January: Optimism and Hope

This year I’ll be taking a deeper look at the strengths that sit at the core of positive psychology and how to increase each one. What better strength to start the New Year with than the very one we use this week, every year, when we set our New Year resolutions – Optimism and Hope! And with a wealth of positive data sitting behind this strength (Optimism is strongly correlated with good health, performance, life satisfaction, achievement and positive relationships) it’s got to be worth our time spent strengthening these qualities.

First though it is worth understanding that optimism and pessimism are explanatory styles of thinking about life events which predict a positive vs. negative mood. People with optimistic explanations of life generally feel happier and more energised to cope with obstacles, seeing them as challenges rather than failure experiences. Optimists are more likely to analyse whether setbacks are situational, then are able to develop plans to remove obstacles to their goals. Pessimists are more likely to view life problems as personal failures, blame themselves, feel unhappy and give up trying to change.

You might be one of the lucky ones who is genetically blessed with optimistic parents, so looking on the bright side comes naturally (with your genes counting for approximately 50% of your psychological make-up), but for everyone else, here are 10 ways to increase the strength of optimism.

  1. Notice your thinking. When bad things happen, do you use words like ‘always’, ‘never’ or ‘everything’. So for instance, if your new year’s resolution to give up alcohol in January has already taken a nose dive, do you hear yourself saying ‘I never stick to my resolutions; I’m always rubbish at stuff like this’? Even if good things happen to a pessimist, they write them off as a fluke…
  2. Optimists explain away adverse events in specific, temporal and impersonal ways, ie. not always; not forever; not across everything and it’s not always my fault.  In other words, when you encounter a problem, practise viewing it as specific to a certain situation, temporary and thus able to be changed and not related to a personal deficiency. Then you are more likely to be positively energised and can change the problem situation to your advantage.
  3. Write down the good things that happened to you in 2011. Relish them and the important part you played in making them happen.
  4. Surround yourself with optimistic friends in 2012. Who encourages you? Who makes you feel good? Who do you turn to when things are going wrong? Who really listens to you?
  5. Keep your goals small this year and experience success more often. Success breeds success!
  6. Take one step today towards a goal that has always felt out of your reach. Surprise yourself with how realistic this goal could be for you.
  7. Try not to take things personally when things go wrong. Don’t let it undermine the very essence that is you. Instead, try again next time, learning from what went wrong before and with a new determination to make things turn out right. Setbacks happen to us all – it is what we say to ourselves next that makes the big difference.
  8. Act optimistic. Force yourself to keep going, even when you are fighting it. Defy those nagging thoughts that have kept you down for so many years. Stand up to them in a way you never thought possible.
  9. Do the work – if you want to be a great piano player, you will have to put the work in. This will require practice. It is no good just thinking it – although this will help, it is not enough.
  10. Starting today, track your achievements. Make sure to give yourself the credit you deserve for them!
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Week 10: I haven’t got the Time!

It seems that the very week I was going to write about Time, I lost track of it! Sorry about that, but where did April go?? So, back to our discussions about the nature of positive change and new positive psychological perspectives that have an effect on it. Philip Zimbardo, the scientist behind Time Perspectives, calls the phenomenon “something that influences every single decision you make about which you are totally unaware“. Is it just me, but I’m addicted to finding out more given a sentence like that?!

When we talk about positive change, there is an implicit assumption that people are able to look into the future and adapt their perspective from the here and now to the what if? Time perspectives suggests that this isn’t the case, with everyone having a bias towards the past, present or future. There are, so research suggests, 5 time perspectives:

  1. Past Positive (you look back fondly at the past)
  2. Past Negative (you perceive your past negatively or critically)
  3. Present Hedonistic (live in the present for fun; feelings; stimulation)
  4. Present Fatalistic (nothing you can do in the present makes a difference)
  5. Future Orientation (achievement, work, responsibilities and goals oriented)

Research suggests that our time perspective is learned and resetting your psychological time clock is possible and worthwhile. So firstly, to find out what your time perspective is, go the the website, http://www.thetimeparadox.com and take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (the link is at the lower right hand corner of the home page).

The research also suggests the optimal time perspective profile is:

  • High in past-positive time perspective
  • Moderately highly in future time perspective
  • Moderately high in present-hedonistic time perspective
  • Low in past-negative time perspective
  • Low in present-fatalistic time perspective.

