Optimistic By Nature

sunriseI would love to say that I am an optimistic person by nature.  I would love to say that–but I would be lying.   Unlike some of my friends who always seem to see the bright side,  I would usually plan for the worst case scenarios.  Optimism is not something that comes easy to me, but over the years I have discovered that optimism is a key factor in achieving happiness.

Optimism  plays an important role in determining how resilient we are when facing stressful situations.  Without an optimistic perspective, it can be very difficult and at times almost impossible to navigate some of life’s challenges and bounce back quickly .  The good news is that while we may not all be born optimists, we can train ourselves to be more optimistic.

There are good reasons to cultivate optimism if it isn’t one of your premier strengths.  The first one is simple–no one likes to be around a pessimistic person.  If someone is constantly expecting the worst, their attitude will begin to affect those around them. No one likes to be around a Gloomy Gus, so pessimism has an adverse affect on support networks, both personally and professionally.  Also, when someone is optimistic they tend to be more flexible and creative in their thinking.

This flexibility comes in very handy when coping with stress.  Mental flexibility helps people look at stressful situations from various perspectives.   It helps them reframe a situation in a positive manner.  Flexible people can explore multiple solutions to a problem, and they can also find a positive meaning in difficult events.  These techniques sound relatively simple, but they can be very difficult, especially during stressful times.

So how can you develop an optimistic outlook?  Just like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice.  Here are some steps you can take when something bad happens.

  • Remember that difficulties won’t last forever.  The only thing that is constant is change.  Sometimes it is almost impossible to believe that problems won’t last forever, but they won’t.  Eventually the good times will come back.
  • Keep a problem in perspective–don’t let it spread into other aspects of your life.
  • Explore ways and resources available to solve the problem.  Take responsibility for your actions and don’t expect a problem to solve itself.
  • Be grateful for your support network and those around you who appreciate your struggle.

On the other hand, these are some things to do when something good happens (because good things do happen).

  • Accept responsibility for whatever part you played in the event.  As the old adage says–take credit where credit is due.
  • Feel gratitude  for what happened, whether it came by design or just good luck.
  • Think of ways to expand on the positive event.

These are a few ways to increase optimism, but are certainly not the only ones.  There are a lot of factors that determine how optimistic a person is.  Some are genetic and some are developmental, but it is possible to increase a positive outlook.  A few years ago, I decided to explore ways to increase my happiness and overall satisfaction with my life.  Stress seemed to be taking over, and I had trouble finding enjoyment in even the simple things.  It certainly wasn’t the way I wanted to live. In a nutshell, I just wanted to be happier.

After practicing these steps during both good and bad times I can now proudly say I am a realistic optimist (and much happier).  Building optimism and a positive outlook helped me to neutralize stress and find enjoyment in daily life.  I am not saying that optimism eliminates stress–that would be foolish.  But keeping an optimistic outlook helps to deal with bad times and minimize their consequences while enhancing the good times.  Maintaining an optimistic attitude may not always be easy, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, but it is certainly worth the effort.

Suggested Reading:  Resilience, The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick, M.D. and Dennis S.Charney, M.D., 2012

 

Advertisements

Managing Holiday Stress

With Thanksgiving just under a week away, we are truly at the starting gate of the holiday season.  Actually, if you are hosting the celebration, you may feel the holiday is already underway.  Just spending time at a grocery store will certainly tell you that something is in the air.   And in the aisles.  So like it or not,  we have reached another holiday season.

This season can be a wonderful time to reconnect with family and friends, spend time together, and actually sit down for a meal at the same table.  That’s something doesn’t always happen in a nuclear family, much less an extended family.  So if it is such a great time of year, why do I hear so many people say they can’t wait until it’s over and things get back to normal?

Let’s face it, most of us already have too much on our plates (yes, pun intended) as it is.  Adding the additional expectations for the holidays–entertaining, baking, gift choice and buying, mailing, parties, traffic, crowds, well the list goes on and on–can quite frankly be more than some people can handle.  So how can we get through the season without breaking down or stressing out?

