Enjoying Your Work
There’s a payoff in being cordial and optimistic
In the movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The Whites sang the country music standard, "Keep on the sunny side of life." A pop song from 1928, somewhat old-fashioned by today's musical tastes, it advised people to "Let a smile be your umbrella."
Similarly, Dale Carnegie's guidance on "How to win friends and influence people" emphasized the value of a positive attitude concerning interactions with others. Mothers tell their children, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say it!"
While the importance of positive thoughts and emotions has long been recognized, recent research in the social and behavioral sciences has documented the many benefits of optimism and cordial relationships.
The University of Michigan's Barbara Fredrickson has studied the relationship between positive and negative emotions. There are benefits to positive thoughts, attitudes, and communications that go beyond the immediate good feelings that cheerfulness brings.
If people display a positive attitude, they attract others who can offer various types of social resources. These include companionship, social support during times of stress, and information ("for heavens sakes, which Medicare drug plan best applies to my needs?").
Positive emotions also encourage exploratory behavior, and during such behaviors people may reap various benefits. If people feel good, for example, they are more likely to take a risk and visit a new and unfamiliar museum about which they recently read. At the museum, they may learning something new from the exhibits, may see an old friend whom they haven't seen in a long time, and will have their natural feelings of curiosity reinforced.
If people display negative attitudes, they will not be attractive to others. Rather, others will avoid pessimistic individuals, since they do not want to be dragged down into a depressing whirlpool of whining and complaining.
Negativity discourages the type of exploratory behavior that places people into situations that might raise their spirits. In the absence of movement away from their current pessimistic environment, people are likely to wallow in cynicism and feelings of boredom. Finally, if people have negative views about the world, the absence of optimistic friends and pleasant exploratory experiences will not give them opportunities to correct or to modify their pessimism.
Of course, a constant display of positive emotions and behaviors is impossible. Everyone has negative experiences and thoughts given the complexity and challenges of day to day life. The skill that optimistic people possess is emphasizing the positive, finding value in negative experiences ("every cloud has a silver lining"), and seeking out pleasurable activities if they feel sad and blue.
In people's everyday lives, there should be a greater number of positive than negative experiences. Negative experiences have more impact on people's overall sense of well being than do positive experiences.
Readers might want to join me in some self-exploration of our interactions with others. Think of individuals we have known for a long time. Consider the positive interactions with these people. Then, consider the negative experiences that had unpleasant outcomes.
Are the negative experiences more memorable and did they lead to more intense emotions?
Did it take a large number of positive experiences to overcome problems brought on by the unpleasant encounters?
After such considerations, most people conclude that positive experiences have to outnumber the negative for friendships to continue.
Recent research suggests that people should maintain a ratio of three positive emotions for each negative emotion over a long time period such as month. With this ratio, the advantages of a sunny and optimistic outlook on life are available to people. If they recognize the importance of more positive than negative experiences, they can actively seek out pleasurable events should they encounter some of the inevitable bumps in the road that life will always offer.
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The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Given the amount of time people spend at work, job satisfaction should ideally be high and it should contribute to general life happiness. Enjoyment can increase as people learn more about workplace psychology, communication, and group influences.
Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration, University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the College Relations Office: firstname.lastname@example.org