This blend offers three critical advantages:

A sense of a positive past gives you roots. The centre of self-affirmation, the past connects you to yourself over time and across place. A positive past grounds, you, provides a sense of the continuity of life and allows you to be connected to family, tradition and your cultural inheritance.

With a future perspective, you can envision a future filled with hope, optimism and power. The future gives you wings that enable you to soar to new destinations and to be confident in your ability to deal with the unexpected challenges that you might encounter on the way. It equips you to escape the status quo, the fear inherent in straying from the safe, known ways, the well-travelled roads to your destination.

A hedonistic present gives you energy and joy about being alive. That energy drives to explore people, places and self. Present hedonism is life affirming, in moderation, for it opens the senses to appreciation of nature and the pleasure of human sexuality.

So, this week explore your own Time Perspective and how it affects the decisions you make. You’ll start to also see how a shared or different perspective can be the source of agreements or disagreements. To listen and learn more, check out Philip Zimbardo’s excellent 7 minute talk below:

And if you haven’t got the time to do it… think roots, wings and energy!


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Week 9: What do you do when you get mad?

When you get mad/bad/angry/stressed/upset/embarrassed, what do you do to distract yourself? Here are my personal top 5 techniques:

  1. Get out of the situation (fast!)
  2. Go for a run
  3. Have a hug (or several)
  4. Play some loud music
  5. Eat chocolate…

Fortunately 4 of the above 5 techniques are scientifically proven to reduce the immediate impact of negative emotions and prevent a damaging negative spiral (and I’m working on positive benefits of chocolate!). Joking apart, as our negative emotions and beliefs are such a major disruptor on the journey towards positive change, learning to recognise, understand and manage them is essential.

The 3 ‘D’s – Distract…Dispute…Distance are three important strategies, each with a distinct use. Distracting yourself when you’re in the midst of high emotion (or ’emotional hijacking‘ as Daniel Goleman called it) is a vital first stage. Don’t even start to reason with yourself in this state (or, dare I say it, try to rationalise with someone else in this state), it won’t work! Exercise, music, meditation and writing are the four proven, powerful distractors.

When you are able to think more calmly, disputing your negative beliefs is about exercising your mental powers and challenging the belief and testing for evidence. “What’s the evidence for the belief?” and “What alternative ways can I look at this situation? ” I call this the ‘revolving door’ technique. Imagine you’re going through such a door and with each rotation you’re able to see the situation from another point of view.  Its a great way to move from rigid, black-and-white thinking (“I can’t…you are…you should…I have to, etc.”) to a more flexible approach.

The third stage is to put some distance between yourself and your negative emotions, that is, to put some perspective into the situation. You might then ask yourself  “What does this negative event really mean – is the outcome as negative as I am making it out to be?” or ask yourself  “How useful is it for me to dwell on this negative event or belief?” Even better, “what can I learn from this situation? How can I improve? How can I use this learning to improve my relationships with others?”

So this week, test out the 3 ‘D’s for yourself. What distractors work for you? Practice disputing your negative beliefs and gaining emotional perspective – essentially, exercise your mental flexibility! David Caruso suggested: “it is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head — it is the unique intersection of both.”

‘Til next week, Lucy.

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Week 8: Understanding Positive Change

I love March. It feels like a month full of positive potential and a great month to start
exploring the nature of Positive Change. There is so much thought provoking literature, research and exercises surrounding this topic, such as motivating goals, hope & optimism, mindsets, beliefs, motivation and appreciative inquiry, I’m looking forward to getting my head around making it useful to you! Yet, in my world of business training and coaching, it seems almost inescapable when discussions surrounding ‘change’ or ‘change management’ are underway, the Kubler-Ross Change Curve becomes the standard model, with such emotions as distress, distrust, anger, guilt, anxiety and hostility shown as necessary by-products of the process prior to acceptance. What is less understood is that this change curve is, in fact, the therapeutic Grief Cycle and there are many other productive ways of embarking on, and helping others embrace, the inevitable change we’re all facing.

Research suggests five factors enhance our ability to embrace change positively:

  1. Our Beliefs about change
  2. Our attitude and behaviour to setbacks;
  3. Our perspective about time;
  4. The questions we ask;
  5. The goals we choose.