There are lists of ways to cut down on stress at the holidays.  Set a budget, have pot luck parties to share responsibility, avoid alcohol and over indulging in sweets, shop online to avoid crowds.  All these suggestions are valuable and helpful, but there are a couple of things we can do that more appropriately address  some of the intrinsic causes of holiday stress.

Most of us have an idea of what the holidays should look like.   These ideas may come from family traditions, maybe even from generations of them.  Perhaps there was a certain year that sticks in our minds, when as a child everything seemed perfect.  Every year after, as an adult, we may try to recreate that year.   It might be simpler than that–Hollywood and Madison Avenue may have determined what we consider to be a perfect holiday season.   However we get there, most of us have a vision of what the perfect holiday would look like.

The problem, of course, is that perfection is highly overrated.  No matter how hard we try, chances are we will not be able to live up to an ideal scenario.  And that causes a lot of internal stress.  We may not even be aware that we are expending so much energy  trying to create the perfect dinner, or set the perfect table, or decorate the perfect tree.   All we know is we are tired, cranky, irritable, and ready for the season to end before it begins.

Once we recognize that we are focusing more on a ideal than a reality, we can actually give ourselves permission to relax and enjoy the holidays.  Realize that everything on your to-do list may not get done.   Take some time and decide what is most important for you to enjoy the holidays.  Is making the season memorable contingent upon have a spotless house or perfect decorations for the party?  Or is it more about spending time with the people at that party?  Does the menu have to be out of Gourmet magazine?  Are your guests or your family judging you on your hors-d’oeurves? Maybe, but my guess would be probably not.

Once we allow ourselves to accept that our holidays don’t have to be perfect, we eliminate  a great deal of negative self-talk and self-judgement.  And that is a good thing, especially if you happen to be a Type-A personality.   So before the festivities begin, take some time and set boundaries for your expectations.  If you can be mindful of what you can realistically accomplish this season, and identify what is truly important to you for the holidays,  you can stop trying to create something that does not exist and enjoy what is actually in the moment.

Another way to reduce intrinsic stress is to take Thanksgiving at a literal level and count your blessings.  Each night for a week think of three things you are grateful for, and write them down.  Review the list daily as it grows.  I’ve discussed this exercise before, but it is a powerful tool in creating a positive attitude and building authentic happiness and as such deserves repeating.   It’s a little bit harder to be stressed out in traffic when you can easily touch on three things you are grateful for.   Studies in positive psychology show that people who practice this exercise are happier and less stressed than control groups.  More importantly, this positive attitude has been found to have remain for up to six months after the study, so it is definitely worth a try.

So if you are one of those people who are just waiting for the holidays to be over, you may want to think about  reviewing personal expectations and counting your blessings.  Who knows, if you change your attitude and expectations, you may just have yourself the happiest holidays yet.  And that could be the best gift you receive all year.

 

 


Celebrate Yourself


I think it is fair to say  that we all need a cheering section.  People standing on the sidelines applauding as we move toward our goals or more importantly, just through the day.  Just as the bystanders in a marathon energize the runners , our cheering sections should keep us moving forward in a positive manner.   But even if we do have a cheering section,  the truth is sometimes we are just too busy and stressed to pay attention.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in to-do lists, projects, deliverables, or daily errands that oftentimes we forget look at what we have already done, and what has already been accomplished.   When we fall into that trap, we are in danger of losing our biggest cheerleader–ourselves.   It’s not surprising that most of us focus on what hasn’t been done, what hasn’t been crossed off the list.  We are wired to fixate more on the negative than the positive.  It is simply the negativity bias  kicking in and trying to keep us safe.   The problem is that this can set us on a treadmill of continual effort to finish things, without any of the satisfaction that we anticipate when we do.   If we don’t take the time to celebrate ourselves and our achievements when they happen,  we risk experiencing longterm burnout.

