Why Do Some People Shine in Stressful Situations?

October 10, 2017

Everyone has seen individuals who quickly regain their wits in high-stress situations. Somehow, they set aside their negative emotions and think clearly about solving the problem.  In the midst of a bomb threat—or earthquake or train wreck or other extreme event—the brain of this type of person can conjure up actions that achieve the best possible outcome.

These individual’s acknowledge the gravity of the situation, but believe they will ultimately prevail.  These kind of cool-headed thinkers move quickly to rally support from allies. Their reactions includes recognizing and harnessing the best qualities of others as their brain works to orchestrate success. And when they are not in crisis mode, these folks are able to relax and enjoy life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know how these extraordinary people had mastered the skills necessary to achieve this level of functioning?

There is a new brand of Psychologists studying high performing individuals. They are called Positive Psychologists. They have found that people who deal with problems in a more effective manner are able to quickly shift their thinking from worst-case scenarios to envisioning positive outcomes. And when the threat has subsided, they engage in satisfying activities and relationships to renew their body, mind and spirit.

The Birth of Positive Psychology

About 15 years ago, psychologists began to question the traditional research approach of focusing on how to fix dysfunctional individuals and organizations.  As late as 1998 there was a 17 to 1 ratio of studies examining people with problems versus high-functioning individuals.

That same year Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association (APA).  Troubled by the fact that for 100 years the profession had devoted almost all of its attention to the disordered and dysfunctional, with disappointing outcomes for society, he advocated for a new approach.  He noted that while the goal of alleviating human suffering by studying people with problems was noble, the results were disturbing: the rates of divorce, depression and anxiety had all doubled from 1965 to 1995!

He used the platform of the APA to start a revolution in the field of Psychology; he challenged researchers to study “optimal human functioning”.  Seligman orchestrated a seismic shift by advocating for the scientific study of people who were at the other end of the continuum—those who were most satisfied and successful.  He obtained a massive grant from the late billionaire philanthropist Sir John Templeton to fund research into optimal human functioning.  Positive Psychology was born.

“Flourishing” is the word Positive Psychologists use to describe the combination of attributes characteristic of people who live within an optimal range of human functioning – one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience. In the mid-range of human functioning is languishing – feeling that life is missing something. At the far end is dysfunction, which signifies a life of suffering with depression, anxiety and loneliness.

In his 2011 book Flourish, Seligman distilled data from thousands of Positive Psychology studies and identified five factors shown to be essential for achieving authentic happiness and optimal functioning. In the PERMA model, he identifies the core ingredients of flourishing as:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaningfulness
  • Accomplishments

How Well Are You Doing?

Where are you on the continuum that extends from suffering to languishing to flourishing? Are you exhausted most of the time?  Often irritated (and occasionally angry) with other people?  Prone to procrastination and lateness?  Dissatisfied with your life and pessimistic about it ever improving?  Feeling contempt for people in your workplace?  Generally cynical about where the world is headed?

Maybe you feel you’re living a life of quiet desperation.  Are you feeling a lack of real connection in your relationships?  Do you have trouble sleeping because you worry about things? Do you feel like an imposter who’s ultimately going to be seen as a failure?  Do you comfort yourself with too much food or drink?  Are your credit card bills out of control?  Do you find yourself frequently watching the clock at work?  These are characteristics of people who are languishing.

If you would like to learn how to have have the right stuff to overcome the challenges you face, read about how to apply positive psychology to your life in my new book:

PROPEL to Quality Healthcare: Six Steps to Improve Patient Care, Staff Engagement and the Bottom Line.

Order here:


Dr. Tom Muha is the Director of the PROPEL Institute. As the science of optimal human functioning has emerged, Dr. Muha has become a leading practitioner of positive psychology. He has been at the forefront in the study of how people involved in healthcare systems can achieve the highest levels of success and satisfaction. The PROPEL Principles empower healthcare professionals to apply six positive psychology principles – Passion, Relationships, Optimism, Proactivity, Energy, and Legacy – to overcome challenges and achieve remarkable results.

For more information on Speaking, Coaching or Consulting Services:

Website: www.PROPELinstitute.com

Contact: drtommuha@PROPELinstitute.com



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