words predominate over negative words in all languages, all life forms from bacteria to mammals possess an inclination toward positive energy—so strategies that capitalize on the positive similarly tend to produce life-giving, flourishing outcomes in individuals and organizations.

HINT: don’t fight a natural law.

Let’s consider the opposite of being positive. When you’re in a room filled with people and someone near you is whining, complaining, and generally criticizing or attacking others… what do you do?

My bet is that you move away from him or her.

Yes, you are basically one super-smart, highly mobile plant.

Henrik Edberg, author of The Positivity Blog, has a number of useful suggestions for how to stay positive, three of which I’d like to share here:

1. Find the optimistic viewpoint in a negative situation.

Henrik asks himself questions such as, “What is one thing that is positive or good about this situation?” There’s always some way to come up with a good answer to this question, even if the answer is: I’m going to be so happy when this day is over.

2. Cultivate and live in a positive environment.

This is one of my primary rules in life. Your environment always wins. If you hang out with nasty and sullen people, you will become nasty and sullen. If you work for a Machiavellian company, you will eventually operate in a Machiavellian manner.

3. Go slowly.

Most anger is impatience in disguise. The faster you act, the more likely you are to lose your temper or do something rash.

It takes patience and willpower to remain positive, calm and coherent in the face of difficult challenges.

In Positive Psychology: An Introduction, Martin Seligman writes about the time he was weeding in the garden with his five-year-old daughter. He yelled at her because she was throwing weeds into the air and generally fooling around. She ran away and then came back. According to the article, here’s what happened next:

"Daddy, I want to talk to you."

"Yes, Nikki?"

"Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday?

"From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch."

At that moment, Seligman resolved to change.

At this moment, you can do the same.