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Optimal Functioning At Work

Author : John Schinnerer

Submitted : 2010-05-21 16:53:13    Word Count : 755    Popularity:   174

Tags:   positive psychology at work, strengths-based management, dr. john schinnerer, executive coaching, corporate training

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Positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal functioning, the applied approach to human flourishing. The lessons of positive psych are appropriate for everyone teenagers, executives, managers, the elderly, and even the military. The U.S. Army is currently training thousands of sergeants in positive psychology to boost the resiliency of troops and to decrease the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder. While our Army troops have always been physically fit, we are now seeing a momentous shift in thinking to enable them to become psychologically fit as well.

Positive psychology has something to offer you and it is as valuable in your personal life as in your professional life. At the heart of positive psychology are a number of research based findings into how and when people function at their very best.

Most of us spend a great deal of our time worrying over what might go wrong, or beating ourselves up over what we think did go wrong, or feeling disappointed over the inherent unfairness of life. Recent research shows that we are hard-wired to pay closer attention to this that go wrong than things that go right. This is called the negativity bias. And from an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. Being highly cautious about threats and problems helped keep us alive from predators back when sabre-toothed tigers roamed the earth.

However, this hard-wired focus on the negative does not serve us well in our daily lives. Events such as missed deadlines, presentations, or bumper-to-bumper traffic may feel frustrating and stressful but they are not matters of life and death.

So ask yourself, 'How much is my focus on what might go wrong helping me? How much are my negative emotions, such as fear and anger, assisting me in reaching my goals?'

To these questions, positive psychology provides a non-intuitive answer: spend more time focusing on what is going right with your life, look at what you do well and what energizes you, focus more on what may go well in the future, and see how much that approach helps you reach your goals. Research findings suggest a positive approach will lead to more productivity, satisfaction with life and overall well-being.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that you only have a positive perspective. I am not suggesting that you be foolishly optimistic. There is a great deal of merit to accurately foreseeing and planning for potential problems. It's a matter of balance. How much of your mental time is spent focusing on problems as compared to looking at the positives. Positive psychology has found that there are tremendous benefits to learning to focus more on what is right with us, what are strengths are, and what may go well in the future.

What makes the crucial difference between positive psychology and traditional self-help is the strong research base upon which positive psychology is built. There are now over 70,000 studies looking at strengths, realistic optimism, mindfulness, hope, values, and more. Empirical researchers across the world are looking for testable theories and explanations supported by hard data. It is, in simplest terms, a powerful movement from faith to facts.

The biggest shift in psychology took place in the late 1990s when Martin Seligman, as president of the American Psychological Association, began asking the question 'what is right with people?' For the past 100 years, the fields of medicine and psychology had focused on what was wrong with people and how such problems could be fixed. Seligman used his influence to create a new branch of science termed 'positive psychology.'

Seligman and Mike Csikszentmihalyi brought together the top young researchers in psychology to study topics such as hope, happiness, gratitude, wisdom, creativity and optimal functioning. From there it spread to include researchers in humanistic psychology, philosophy, executive coaches, sports psychology, developmental psychologists and many more. It continues to spread to business, education and counseling.

One of the most prolific researchers in the world, University of Michigan professor Chris Peterson, has talked of positive psychology as having three major areas of study: positive subjective states such as happiness, positive traits such as character strengths, and positive institutions such as businesses and schools.

The best part is that positive psychology has been shown repeatedly to work well. Positive psychology exercises have been shown in numerous studies to promote strengths, improve optimal functioning, and increase realistic optimism and frequency of positive emotions.

One of the greatest contributions of positive psychology is the finding that by focusing energy and attention on strengths and by tapping into positive emotions, all of us will enjoy more success than if we focus on weaknesses and problems. The latest book on strengths, The Strengths Book by Alex Linley, Janet Willars and Robert Biswas-Diener, contains 60 human strengths that lead to more success, better relationships and greater productivity.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are employees that do not take advantage of their strengths and generally are less engaged in their jobs. The Gallup Organization has shown that disengaged workers cost firms billions of dollars per year in accidents, sabotage, turnover costs, lost customers and healthcare. Engaged or happy workers have a higher probability of making more money, innovating, being on time to work, being healthier physically, receive higher ratings from supervisors and customers and help out coworkers. Happiness doesn't just feel good, it is good for the bottom line and good for employees.

I've found that the emotional side of the picture is two-pronged. People must be taught to turn down the volume on negative emotions, such as anger. And we need ways to turn up the volume on positive emotions, such as joy.

One of the best tools to turn down the volume on anger is the practice of forgiveness. Last year, I did some work with the executive board of a large insurance company. They were having trouble with several vice presidents who were holding grudges towards one another over an incident that happened over 7 years ago. At the end of my workshop, I specifically focused on what the research has to say about forgiveness. For me, forgiveness is the best single way to wash out the old, stale anger. At the conclusion of my talk, I suggested to them that they try forgiving each other for whatever it was about which they were angry. After a short pause, I watched as all of the executives stood up, and began forgiving one another. Even for those who were merely saying the words without any meaning behind it, it had a tremendous impact. It was powerful. And it changed the way in which these executives interacted from that day forward. The vice presidents were more supportive of one another, more cooperative, and stopped their internal sabotage.