Any good business leader will tell you that in order to keep projects on task,  it is imperative to provide constant positive feedback in a realtime fashion.   Not only does it help keep people on track, it helps to build confidence, creativity, and enthusiasm.  The same holds true in our personal lives.   And as we manage our personal lives, it is just as important to recognize positive behaviors and actions in order to keep our own momentum flourishing.

One way to do this is to take some time each week and review what has been accomplished.  This is especially important when focusing on longterm goals such as weight loss or changing to healthier eating habits.    It is so easy to get discouraged if we don’t feel we are where we should be or where we had planned to be.   So during this personal review session,  focus on what did happen, not what didn’t.    Every step we take is part of a process that leads to a milestone, and those steps deserve to be celebrated just as much as the ultimate goal.

The next step is to decide how to reward yourself.  Sometimes just recognizing how much you have accomplished is enough to provide satisfaction.  Sometimes, though, the rewards should be more tangible.   Remember–bonuses serve a great purpose in the workplace,  and they can do the same in our personal space.  Maybe it’s an afternoon out , or a new pair of jeans, or even a spa day.  Perhaps it is a walk in the woods or coffee with friends.   The goal here is to reward yourself and break up the routine, since routine can be deadly to progress.  Once we fall into a routine we are more likely to function on autopilot and get through the day without really thinking about what we are doing.  When that happens we are less likely to recognize our progress, and that threatens our momentum and enthusiasm.   Without enthusiasm, it is much more difficult to see a project or a goal through to completion.

So give yourself a break and celebrate what you’ve done this week.  Chances are you have accomplished more than you give yourself credit for.   Once you realize that and allow yourself to feel satisfied about what has been done rather than what remains to do,   you will find that you have much more energy to keep moving forward.  And having more energy should be a great reason to be your own best cheerleader.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you break down self-imposed barriers and reach your Personal Best?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.


Reality Check

Lately I’ve been hearing some misconceptions about what working with a wellness or life coach can do for you.  There seem to be some people who are looking for the ultimate fix.  The silver bullet that will eliminate all the issues standing between them and happiness.  I would love to say that as coaches, we have all the answers.   We can fix your life, remove all  barriers, and hand you an issue-free life on a platter.  I would love to say that.  And  I would be lying.

The truth is that a happy existence is not one free of strife or difficulties.  We all have good days and bad days.  Sometimes they are even great days or horrible days. Or weeks or months.   The difference, however, between having a happy existence or a miserable one lies in how we view and deal with  life’s challenges as well as its rewards.  Learning how to eliminate setbacks or problems is not the key to a happy life. The key to a happy life can be determined by our attitude and behavior when managing those setbacks or problems.

One of the most important tools for crafting a satisfying existence is very simple one.

Optimism.

Optimism is crucial to understanding that bad situations are temporary and will change at some point.  That understanding  is an incredibly powerful tool.  The people who hold this attitude are more likely to navigate through bad times more quickly and with less adverse effects than those who cannot see an end to a problem.

Sounds great.   But what if you are not someone who always sees the glass as half full?  Is there anything you can do to change that?

The short answer is–yes, you can.

One way to do this is to start with something called the Three Good Things Exercise.  Every evening for at least a week, write down three good things that happened to you during the day.  They don’t have to big things.  Could be getting a parking space close to the store.  Or they could be big things.  Getting a new job or promotion would count on that list.   For every item, ask yourself these questions.  1)  Why did this happen?  2) How does it effect you?  3)  Can you manifest more of this in the future? 4) Are you grateful for it?

This is a variation on the gratitude exercise  in which you list three things you are grateful for.  The purpose is to shift attention away from the negative and focus more on the positive aspects of daily life.  Guess what?  It works.  Research shows that more people maintained a positive attitude for a longer period after completing the exercise than those who did not.   And not to go all Pollyanna, but I can vouch for it from personal experience.