Over the next 5 weeks, we’ll look at each of these areas in turn with the starting point of personal beliefs as they the backbone to positive change. What do you believe about change? When you hear the word, what images spring to mind? Whatever beliefs you hold about change will undoubtedly affect your behaviour and the ultimate outcome. According to Prochaska, architect of the Stages of Change model (see left) it appears that our ability to move from thinking about change to taking specific action is having more positive than negative beliefs about change.

So, this week think about a change you would like to make in your life and consider your beliefs about change. To help you, have a look at the two sets of statements below and on a scale of 1-5 (1 being not important, 5 being very important) decide how true these belief statements are for you:

  1. Changing takes a lot of time
  2. I’m concerned I might fail if I try to change
  3. I would have to give up some things I enjoy
  4. I get some benefits from my current behaviour
  5. Some people would be uncomfortable if I change

And next, consider the next 5 statements:

  1. Changing would make me feel better about myself
  2. I would be happier if I change
  3. Some people would be better off if I change
  4. I would worry less if I change
  5. I would function better if I change

Total up your scores for each section and if you have less than 9 points for the first section and more than 16 points for the second section, you are likely to progress smoothly from the ‘planning’ to the ‘action’ stage of change.

Next week – facing setbacks…



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Week 7: Putting Positive Emotions to Work

I’m convinced that if employers truly understood the impact on performance of positive and negative emotions in the workplace it would be placed at the top of every priority list for training and coaching (and not just because it’s my field!). Because if you strip away the jargon that can surround the vital field of emotional intelligence and examine the scientific data, the link between positive emotions and performance is startling.

For your sceptically minded clients (and one of mine wrote off ’emotional intelligence’ as namby pamby b*******s recently…), the work completed by Losada and Heaphy (2004) is a good convincer. Studying the language of 60 workplace teams, set up to discuss strategic business reviews, they concluded that  high performance teams could be differentiated from low performance teams on three transparent factors:

  1. The ratio of positive to negative language
  2. Asking Questions, rather than Telling
  3. Consideration of others beyond the existing team

I’ve referenced and summarised the study for you on the research pages on this site, but in broadening our discussion about positive emotions from Week 5, what is fascinating is how high performing teams (measured by profitability; customer satisfaction indices and 360 feedback) used 6 times more positive language than negative, with frequent use of encouraging and supportive words. In contrast, low performing teams used 30 times more critical language than positive, leading the team into a downward, toxic spiral.

The essential point here is the concept of ’emotional contagion’ – or what I like to call ‘stickiness’. Emotions literally ‘stick’; they rub off on other people, causing ripples of disproportionate effect, positive and negative. But yet again, negative emotions have been proven to stick more quickly and effectively – the ‘superglue’ as it were, to ‘positive emotions’ pritt stick…

In Daniel Goleman’s latest book, Social Intelligence, he suggests we cannot help but be caught up in this emotional contagion. In effect, we are ‘hardwired to connect’, acting as ‘walking mood inductors‘. Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, unavoidably drawn into a neurological connection whenever we interact with another person. This two-way connection allows us to affect everyone we interact with both physically and mentally. The concern of scientists exploring our innate need to connect with others is that we are, increasingly, acting in reverse. That is, through our gadgets, emails and virtual worlds, a lack of focus, detachment and partial attention is becoming the norm.

So here is this week’s exercise: Every day this week, start a positive spiral by paying real attention to someone at work and make an intentional effort to connect. Pick up the phone, rather than email. Truly listen when they are talking. Don’t multi-task; Put away the iPad, the Blackberry, the iPod; don’t text and don’t tweet. Don’t take calls without someone else’s permission. When you are with someone, tune in. Speak with them, not at them. Look at them; listen to them; ask them questions. Put positive emotions to work!




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Week 6: Create a positive word cloud

Cast your minds back to Week 4 when I suggested you gathered feedback to form your Reflected Best Self. Here’s an idea to inspire you to use (or collect) that feedback. I promise this is an exercise worth doing! So, either follow the link that I gave you in Week 4 or simply ask about 10 people who know you well to give you 10 words that describe you at your best. Collate the words or phrases that feel like ‘you’ and create a word cloud. You can use that word cloud on your CV; your online profile; alongside client testimonials; on business cards and Facebook or anytime someone asks you describe yourself and you’re lost for words… Just in case you haven’t discovered my new word cloud best friend, check out http://www.wordle.net. Print screen the result, copy into Word, crop the picture and you’re away. Perfect…


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Week 5: What use are positive emotions?