The Power of Positive Emotions

There is tremendous power in our emotions. Emotions may initially be a bit frightening. Many people spend a great deal of energy trying to suppress or contain emotion. Yet, emotions have been with the human race for millions of years. Each emotion serves a purpose.

Take a moment to think back to the last time you experienced an intense emotion. It may have been surprise, fear, rage, disappointment, sorrow, joy, awe or pride. It may have been pride due to your child's outstanding grades, or joy watching your team win a close game, or frustration at yourself for making a mistake at work, or the feeling of contentment while working in your yard. What we're finding is that emotions transcend our physical bodies. They are contagious. You can catch feelings from others around you. Studies have shown that happiness is contagious just like anger. Emotions are also closely and powerfully linked to what and how you remember the past. Look through an old photo album and you will clearly see the sway emotions have over your memories. What's more, emotions play a large role in learning, productivity, communication, and even in our morality.

So it is critical to gain an understanding of emotions, and in particular, the purpose and strength of positive emotions, because you can put them to great use in your daily life. Emotions can help you to be more innovative. They can fuel motivation. As Robert Biswas-Diener puts it, 'positive emotion is one of the greatest resources you and your clients, colleagues or students are currently overlooking.'

Emotions may be best thought of as a guidance system for your life. When you experience guilt, for example, it's a sign that your actions are not in keeping with your values. And the unpleasant feeling motivates you to bring your actions back in line with your values. When things are going smoothly, your guidance system lets you know with an all clear signal positive emotions such as peacefulness or contentment. Please note that this guidance system is not perfect. We occasionally misinterpret our emotions, and sometimes our emotions are just plain wrong like when we feel overwhelming fear before speaking in public.
However, our emotions give us important and valuable feedback the majority of the time. And there is power in learning how to be aware of fleeting emotions, in learning how to correctly read emotions, and greater success lies in the ability to cultivate more positive emotions.

What Do Positive Emotions Do For You?

The primary function of positive emotion is to broaden and build. Positive emotions, such as awe, peacefulness and love, allow your mind to blossom, creating more options, more possibilities, in terms of thoughts and actions. Positive emotions help us be more creative, imaginative, and innovative. If you need to brainstorm for a new marketing slogan, you'll do a better job if you are happy when you do it.

In addition, positive emotions have long-term beneficial effects because they build internal resources which may be used to help assist others in need or to manage future threats. In other words, positive emotions fill up your gas tank. This means that positive emotions fill your emotional reservoir, your gas tank, with positive emotional energy to increase your sense of well-being and physical health.

What's more, positive emotions have been shown to undo the lingering physiological effects of negative emotions. Positive emotions act as the hidden RESET button to negative emotions.

In the workplace, positive emotions are related to higher salaries, less sick days, better relationships with coworkers, better supervisor ratings, better customer ratings, and reduced employee turnover.

In terms of physical health, positive folks are less likely to get ill, live longer, experience less pain, have fewer hospital visits, and when in a good mood, have faster cardiovascular recovery times. On the other hand, those with depression are more likely to engage in smoking, drug abuse, suicidal attempts, and have more emergency room visits.

In psychology, it is understood that bad is stronger than good, or the negative is stronger than the positive. Bad events have a greater power over us, our emotions, thoughts and behaviors, than do good ones. You are more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. You are quicker to form bad judgments of other people than good ones. It takes approximately 5 compliments to undo the negative effects from one insult. Your brain processes negative information more thoroughly than it does positive information. So it's great news that the harmful effects of negative feelings can be undone by positive emotions.

There are ten positive emotions that have been verified in studies. From the most frequently occurring to the least frequent, they are love, joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration and awe. And we know from research that positive emotions are fleeting and fragile. They are easily done away with and they are generally less powerful than negative emotions.
So it's critical to be mindfully aware of your positive emotions when they arise. You want to be aware of which situations in your life create positive emotions to engage in those activities more frequently. And you want to slow down your pace a half-step so you can savor information coming in via your senses the smell of the freshly cut grass, the colors of the tulips, the sight of a hawk soaring above, or a pat on the back from a coworker.

A growing number of executives and managers are passionate and excited about positive psychology. It offers an energizing approach to your personal and professional life. Hopefully, by sharing some information about positive psychology, you've become excited about the possibilities also.

If you are interested in coaching around these issues or for your staff, feel free to call Dr. John Schinnerer at 925-944-3440 or email him at or check out the website at

Author's Resource Box

Dr. John Schinnerer is a much sought after speaker, author, psychologist & executive coach. He is an award-winning author (Guide To Self). His blog Shrunken Mind - Using Positive Psychology to Master Life is among the top 3 in positive psychology on the web. Dr. John hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Schinnerers areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development, to elevating corporate culture.

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