In my last article “Work-Life Balance and Positive Wellbeing” I introduced the latest research about having a healthy wellbeing around work, and outlined how “having a positive attitude” is now academically known to be a core prerequisite. Today we’re going to take a look at just how positive your attitude really is.
Having a positive attitude at work
I feel confident writing about how to be better at “having a positive attitude at work”. Largely because it’s something I wouldn’t say comes naturally to me. Those who know me see a bubbly, positive girl. The handful of people that really know me, experience the worry-wort (and fear driven) person I can also be. I am a lady who has let fear dictate her attitude, once too often.
Obviously this doesn’t always result in a positive one.
On the flip-side though, this has also made me intently curious about how to be one of those easy-going lasses. Oh yes! You positive-peeps know who you are. Nothing seems to phase or bother you. Instead, you gracefully move through life beaming namaste.
A Positive Attitude
(The thing we’re all trying to have)
Holding an optimistic perspective about yourself, about others and about the
environments within which you operate.
Reference: Seligman, M.E.P. and Csikszentmihalyi, M 2000 “Positive psychology: an introduction”, American Psychologist, Vol. 55 No. 1, pp. 5-14.
What would it take to be one of these positive people?
For the last eight years, this question has sat at the heart of my decision to research and write about “anxiety” and “wellbeing”. Choosing to write about this within the context of work left me hopeful that you might listen. Let’s face it, work performance seems of more importance to us these day than many other things.
(What we’re all trying to be)
Affirmative. Constructive. Optimistic. Confident.
Showing progression or improvement.
In 2016, Zheng et al. released the results of a longitudinal work-place study in Australia, which demonstrated that the ability to have a positive attitude strongly influenced employee wellbeing and therefore performance at, and attitude towards work. Reading this I found myself relieved, slightly frustrated and more determined to crack this “how to be positive” case. I mean, if research is highlighting it as a critical factor, obviously it isn’t just me that falls into this “negative attitude” trap.
(The thing that should be positive, constructive,
A settled way of thinking or feeling about something
“A settled way of thinking”. Hrmm.
At this point it might be wise to warn you that I’m not going to spend this article talking to you about gratitude dairies and mindfulness. What I am a little more intrigued by is this “settled way of thinking”, and all the other “settled ways of thinking” (or attitudes) that I believe are preventing you, and many people around you, from genuinely holding that positive attitude and achieving a more constant state of positive wellbeing. Let’s take a look.
You can and will, always be happy and positive.
Repeat after me – “I can and always will be happy and positive”. Feels a little odd doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that downs are just a natural part of life. True, thinking “positively” can help shift a negative attitude, but expecting instant and then lasting results will only leave you disgruntled.
Holding a “positive attitude” is not about having a fixed state of mind, i.e. “a constant positive mentality”. Whilst it encourages that you predominantly support a content and optimistic outlook, it asks that you achieve this by flowing with the natural emotional currents of your life. By flow, I mean allowing all emotions to surface, be felt, and then gently transitioning yourself back to that content, calm and confident state of mind. I know it can feel uncomfortable feeling the feels – the main reason I’m sure for why you’re choosing chocolate, or yelling at someone, over a good cry or honest self chat. However, gentle transitions will typically result in a quicker return to calm and content over forcing yourself to leap from A to Z (sad to happy). Please note, this is not an excuse to take your feelings out on others, but an exercise in listening to yourself and becoming aware of your behaviours.
Forcing “constant positivity” can also result in emotional dissonance – a state in which your exterior ‘display’ (facade) drastically differs from how you actually feel inside. Sustained emotional dissonance will ultimately have negative consequences on your health (physical and mental performance), usually experienced as “burn out” or “break down” (anger bursts, tears, exhaustion, immense sadness, colds, stomach issues etc).
So let’s ditch this belief we seem to be fed daily “love life, love work, love everything” that you can always be positive. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that holding a smile for an extended period of time starts to hurt.
You can, will and have to perform all the time
Like believing you have to be positive all the time, we can also fall into the trap of thinking we have to perform. All. The.Time. An instant block to a positive attitude, this common attitude ignores the fact that all bodies and minds must have a break. Replenish. Reboot. Restart. Even phones and computers need this.
No-one is ever going to ‘always perform’, especially under work condition that demand this.
We have ‘on’ days, and we have ‘off’ days (let’s rephrase these as ‘rest’ days). Don’t make your mental space more complicated by telling it, or worse, expecting it, to always be ‘on’.
More importantly, don’t place these expectations on others. This is not about slacking off or being lazy, it is about appreciating that thinking, focusing and delivering require effort. Wanting others to do a ‘little better’ is normal and a great thing, I believe this is also called growth. Expecting it at the expense of health (mentally and physically) …. can I call this insanity (extreme foolishness or irrationality)? I know this is not always a part of our work-life values, but “appreciating mental rest” will significantly improve your life, performance and your ability to hold a positive attitude, and the same for those around you.
Work matters more than families do
We’ve all felt it or heard it from another (sometimes even ourselves), and it’s a damaging attitude to have. Based on the current statistics, we actually need women in the workforce to sustain the economic levels we expect, globally. Yet we also seem to expect our women be the primary care-givers. Along side these expectations, sit criticisms about men taking time off to care for their families, frustrations at people leaving work to care for families, and judgments about “a real career” not being possible in part-time work. Obviously this excludes any discussion concerning the impact of a genuinely present parent on a child’s health.
This is a complex, but serious matter which delicately navigates self-fulfillment, cultural demands, parenting and financial stability. All this aside though, how can anyone hold a “positive attitude” if they’re being judged, criticised or discriminated against based on something so natural and beautiful as caring for loved ones (partners and aging parents included). Worse still, how can you be optimistic, if you’re busy doing the judging?