Here’s your first exercise for this week. At the end of each day this week, ask your partner/friend/colleague how their day has been (I’m excluding older children from this list as they’re likely to look at you like you’re mad, say ‘fine’ and go up to their rooms!). Now, however positive your friend’s day might have been I’m willing to bet they’ll start by telling you what went wrong. The description is likely to be vivid and to make matters worse, as they recall it, this ‘ok’ day will become worse causing a downward spiral that is way out of proportion to where their story started…

And that’s the potency of negative emotions. Through research, we now know that negative events are recalled more easily; expanded on successfully; remembered vividly and replayed actively. They take a firm grip on our body, mind and language, being the central plank of our delicious gossip and our judgemental self-talk, all with the knowledge that unchecked negativity can cause health damaging consequences.

Oh, pity the pale, weak, poor relations that are positive emotions! Little wonder they’ve been ignored by evolutionists and poets; psychologists and scientists alike. They can be fleeting and forgotten, with the language (joy, happiness, wonder) reduced to the front of greeting cards (or slightly odd, overly exuberant people you want to avoid). Yet the scientific discoveries of positive emotions are stunning. Consider this – what if positivity really matters? What if our day to day emotional experiences affect the very course of our lives?

In a nutshell, here are my 3 favourite facts about positive emotions:

  1. Positivity obeys a tipping point. The ratio of 3:1 positive to negative emotions is our gateway to flourishing. (At 1:1 or even 2:1, we are still ‘languishing’);
  2. Positivity changes how your mind works. Positive emotions broaden the scope and boundaries of your mind, enabling a wider span of possibilities;
  3. Positive emotions build your psychological resources enabling you to become more resilient, optimistic, open, accepting and driven by purpose.

So, our starting point for this week is to help you assesses where are you now? Just like tracking calories or cash flows can heighten your awareness and in time help you meet your fitness or financial goals, tracking your positivity ratio can help you raise your ratio and build your best future. Log on to http://www.positivityratio.com and take the Positivity Self Test. Go further if you like, and take part in the Day Reconstruction Method to really discover what’s going on in your day.

Scare your partner when they next ask, ‘how’s your day been?’ and give them an accurate answer!

Happy Days!

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Week 4: Your reflected best self

Ever received or given someone some ‘360’ feedback? If you have, you’ll recognise this… You look through the feedback and whilst trying to be open-minded about the feedback (after all, you’re a grown up), in reality you’re wondering who gave that piece of critical feedback and why? Did you upset them/annoy them/forget their party invite, etc. You can see the pages of positive feedback, but the criticism can rankle and sit somewhere deep in the pit of your stomach, however well facilitated it might be.

Reflected Best Self is easily the most powerful feedback oriented intervention I’ve used in the last few years with clients. Developed by researchers at the University of Michigan (and now used by most of the leading business schools in the US and the UK on their MBA courses), it focuses on when people have seen you operating at your best, with evidential stories.

The specific directions for downloading this exercise from Michigan can be found on the research pages of this blog, but essentially you are asking between 10-20 people (the more diverse the group, the better) for three stories each of when they have seen you working/operating at your very best in their eyes.

I like this exercise for so many reasons (beyond my obvious shortcomings for accepting criticism!). For me, it goes to the very heart of positive psychology. That is, you are already good, already unique and already accomplished. For positive change to occur, it’s a question of understanding and embodying those moments more than changing from the person you are to a different person. Like resolutions, so many personal visions are based on an ‘ought’ self (what i ought/must/should be like) when it is as simple as being at your best as often as possible.

I have seen clients profoundly moved, surprised, inspired and energised by this exercise. The negativity bias (see Week 3) ensures we know what we do wrong – and boy, do we embrace it – but rarely do we see in writing up to 60 examples of what we do right. End January on the most extraordinary note for yourself – send out an email to 20 people (If you’re embarrassed or British, blame it on the blog and say you’re in the middle of a coaching programme...). I promise it will see you through the best and the worst of times.

