Browsing the archives for the positive psychology tag.
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The Surprising Impact of Getting Happy on Career Success

States of mind

Shawn Achor

An interesting article on IT World Canada last week offers some surprising job success insights from psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Here were some of Achor’s assertions that struck me as particularly useful (some are quotes and some paraphrases, all from the IT World Canada article):

We know that doctors, when they’re positive, perform diagnoses 19 percent more accurately.

Achor had 200 tax audit managers [practice a gratitude exercise every morning] during the 2009 tax season, which was expected to be the worst tax season on record. After 21 days, Achor measured their emotional outlook using various psychological assessment tools and found that their levels of optimism rose … Two days after the [positive psychology] training, they felt significantly higher levels of happiness and job satisfaction … Four months later, the group … had significantly higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction …

The correlation [between success and social support] is .7, which is significantly higher than the correlation between smoking and cancer.

The article is relevant to anyone who works for a living whether they’re in Information Technology or not. You can find it here: “Why Your Negative Outlook is Killing Your Career.”

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Should We Maximize Our Strengths or Minimize Our Weaknesses?

Strategies and goals

If you were to carefully interview 1.7 million workers to figure out how people became successful, what do you think you would learn? This is exactly what the Gallup group (best known for their polls) did over 25 years. What they came up with from this massive research effort was a catalog of personal strengths and a rich understanding of how successful people use those strengths.

Strengths psychology
The Gallup research is part of a relatively recent branch of psychology known as “Strengths Psychology.” For many years, psychology as a field has been primarily directed toward identifying and fixing problems–phobias, anxieties, fixations, and so on. Strengths psychology (and other varieties of what has come to be called “positive psychology”) is much less interested in people for whom things are going wrong than in people for whom things are going right. The Gallup group identified 34 personal strengths amounting to general strategies for getting things done that can be successful in many situations. Some examples are mentoring others, competitiveness, and putting things in context of what has happened before. In the Gallup book Now, Discover Your Strengths and the follow-up Strengthsfinder 2.0, they offer a test for determining a person’s greatest strengths, concentrating on an individual’s top 5. The idea is that everyone has a small set of strategies that work best for them, strategies they adopted early in life and have used for many things since then. Knowing what strengths we have–and what strengths we don’t have–gives us an opportunity to choose tools we already know how to use to get things done.

A related strengths system called “Strengths and Virtues” offers 24 strengths that have much in common in some ways with the Gallup system. I hope to be able to talk about this system in more depth soon.

Increase strengths or fix weaknesses?
Significantly, Gallup’s investigation into individual success resoundingly supports the idea that really successful people are ones who make the most of the strengths they have instead of trying to compensate for weaknesses. There’s a limitation to this, which is that if any weakness is actively dragging a person down (for instance, if a person is so non-competitive that they are scared away from trying to succeed whenever they see someone else trying to do the same thing), it’s important to work on those until they are no longer creating serious problems. But apart from that, the recommended approach is that it’s completely unnecessary to try to do everything well, that some things are better delegated or left alone or done in a different way.

For example, let’s say you’re put in a situation where you’re expected to schmooze with a lot of people at a networking function–but you don’t like schmoozing and aren’t good at it. If you have strengths instead in areas like communication or coming up with novel ideas, you might find other ways to connect, for instance by coming up with an interesting freebie that advertises your business and that you can give out at the function, or by giving a talk rather than circulating.

In the end, each of us has specific strengths and resources to bring to bear. By looking at our tasks and challenges in the light of our strengths, we can steer more of our efforts into the areas where we’re most effective.

Photo by stttijn

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Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated

States of mind

What would it feel like to be perfectly motivated, even if just for a little while? You would become really involved with what you were doing, even fascinated with it, so that you’d stop noticing distractions. You’d be excited, working hard but not wearing yourself out. You’d know exactly what you were doing and exactly what you were trying to accomplish and exactly how well it was going. Things would just flow.

As you might already know (or have quickly guessed), this state of mind does exist, and it’s not even exceptionally rare. Probably you’ve experienced it yourself at least once or twice–maybe many times. When it works, it feels magical, because you’re working at about the highest level of difficulty you can manage, yet everything feels profoundly easy.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick SENT me high,” as in “This guru chick sent me high into Himalayas to find myself, but she didn’t bring me there”) has a word for this state, which he’s studied now for decades. He calls it “flow,” because when you’re in this state, you feel like you’re being carried along, as though by a river.

It’s a little misleading for me to talk about flow meaning being perfectly motivated, because while it’s true in a sense, flow only applies to short-term experiences. You can get into flow when writing a chapter of a book or giving a musical performance or playing a game of baseball or even fixing a lawnmower, but you can’t get into a single experience of flow over the course of days or weeks or months. Flow also only applies to things we’re already pretty good at: if you’re just learning something, then you need to teach your brain about each of the pieces before you can put them all together into a complex whole.

So if it doesn’t last long, and if most large, important goals take a commitment of weeks or months or years, what good is flow? Well, that long-term commitment breaks down into individual sessions of doing something: exercising, writing, cooking, talking, studying, practicing–whatever it may be. And in those individual sessions, if we get good at what we’re doing, we can strive for flow. Flow is addictive, I can tell you from experience (mostly with writing and music). It’s also pleasurable. It’s also hellaciously efficient. Even if it only comes along now and then, a little flow can turn a long-term project into a long-term source of satisfaction and thrills.

So what are the components of flow, and how do you get into it? A full discussion of that takes much more space than we have here, so I’ll summarize what flow is and follow up with more posts on the subject in the future. If you’d like to learn about flow in detail, read Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Interestingly, flow has several things in common with good self-motivation techniques in general:

  • Clear goals
  • A strong focus on what you’re doing (in the case of flow, so much focus that everything else is blocked out)
  • Feedback as you go (in the case of flow, this needs to be immediate feedback, like a comedian gets in front of an audience or a musician gets from hearing the sounds coming out of the instrument)
  • The task being challenging, but within your abilities

In addition to those prerequisites, Csikszentmihalyi describes some important signs that one is in flow:

  • Your consciousness of yourself fades, and your awareness is pretty much entirely on just what you’re doing
  • Your sense of time distorts: an entire afternoon may feel like half an hour
  • You’re enjoying what you do, so that it doesn’t feel effortful
  • You feel powerfully in control of what you’re doing.

Flow can happen on its own when the conditions are right, but with an understanding of the process, practice, and some determination, we can get better at making flow happen on purpose. Flow isn’t the main component of long-term motivation, or even a strictly necessary one, but as components of motivation go, a hellaciously efficient and deeply enjoyable state is a welcome addition to the mix.

In a follow-up article, I talk about how to get into a state of flow.

Photo by Haags Uitburo.

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