“[I, They, We] SHOULD be doing [insert ‘should be’ here]
Also known as the “I should” syndrome – “I should be working harder.” “They should be doing it this way.” “They shouldn’t have taken that break.” “I shouldn’t have taken that break.” “It should be better.” “I should be better.” “You should be in that job.” “They should be in this job.” … Just reading this list feels awful.
What are these little “should-be’s” doing for you, and to those around you? Are they blurring important boundaries (of mind and time)? Impacting on your and their performance levels? Negatively impacting on your and their health, as well as life satisfaction? Are you, or they, responsible for that headache and slightly negative attitude you woke up holding? Are they providing a pleasant distraction from your fears, insecurities or feelings? Food for thought –
Quit ‘shoulding’ all over everything.
Stress is just a normal part of work and life
To a certain degree yes, this is true. Especially in our deadline-driven, highly collaborative working world (or the fact that we need to work with other people who are different from ourselves). “Stress” however, contains two different degrees: eustress and distress. So, if we’re aiming for a “positive attitude”, then it’s time we spend a little more time understanding both, and their impact on our performance.
The ‘eu’ (pronounced you) before stress means “well or good”. Good Stress. This type of stress is commonly associated with stimulation and motivation, and experienced as a positive (feels good) movement of energy within our body – similar to that bubbly feeling you get when you’re excited. Eustress is a likable feeling and stems from knowing that the task or situation before us is achievable and pleasurable, which gives us that little buzz. Work places also like eustress given its ties to motivation, performance and growth.
Distress on the other hand is not so good. Distress is a state in which the fun (yes fun, as eustress feels similar to a feeling of fun) that can be found in a particular challenge or situation is no longer there. Distress is first associated with “mental concern”, soon to be experienced as increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, physical tension (muscle contraction), poor sleeping, headaches … oh the list goes on. Distress alters us mentally and physically in a negative way.
The feeling that comes when you’re given a task and think ‘yes’ you can, have the ability, have the team, the time, and the resources to get this done.”
That uncomfortable (unhealthy and unsustainable) feeling that arrives when you’re given (or midway) through a task, and you either think you can’t do it, you don’t have enough time to do it, or you don’t have the tools or people to do it.”
In considering the most common causes of distress at work, many can be addressed through healthier attitudes and behaviours: poor communication; working long hours or overtime, working through breaks or taking work home; time pressure, working too hard or too fast, or managing unrealistic targets.
Everyone typically knows when they’re feeling “distressed”, we just like to mask this feeling with “it’s a normal part of work” to help us tolerate the discomfort. Never mind the impact on your performance, or your relationships, or your health (physical and mental), and your ability to maintain a positive attitude.
[I, they, we] need to toughen up
An attitude that “stress is just a normal part of work” is so easy to have when many aspects of the work environment appear beyond control. Equally as easy is the choice to apply that quick remedy (mask) of “toughen up”. It’s all about resilience right? But isn’t resilience about building a deeper perspective to help our attitudes (emotions) smoothly flow? This is where that “toughen up” attitudes bothers me. It implies that what you (or they) are experiencing is weak, and that even more damaging attitude, that it’s wrong.
If you are telling yourself, another, or even thinking “toughen up”, stop and ask if a lack of job clarity, lack of support, bullying or poor self-confidence is involved. This simple observation of situation will very quickly see “toughen up” change to “empower and support”.
“I can’t” when you can. “They can” when maybe they (you) might not quite be there yet
Doubt and conflict will exist whenever you embark on the unfamiliar. “The Unfamiliar” is a frequent part of our day-to-day life (work and loves included). By unfamiliar I mean, you don’t necessarily know what “it” will involve, take, need, turn into etc. Experiencing the unfamiliar usually results in some type of pressure.
A little pressure is never a bad thing (eustress) and it’s understandable as to why managers will push people out of their comfort zone and into the unfamiliar – amazing things can happen there. Better managers though, will understand that this requires a certain environment of safety and support to prevent distress throughout this process. Because once that distress kicks in, the ability to perform will decrease, rapidly. Wouldn’t it be much nicer to do things with the feeling of eustress? The answer is yes.
I love that resilience training is increasingly a part of education for children. Resilience – the ability to bounce back after uncomfortable and undesirable situations – and positive attitudes walk hand-in-hand? As your life experiences grow over time, so too do our attitudes about what is considered positive and negative. Often in these lessons, techniques relating to gratitude, mindfulness and kindness are daily practices that help increase our ability to choose the “peaceful” and “constructive” thought, over the more destructive ones. This helps us re-shape our attitudes by using perspective to avoid congested thinking and behavior blocks which occur when you get stuck on repeated negative thoughts patterns.
Resilience teaches us to continually view life (every-day experiences), with a healthy and refreshed attitude, regardless of what’s happened before. The fact that this is being taught, demonstrates the realisation that experienced feelings and emotions play a big role in shaping one’s life and their contribution to it. Don’t just let these lessons rest within schools though. Experienced feelings and emotions also influence adult experiences and behaviours, including their contributions to work.
I would encourage you to find your own balanced way of bringing resilience and positivity into work. Reframing your mindset when you feel scared, stressed or under pressure could very well be the first step. Don’t be afraid from reaching for what works for you already, whether that’s exercise, meditation, writing, hanging out with friends or family or anything else that makes your heart sing.
Share with us your ‘go to’ practices for feeling positive in the comments below.
Lots of love,
This article has been influenced by the research of Fan, D, Kashi, K, Molineux, J, Shan Ee, M & Zheng, C 2016, ‘Impact of individual coping strategies and organisational work–life balance programmes on Australian employee well-being’, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 27, no. 5, p. 501-526.
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