Many people I meet have either never heard of the world of ‘positive psychology’, or if they have, they quickly dismiss it as unrealistic positive thinking. They have a point. It has a misguided reputation for being ‘too American’ or ‘polyanna optimistic’ and one author even argued it to be the cause of 2008’s financial crisis.
This is to miss a fundamental point about the field. It is not just about positive thinking and persuading people that self-belief and the right vibes will get you anywhere. There are practical ways that the science can really make a difference to every individual, their performance at work, their lives and therefore to every organisation.
Here are four ways positive psychology can help you.
1. Playing to your strengths
Teams who don’t know each other. Managers who don’t know where to delegate. New starters who don’t really know what they want (or do know that they want it all). These are just some of the situations in which an understanding of an individual’s strengths has a huge impact. And I don’t just mean what someone is good at. Strengths are the psychological superpowers we all have which we’re more than just good at – we get energy from using them. Discovery and focus on using our strengths not only feels good, but research shows long term positive links with progress towards goals and reduced stress.
2. Building resilience
Work can be stressful and it takes resilience to cope with it. According to the Health and Safety Commission, in 2014/15 a massive 9.9 million working days in the UK were lost for stress, depression or anxiety. But while most of us know how to heal a small physical wound, few of us know how to mentally heal the impact of a difficult conversation, an argument, or the sense of panic that comes with too many deadlines. If only 1% of those 9.9 million days were prevented by building core resilience skills before chronic stress takes hold, everyone would win. A quick calculation based on average weekly earnings gives a saving of almost £10m.
3. Learning to be grateful
People moan. A lot. Life isn’t fair, they want what they can’t have, the grass is always greener. It’s understandable and it’s often cultural. While I’m too British to suggest we should stop it altogether, a different focus can have a huge impact. If we’re down on the ‘now’ we’re usually wishing for the next thing; a promotion or pay rise for example. Which means we’ll quickly get stuck on the ‘hedonic treadmill’. (A concept describing how a boost in happiness brought by a new thing quickly dwindles, so we’re always after the next fix). From handbags to houses to bonuses, the reward quickly fades if we let it.
The best way to fight this is to practice being grateful (NB paywall) for what we have now. And the emphasis is on the practice as it doesn’t come easy. Try these questions for just a few minutes a week: How is your current role better than your last? What can you buy with your new salary that you couldn’t before? What was your favourite part of your job today?
4. Dynamic employee engagement
I’ve argued for some time that people are more than just merely ‘engaged’ or ‘not engaged’ in their jobs, unfortunately typical engagement surveys assume it is a binary attribute which you either have or you do not. Positive psychology allows a different, more nuanced approach. If individuals can focus on the detailed elements that enable them to have a better day (as discussed in my last MT article), they can take small actions to boost their experience. And not just when they fill in a survey.
These four examples are just a snapshot of what Positive Psychology can do for all of us – and not a happy clapper in sight. I hope they’ve sparked some ideas for you.
Jen Rolfe is Founder and Director of learning consultancy Practically Positive.