Until February!


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Week 3: The most depressing day of the year?

I’m compelled to deflect from my reflective momentum of January and talk about – what the papers are calling today – the most depressing day of the year – a combination of the weather (yes, perhaps not for you sis in oz); post christmas debt and broken resolutions. You probably don’t know that they’ve brought the day forwards by a week, as for the last 18 years the most depressing day of the year fell on my wedding anniversary, the 23rd January – so I’m grateful for that at least!

The papers are also full of advice for getting through the day, ranging from ‘lovebombing’ someone, getting flirty, going barefoot to listening to the birds. So if your feet are cold and no-one’s responding to your flirty texts, science has shown that there are more powerful and lasting ways to lift your mood in the third week of January and beyond…

1) Do something useful for someone else. In  a range of experiments, often named ‘Pleasure vs Altruism‘, researchers have asked individuals to do something fun for themselves (over the course of a day or a week) and then turn their attention to someone else, whether an individual, institution or community. The latter has increased short term pleasure and long term satisfaction;

2) Get physical. In the very week that gyms capitalise on their wealth, science shows that exercise is one of the only ways to switch a mood from unhappiness to ‘ok-ness’. Exercise alone isn’t going to ensure happiness (and interestingly, research shows that ‘feeling’ healthy is more important than actual health for long term happiness), but it is proven to be an effective distraction from distressing emotions, buying you time to think more flexibly and accurately;

3) Time and again, this last exercise has been proven to be the most powerful, simple and long lasting way to increase your levels of happiness – the Gratitude Journal – oft cited but rarely completed! So all you need for this week’s exercise is one notebook and pencil and the persistence to jot down in your notebook each evening 3 things you are grateful for and why (that’s important). That’s it.

One of the things I’ve noticed about positive psychology interventions over the last 4 years is that their simplicity belies the effect. They are easy to read and ignore! So, an understanding of why this simple exercise works might help. Two psychological phenomenon follow us around all our lives, (i) the negativity bias (check out the research pages for more on this) where we pay more attention to what is bad or wrong in our lives than what is good, and (ii) habituation. Simply, we get used to what we have in life, very quickly – even if it is something we previously strived after for years.

I’ve kept a gratitude journal (for some reason, perhaps being a Brit,  I call it my Appreciation Diary!) on and off for 3 years. Looking back on it gives me more joy than I can say. On even the most difficult of days, it reminds me how much I have to be optimistic about and the best of days are recorded for posterity.

So on this blue monday, do something to lastingly cheer yourself up. Bye x

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Week 2 – Pathways to happiness in 2011

Last week’s exercise sparked off a ‘reminiscence spree’  in our household, which culminated on Saturday with a huge box of old photos from the loft and spending a couple of hours looking at baby photos with the girls from 16 years ago! It left me with a warm glow for the whole weekend… I’m convinced about the power of positive reminiscence. We are so caught up in the here and now and this, combined with planning for the future, means that positive past reflection gets relegated to a poor third place. Yet Zimbardo’s work on time perspectives (we’ll explore these in depth another month, but take a look a look at his website, www.thetimeparadox.com if you’re interested now) shows there is a strong correlation between life satisfaction and individuals with a strong ‘past positive’ time perspective.

Anyway, back to the plot. Last week, you were looking at your diary for 2010 and reflecting on positive events. This week, I’m suggesting you create resolutions for the year based on those activities that gave you joy and satisfaction and what you would like to do ‘more of” in 2011. But first, take a closer look at the activities and events you have selected. What is it about these activities that made you choose them? This is an important question as positive psychology research has shown that our happiness is derived from four distinct areas:

4 routes to happiness

And so it appears that those who are happiest in life aren’t just plain hedonists (but neither are they saints) but people who balance fun with engaging activities and nourishing relationships with a meaning beyond themselves in life. (If you want to test out your own orientation to happiness, the link is on the ‘research’ page of the blog).

So as you write your ‘more of’ list for 2011, consider this balance and what you can do this year to bring more pleasure and passion, further purpose and the right people into your life. It might be situations that just ticked one or two of these pathways (like the burlesque workshop I did – don’t ask!) or those wonderful situations (they’ll jump out of your diary) that span the pathways.

Oh yes, one further task – choose something from this list and start it now… good luck!

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