This column re-printed with permission. It appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune Wednesday, April 2, 2003. By Dale Dauten, the Corporate Curmudgeon.
I’ve been thinking about wishful thinking after reading the work of Barbara Fredrickson of the University of Michigan in Prevention & Treatment, a publication of the American Psychological Association. She is one of the leaders of the “positive psychology” movement.
Most research in psychology has dwelled upon the Dark Side, which makes sense given that depression, suicide, heart disease and some cancers are linked to negative emotions. This led Fredrickson to write, “The capacity to experience positive emotion remains a largely untapped human strength.” I’m certain she’s correct in terms of her profession, where I don’t suppose there are any professional “joy therapists”.
However, this is one of those places where academic knowledge lags wisdom. Everyone who has said to a friend who lost a promotion, “I’ll pick you up and we’ll go to the ball game,” or, “Let’s go shopping,” is undertaking an experiment in the power of positive emotions. These might be labeled as mere “distractions” but they work.
Even more powerful is the philosophy represented in the phrase, “There’s a reason this happened.” Fredrickson writes, “[As with] finding meaning in ordinary daily events, finding positive meaning in major life events has also been shown to predict long-term psychological well-being and health.”
Such research has implications for work and management. Positive emotions are, in fact, able to push out negative ones. Frederickson cites an experiment in which male motorists were held up when the traffic light turned green. Anger and frustration were expressed by honking of horns.
In the control group, there was just a delay. In the test group, there were four versions of the same woman pedestrian creating a delay in the crosswalk: just walking, on crutches, in a clown mask, and in revealing clothes. Motorists in the last three groups, intended to represent the distractions created by empathy, humor and sexual interest, all were less likely to honk. Thus the research confirms what we all know: that sometimes we are too curious to be annoyed.
I see this displacement principle at work in good careers and great companies. It isn’t that the work has fewer annoyances, it’s that those annoyances have little power.
The lighthearted person has more ideas, more options. Perhaps this tells us something about the old notion that “you do your best thinking under duress.” It might be true that you do your fastest thinking under stress; you have fewer options to choose from.
Sigmund Freud used to ask his patients, “What purpose does this illness serve?” to try to ferret out psychological causes of physical ailments. Now we can also ask: “What purpose does that laughter serve? That camaraderie? That joy?” Such emotions don’t just make you forget to complain, they make you smart enough to accept that a good life story needs plenty of plot.
Add more joy to your life!
“Abundance Happens on Purpose.” Kevin Hogan
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