Another exercise is a bit longer but worth the time.  For one month, keep a record as to whether it was a good or bad day, and what happened that made you feel that way.  This doesn’t have a to be a long journal entry.  Just a few words to note the condition of the day.  When you review the entries at the end of the month, chances are you will notice a pattern between good and bad entries.  The results will most likely support the phrase “This, too shall pass”.  If you see a pattern emerge as to how you regard and react to difficult situations, it can be easier to recognize them as a temporary period when they arise in the future.  This exercise can also act as a springboard for a mindfulness practice, but more on that later.

It is impossible to eliminate difficulties in this life.  To strive for that is simply unrealistic.  But how we deal with adversity has a great deal to do with the quality of our lives.   As Sylvia Boorstein points out in her classic book  It’s Easier Than You Think,  managing life’s difficulties gracefully is a something worth striving for.

So if you want to bring a little more positivity into your outlook, why not give these two exercises a go.  It can’t hurt.   It doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t take a lot of time, no equipment needed, and just may change the way you look at life for the better.

And especially in today’s world,  a little extra positive energy in our attitude is something we could all benefit from.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you break down self-imposed barriers and reach your Personal Best?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.

Ref: Flourish, Martin Seligman,  2011

Ref: It’s Easier Than You Think, Sylvia Boorstein, 1997


Reinvention as a Life Skill

There is a very interesting trend occurring in this country right now.  There is a whole generation of people wondering what they want to do when they grow up.  Now, this may not sound like anything new, but here is the twist.  This generation is not considering the senior prom.  They are considering retirement.

More and more people are looking to reinvent themselves and put new meaning into their lives.  For some this is a voluntary thing.  Perhaps the kids have grown and graduated and they are suddenly left with more free time.  Possibly some have reached a certain level in their careers when the expected percs and rewards no longer hold the same satisfaction.  For many, though, this decision may have been made for them, through no choice of their own.

There is no doubt that this economy has affected everyone at some level. But there is a group that is often overlooked when discussing the fallout.  That group consists of boomers near retirement, but not ready to retire, who suddenly find themselves without jobs.  These are people who have defined themselves by what they do for over half their lives, and in a matter of days they lose that point of reference.  These were the people who were comfortable with their lives.  They had made decisions along the way—sometimes sacrifices—so they would be able to enjoy a retirement on their terms and on their schedules.  Unemployment was not part of that plan.

One of the great things about a career, or raising a family, is that is keeps us busy.  We don’t always have time to ponder if our current reality is really what we want to do.  When those obligations suddenly disappear we can be left with the frightening realization that what we have been doing has not really been very satisfying.  As long as we had something to distract us, we could put aside the vague feeling that there must something more than just the next project, or perhaps planning the next vacation.  And while facing this realization is disconcerting at any age, it is doubly frightening when the solid foundation you thought you had built a life on suddenly seems to be crumbling.

I have spoken with more and more people lately who fall into this last category.  This is a group of people who suddenly have the time to step back and examine their lives rather than blindly living them.   With life expectancy increasing with each generation, these people are not ready to spend a quarter of their lives sitting idly by with a suduku or crossword puzzle to pass the time.  They may not want to go back to work full-time, but one thing is certain.  They want to be involved and they want make a difference.

Of course, the search for fulfillment is not unique to unemployed mid-life boomers.  It is occurring at all ages and in all levels of society.  People want to be happy, and fulfillment plays a huge role in that equation.  If you do not feel that you are contributing, that you are making a difference on some level, then most likely you will not really be satisfied with your life.  There are many factors that contribute to overall happiness, but the need to be a part of something greater than yourself is one of the overarching conditions that ensures authentic happiness.

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  If that is true, then I think it can also be said that change is the mother of reinvention.  Some people are very good at reinventing themselves—they seem to be able to weather change and come out the better for it.  Others seem to have more trouble.  They seem to get stuck without any idea of how to start the process, or what that process even looks like.

Here is a coaching exercise that can help get the party started.  If you are looking at making changes in your life but you aren’t sure what direction makes sense for you, then this may help.

