Reset negative emotions with positivity

September 5, 2017
Propel Institute

Marley has a huge problem with her coworker Tim. Their boss asked them to work together to cut costs in their department. Marley had personally spoken to numerous staff members to gather suggestions, and discovered they had some innovative ideas. She shared these solutions with Tim, who ended up taking them to their boss. Marley feels Tim also took credit for the accomplishment.

Marley’s become extremely critical of Tim, taking every opportunity to tell her coworkers what a terrible person he is. It’s been several months and Marley can’t let go of her hurt and anger. She repeatedly makes remarks about Tim having poor character and being untrustworthy.

Marley’s negative emotions dominate her thoughts. Being short-tempered is affecting relationships with her children, colleagues, and friends. At times her anger and unhappiness turn into despair. Her unchecked negativity disrupts her sleep, sours her stomach, and elevates her blood pressure.

When dealing with deep-seated pain, the flood of negative emotions can lead us to blame the other person. We put a spotlight exclusively on that person’s bad behavior, blinding us to any contribution we may have had in creating the problem. What Marley’s not acknowledging is that the boss had set a deadline to receive their report, and she had gone to the beach just before the information needed to be presented.

Blaming and attacking only perpetuate problems. When we make the other person a villain, you make ourselves a victim. Victims are powerless, because they have no control over the other person. Since the only person we have control over is our self, our focus needs to be on what we can do differently.

We can regain some emotional balance by generating positive emotions that will counterbalance the pain. Studies show that positive emotions provide multiple benefits when facing challenges:

  • Better insight into everyone’s mistakes
  • More compassion for the people involved
  • Improved creativity when problem-solving
  • Additional energy for implementing solutions
  • Increased support from others

When we’re flooded with negativity, however, positive emotions pale by comparison. They appear so puny that they seem completely superficial. Our negative mindset causes us to misunderstand what it means to be positive. We underestimate the power of positive emotions. Generating positive emotions requires that we find sources of inspiration, amusement, joy, gratitude, pride, serenity, awe, and – last but not least – love.

Positive emotions motivate us because they enable us to imagine positive outcomes. They promote healing connections with other people, opening our hearts as well as our minds. Good feelings give us hope.

Positivity doesn’t eliminate negative emotions – it just moderates them. Much like pushing the reset button on a piece of electronic equipment, eliciting positive emotions allows our system to straighten itself out as we restart our mind’s problem solving process and reengage in constructive conversations.

In addition to these immediate effects, positive emotions also help shape our future. Although good feelings are by their very nature fleeting, they reinforce the thoughts and behaviors that continue to give us energy for producing positive outcomes. Over time, our brain develops a pattern of seeking to resolve problems rather than allowing our negative reactions to rule. We learn to be at our best, even under the worst circumstances.

One of the most amazing facts to emerge out of the positive psychology research is that the effects of positivity are non-linear. Usually we expect that for every action there will be a proportional reaction. But scientists have discovered that when a several positive people band together to accomplish a goal, the results are remarkable.

I find this phenomenon to be true in my own work at a major academic medical institution. By teaching literally a handful of staff how to put more positivity into their work environment, they’re often able to influence more than 80% of their coworkers to dramatically improve their performance. For example, units have cut their patient fall rate by 90%, improved their patient satisfaction scores by more than 50%, or eliminated excessive chemotherapy wait times.

Some say misery loves company. But sharing negativity just makes everyone miserable. Marley was right to expect she’d be recognized for her efforts, but holding onto negativity made a bad situation worse.

Marley needs a plethora of positive experiences to restore her emotional well being, which will enable her brain to imagine a positive outcome. Perhaps she and Tim could go to the boss together to suggest bringing in lunch for the entire staff, explaining everyone’s contributions: Marley gathering input from staff and Tim writing up the report.

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