You think you’ve had a rough life? This guest post is by Dr. Rob Pennington,a psychologist and the author of Find The Upside Of The Down Times: How To Turn Your Worst Experiences Into Your Best Opportunities, which chronicles the lessons he learned after getting shot, fired, divorced, audited and remarried with a spouse who then passed away from a devastating illness. There is a lot we can learn from him. His blog is at www.upsidedowntimes.com.
A colleague of mine was in an elevator, riding to the top floor to do a training program on stress management for a corporate client. To pass the time she read the digital ticker-screen beside the doors. Three men in suits and ties entered and assumed the typical elevator position, blankly staring forward. She turned to them and asked, “Do they ever have any jokes on this screen?” The men glanced at one another very seriously, and then one man said, “Mam, this is a serious work environment,” and they all resumed their elevator position.
Most people tend to think they need a reason to be happy because there are so many reasons to be unhappy. Someone saying something funny, our boss complimenting our work, or having all our bills paid and money in the bank; these are good reasons to be happy. But if someone says something nasty, the boss gives us a bad performance evaluation, or our finances are going down the drain, then we’d be crazy to feel good.
The problem with this logic is that the happiness or wellbeing only lasts as long as the circumstance. As soon as the situation changes we go back to our normal state of being serious. I call it “the mature, responsible, adult look.” You know the look that most people wear when they get dressed for work. The brow wrinkles, the lips purse, and they project an air of concern and seriousness to show that they are a mature adult. “The Look” shows other people that we are a serious, concerned, responsible adult, worried about things in “the real world.”
People think that if they are worried and concerned they will be more effective, or at least appear to be. But according to Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer, who researched the work attitudes of 12,000 employees:
“Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do … As long as workers experience their labor as meaningful, progress is often followed by joy and excitement about the work.”
One of my favorite quotes by Paul Solomon summarizes the most effective attitude on happiness:
“Why should I be in a miserable situation and be unhappy? Being in a miserable situation is bad enough. If I’m going to be in a miserable situation I don’t have to like it, but I may at least enjoy myself.”
I have been fortunate to discover work I love to do. I love helping people discover abilities they didn’t know they had. But how I do it has been challenging. My counseling practice was wiped out by managed care. My speaking career was put on hold for a decade to care for my spouse. I lost half my income one year with one phone call. But in these miserable situations I’ve also discovered that Paul’s insight is very practical. I have chosen to move more quickly to feeling good, even in a challenging situation, and I have discovered as a result that I am more creative and able to handle the pressures better as Teresa and Stephen’s research confirms.
We can’t control the fact that there will always be circumstances that could give us reason to be miserable. But if we can avoid wearing “The Look,” and instead choose to be positive, to smile for no reason, we will be more effective in turning those negative situations around and making a positive difference more quickly. It’s not just a nice idea; it’s a scientifically validated strategy for living a better life.
References and recommended reading:
Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Press.
Harrill, S. E. (1988). You Could Feel Good. Uni Sun.
Pennington, R. (2011). Find the Upside of the Down Times: How To Turn Your Worst Experiences Into Your Best Opportunities. Resource International.