Block out some time, sit down, and review the achievements in your life.  Go back as far as you can, possibly in ten-year increments, and write down things that you did that made you feel happy or proud.  This can be difficult for some people because they have been trained not to discuss their achievements or strong points.  That would be considered vain or immodest.  But no one is going to read this, and the point is to explore what you did that gave you a sense of satisfaction, and how you felt about yourself when you did it.  Be as detailed as you can, and paint a vivid picture.  You may find as you do this exercise that certain things come to mind that you had previously forgotten.

Once you have finished, set it aside for a day or so and then come back to it.  Read the narrative, and look for similarities in the things that made you happy.  Possibly it was learning new things.  Perhaps you were happiest when helping others in some way.  Maybe you felt the most satisfied while creating something, whether it was short story in High School, a watercolor in an adult ed class, photography on vacation, or even a new procedure for the office.

Aside from taking time to focus on yourself–always a good thing–this exercise does something else.  It acts as a blueprint or a roadmap, pointing out qualities or strengths that have contributed to your feeling of well-being in the past.  Oftentimes we don’t take the time to acknowledge how our actions make us feel, so we lose a vital piece of information that can be invaluable when we set out to craft the next section of our lives.  This exercise can help to clarify what types of activities are the most fulfilling for us and can start us thinking about ways to incorporate them into daily life as we begin our personal reinvention.

It is not a hard exercise, but it does take a bit of time.  However, the information from this self-reflection can have a very grounding effect when exploring all the possible options available. Once you have a clearer idea of what gives you a sense of satisfaction, you can have a better idea of the type of activities that should be included in your life going forward so it becomes one that is enriching and fulfilling.

Personal reinvention shouldn’t be seen as a last resort, forced on us by external circumstances.  It is a journey that anyone can begin at any time with a destination created by our own determination.   And from personal experience, I can vouch that it is a journey well worth taking.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you break down self-imposed barriers and reach your Personal Best?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.


Positive Leadership Equals Positive Performance

Wouldn’t it be great to work in a place where you felt valued?  To feel that what you do in the organization makes a difference, and that the organization appreciates what you contribute on a daily basis?

Now some people may already work in this type of environment.  Other people may say I’m crazy for even thinking such a thing could exist.  But here is the neat part—these places do exist.  Even better, it is an environment that benefits not only the employee but the health of the company as well.

There is a management style that embraces something called positive leadership that Kim Cameron discusses in his book Positive Leadership, Strategies for Extraordinary Performance.   I was so excited after reading this book because it reflects how I had managed departments for years.  During my time in the corporate sector, I always felt that people were one of a company’s most important resources, especially working in a service industry as I had.  When you aren’t providing a physical object, the quality of the service offered by those that work for you becomes even more important.

Positive leadership is a very powerful tool that can grow a business faster and stronger than the more traditional management methods.  The concept behind positive leadership is rather simple and elegant.  A company that focuses on the strengths of the employees rather than the weaknesses will result in a culture of optimism rather than pessimism.  This culture has an affirmative bias–embracing the positive–rather than a negative bias. Supportive communication is valued more than negative communication and there is a general belief that people will thrive and produce more when surrounded by positive energy rather than negative.  This is similar to the way a plant will grow toward the light rather than the dark—humans react in much the same way.

So what is in this for a company that throws out the traditional management system of focusing on weakness and punitive action for as a means of improving performance?  Again it is rather simple—they are setting the stage for overall performance by individuals, and hence the company, that exceeds expectations.  Kind of neat, huh?

There are four strategies that will help a company leave the norm behind and experience exceptional performance.  They are strategies that cultivate positive climate, positive relationships, positive communication, and positive meaning.  Each one of these strategies is important by itself, but when an organization blends them together amazing things can happen.  Both individuals and the company can flourish.

