Look on the bright side this new year

Look on the bright side this new year

CHEER UP! Smile! It’s a new year!

When you’re down and life is tough, there’s nothing more likely to send you under the duvet than some relentlessly cheerful person urging you to be optimistic.

Which makes what Brenda Roche has to say all the more refreshing. She is a counsellor and life coach with a masters degree in positive psychology, the scientific study of flourishing.

“It includes positive emotions, happiness, strengths, optimism and mindfulness — it’s about what can go right with people rather than what can go wrong,” says Roche.

Crucially, it’s not about being happy-clappy or standing with dogged determination in front of a mirror repeating positive mantras.

“It’s about the broader aspects of the bigger things in life, like meaningfulness, wellbeing and resilience. It embraces the full range of emotions: sadness, anger, disappointment all have their place.”

Along with her colleague, Julie McCall, who has also studied positive psychology, Roche delivers programmes within companies, as well as workshops for the public, on building happiness and wellbeing.

McCall says 50% of our wellbeing is down to genetic factors and 10% is due to our life circumstances at any given time.

“But the remaining 40% is within our control. How we approach that 40% has a huge impact on everyday wellbeing.”

Cultivating a positive outlook is common sense; the bowed head, slumped shoulders, life-is-awful approach isn’t viable if you want to thrive. But ‘positive’ can also sound fluffy and vague.

Roche and McCall believe in rooting it in very concrete terms: What one or two simple habits can you incorporate into your life that would support you? What’s the smallest thing you can do that would make the biggest difference? They cite tons of research backing up the notion that there’s power in focusing on the positive, in building on the best things in life.

Proving that good social relationships are a buffer against the damaging effects of disappointment, crisis situations and setbacks is a literature review representing more than 300,000 participants. It finds those with stronger social relationships have 50% more likelihood of increased longevity, happiness and wellbeing.

For 40 years John Gottman has researched the keys to successful relationships.

“He found four specific blockers to good relationships — criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. By reducing these we significantly enhance our key relationships. For a relationship to thrive you need a ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction. Positive interactions don’t have to be huge, just pleasant interactions, focusing on the good in the person,” says Roche.

Barbara Fredrickson, an American professor of psychology, has researched positive emotions and found they broaden our outlook on the world and help to build resources. The tipping point ratio is three-to-one, says Roche. “We need three positive emotions to lift us for every negative emotion that drags us down. Frederickson’s research shows many people clock in at two to one, so there’s lots of room for improvement.”

Ways to increase your positivity ratio and generate more of the strengthening emotions include identifying what matters to us and making more space and time for that; focusing at the end of the day on three things that went well that day; and setting small goals.

“We’re usually much happier if we’re making progress towards a goal,” says Roche. Developing a positive attitude is not only good for your personal life, it can also be good for business.

“There has been so much change with all the lay-offs that companies are really looking at how they can flourish in a time of adversity. They’re realising they have to invest in people, that if you look after the resilience and wellbeing of employees it impacts on the bottom line and makes other employees happy.”

According to the Harvard Business Review, 2012, wellbeing on the job has to do with frequency of positive experiences rather than factors like salary or title. And established research from the Corporate Leadership Council, which polled employees from 34 organisations across seven industries and 29 countries, found when managers emphasised performance strengths, performance was 36.4% higher. When they emphasised weakness, performance dipped by 26.8%.

“If we can identify our strengths and what we’re good at, we achieve much more. Human beings have a negativity bias: quite often we tend to go to a deficit model and correct our weaknesses. In fact, research finds that only one-third of people, when asked, can name their strengths. Managers tend to talk about what we can do better. But when they identify employees’ strengths and get them to use those more often, they see a huge increase in performance,” says Roche.

If role models (politicians, teachers, parents, religious leaders) could focus on the positive, it would powerfully impact on society, says Roche, pointing to Britain, which has started measuring the wellbeing of the nation as well as GDP. “The survey is an effort to produce an alternative measure of national performance to Gross Domestic Product. It shows just how important wellbeing is to society, how helping individuals improve their wellbeing is key.”

Taking a positive approach at home, work and socially is really about re-balancing. “It’s about making sure we have enough positives going on to thrive in adversity.”

¦ A talk, Setting Positive Realistic Goals for 2014, will focus on how to set realistic goals using positive psychology principles. It’s on Wed Jan 29 at Mary-borough House Hotel, Cork at 7.30pm. See: www.rosecommunications.ie.

Stepping into the present

¦ Research carried out in Harvard interviewing 2,250 people suggests people are happiest when their minds are focused on the present and the activity of the moment. Researchers found people spend half their time ‘mind wandering’ about past or future — it doesn’t make us happy.

¦ Mindfulness — ‘paying attention in the present’ — can change your brain, according to research. It can help with stress, anxiety, addiction, focus and our immune system. A Stanford study found that an eight-week mindfulness course helped regulate emotions and reduced stress.

“So many people live in their heads and are on automatic. Mindfulness allows us step out of automatic and into the present,” says Roche.

¦ Most studies find a very significant association between volunteering and psychological wellbeing. Several studies have found this correlation appears highest in older adults.

¦ Research shows cultivating supportive workplaces can impact productivity. People who experience frequent good moods are more likely to have better immune systems, less absence, be more helpful to colleagues and receive more positive customer and supervisor evaluations.

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