This is not a Pollyanna management theory that ignores problems.  There will always be issues and challenges.  One of the problems with root-cause analysis management styles is that so much time is spent on identifying the problem that the negative aspects of an organization become the focus.  Positive leadership styles seek to elevate that which is exceptional in an organization.   It can be broken down into the simple idea that you should spend more time and energy cultivating what you want to grow.  If you focus only on the challenges faced on a daily basis, you will unintentionally stifle the growth of positive and vibrant energy in an organization.   Ultimately, it is this type of vibrant energy that will propel workers to provide exceptional service to the customers and the organization itself.

It may seem self-serving, but when a company promotes the idea of having individuals thrive at work, the company will thrive as well.  I have seen the effects of positive leadership as well as punitive-based leadership.  I have to say that positive leadership has provided better overall results, and a stronger more unified workplace team.  A team that feels valued and respected will always out-produce one that feels minimalized and unsupported.

As a wellness coach and consultant, I am always excited to see shifts toward positive action in the workplace.  Changing corporate culture is not an easy thing, but the rewards certainly justify the efforts.  We may not always like to admit it, but work is a major part of all of our lives.  Creating a culture that promotes positive emotions, strong interpersonal support systems, and an environment that promotes personal development and virtuous action will strengthen both the individual and the company involved.

When we feel good about going to work, going to place where our contributions are recognized and valued, something amazing happens.  Our sense of well-being improves, and the satisfaction that we feel at work spills over into other aspects of our lives.

And that is really one of the most positive rewards that we can get from a day’s work.

Are you ready to feel how the power of one-to-one coaching can help you break down barriers and live your Personal Best?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.


Pollyanna Was On To Something

I have a confession to make.  I remember watching the Disney version of Pollyanna many years ago.  I must have been about ten years old (it was a re-run, not the initial release), and I’m afraid even at that young age my cynicism shone through.  No way could anyone really see all that good in the world.  Didn’t she realize how difficult this world could be?  Didn’t she see how much could go wrong?  I have to admit that I had a tendency to take myself–and the world– a bit too seriously in my formative years.  I’m not sure why a ten-year old felt more comfortable with the idea of pessimism rather than the possibility of optimism. I suppose I just wanted to be a grown up, and that was how grown ups acted in my world.

I have been very lucky to have some amazing people in my life.  For the last twenty years or so, one of them is a very close friend who used to drive me crazy with her unfailingly optimistic attitude.  No matter what was going on, or how bad things seemed, she could always see the positive side of things.    I renamed her Pollyanna on many occasions, and we had a pretty good running joke about it.

But here is the part that always blows me away.  She is still Pollyanna, and is one of the happiest people I know.  It’s not that she has perfect life.  She has her issues and challenges just like all of us.  But she always seems to come out on top, and things always work out for her.  It’s almost as if by refusing to acknowledge any negative possibilities, she allows more room for the positive to manifest itself.  And slowly but surely, this habit has rubbed off on me.

There is a fascinating book by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson called Positivity.   Her research in this book shows that there is an actual ratio of positive to negative emotions that contributes to a person’s overall happiness.   For every negative emotion one needs to have three corresponding positive emotions in order to function at an optimal, or actualized, level.  The ratio is important as it takes into account the fact that negative emotions also play a part in outlook, and it is not realistic to pretend those feelings don’t exist.  Although I have never tested it, I think my friend’s ratio would be something closer to ten to one.  It’s not really surprising given today’s world that 80% of the population has ratio of less than three to one.

I firmly believe that optimism and gratitude play a huge role in the reality we create for ourselves.  It took me a long time, but I can proudly say that I am now a recovering pessimist.  Like any addiction, it is an ongoing battle, but worth the fight.  There are so many more opportunities now that I accept that the worst doesn’t have to happen.  It brings a whole level of energy and purpose into my world.

I may never be Pollyanna, but I’m definitely no longer Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh.

Head over to Dr. Fredrickson’s website, www.positivityratio.com and take the free test.  It’s easy, and only takes a couple of minutes.  I bet you will be surprised by the results.

How about you?  Does optimism play an important role in your life?  I’d love to hear if you are on Team Eeyore or Team Pollyanna and how that choice is working out for you.  

If you found this article helpful,  I would be delighted if you shared with others.