There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who, invited into the boss's office out of the blue, cross their fingers they're getting a raise; and those who, invited into the boss's office out of the blue, start packing up their things.
It's no stretch to say the finger-crossed employee is having a better time at work. Optimists in general tend to live happier, healthier lives; in work terms, that often means less stress, a greater sense of fulfillment and value, increased productivity and success, and fewer days lost to the common cold [source: Mayo].
Chronic negativity, for reasons not entirely settled upon by researchers, affects not only emotional but also physical wellness. Maybe it's the cortisol, or "stress hormone," wreaking more havoc on the body. Maybe it's the depression, anxiety and substance abuse that tend to appear more frequently in pessimistic thinkers [source: Mayo].
Difficulties staying positive in the workplace, whether due to possible layoffs or the loss of a big account, or even an atmosphere of gossip and political maneuvering, are more common than ever. In a 2010 survey by the Conference Board, a business trade organization, only 45 percent of U.S. workers said they were satisfied at work, continuing a steady decrease since the organization starting counting in 1987, when job satisfaction was at 61 percent [source: Shellenbarger].
The solution to workplace distress? In most cases, it's simple: Become an optimist.
Which, of course, isn't simple at all and may in fact be one of the toughest psychological adjustments a person can make. Positive and negative outlooks can be very well-ingrained, to the point of seeming instinctive. But they're not. They're habits. And habits can be changed.
Staying positive in a difficult work situation requires focusing on those issues that are fully within one's control. It's an internal pursuit, and it starts here: What, specifically, is bothering you?
Identify the Issue(s)
If you can't change the situation, the only option is to change yourself. Staying positive at work is not about ignoring the problems you see; it's about changing the way you see them.
For born optimists, approaching issues at work from a positive, constructive standpoint can be automatic. They likely approach everything that way. For those new to optimism, though, a shift into positive thinking starts with some analysis: What am I feeling negative about, why do I feel that way about it, and how else could I be looking at it?
Unfortunately, if negativity regularly defines your experience at work, individual issues may have morphed into a giant, nebulous ball of wanting to call in sick. This is difficult to work with. If you take a step back, though -- and journaling can help with this -- you may begin to see some concrete triggers. For instance, is the company financially unstable, and you're concerned about lay-offs? Has a "failure" in your work led to insecurity about your own competence and/or job security? Are you troubled by your interactions with the boss, employees and/or peers? Has your role in the company changed, leaving you feeling uncertain or ill-prepared?
The next time you find yourself sinking (deeper) into the negativity hole, take a moment, remove yourself from the situation as much as possible, and take some notes. It will help you sort through the noise and figure out what's actually going on in your head.
Job insecurity, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, perceived failures, uncomfortable changes in the status quo -- these are all excellent at producing negative reactions. They are not, however, inherently negative conditions. What is "bad" and what is "good" depends a lot -- some say entirely -- on your mindset.
So the question is, how can you turn a "bad" thing into a "good" thing?
Adjust Your Thinking
For most people with a job, work can be tough at times. For some, it can be tough all the time. And yet according to that 2010 survey, 45 percent of the workforce is actually pretty satisfied at work. Maybe 45 percent of U.S. workers are in their dream jobs. More likely, though, they see positives that the 55 percent don't.
Call it pessimism, problem thinking, negative self-talk, cognitive distortion... It all involves an irrational habit of focusing on the "bad" and then running with it. Mental habits like filtering out the positive, focusing on the negative, extremism, catastrophizing and personalizing contribute to feelings of failure, helplessness, insecurity, dread and a generally dark view of oneself and one's surroundings.
Let's say management announces rolling two-week furloughs. If you're a pessimist, you might think, "That's it, I'm out of work. The next step is lay-offs. I'm going to lose my house." That's catastrophizing.
In the vast majority of cases, negative perspectives can be turned around. With two-week furloughs on the horizon, an optimist might think, "Phew, I wasn't laid off. So I've still got my benefits. What shall I do with my unexpected, albeit unpaid, vacation?"
This is not to minimize struggle or say that work (or life) should be nothing but sunshine and cupcakes. It is to say that with some effort, the struggle can live in the background, accessed when doing so would be wise or productive, while a more icing-topped outlook characterizes daily living, even when daily living goes awry.
Not awry. Different from the expected, planned or hoped for.
Your quarterly peer reviews come back 85-percent praise and 15-percent constructive criticism.
Negative: I got bad reviews this quarter. I suck at my job. (Filtering)
Positive: Almost everyone thinks I'm good at what I do!
Your manager "asks" you to work late for the third time this week.
Negative: Guess I won't be kissing my kids good night. Again. (Focusing on the negative)
Positive: If I log my extra hours, I'll have some great ammunition when I ask for a raise.
At the staff meeting, it's brought to your attention that page 3 of your marketing report refers to last year's numbers, not this year's.
Negative: I always blow it. This report belongs in the trash. (Extremism)
Positive: At least it wasn't all the numbers! It'll take maybe an hour to update that set and re-circulate the data.
Several co-workers head out to lunch while you're busy in the copy room.
Negative: They must have waited until I was gone so they wouldn't have to invite me. (Personalization)
Positive: If only I'd finished those copies two minutes earlier! I bet they'll bring me a sandwich if I text right now ...
Avoiding knee-jerk negative thoughts is critical to developing a positive attitude at work, but it's only part of the picture. Positive actions can produce dramatic results, and are often easier to implement. So look around you ...
Adjust Your Behavior
Trying to become an optimist? Wonderful. Practicing turning around those negative thoughts? Good for you.
But let's face it. This may take a while.
The quickest way to bring positivity into the workplace is to act the part. Smile at co-workers. Compliment anything and everything that could possibly deserve the slightest bit of praise. Help organize birthday parties. Start a 10-minute-yoga group that meets during breaks. Reload the copier when you're not even using it. Bring donuts.
Communication is another key: Talk to your co-workers. Share your fears, successes and perceived failures. Commiserate about difficulties, laugh about ironies, laugh about anything, in fact, and offer an ear when something goes differently than planned, expected or hoped for.
In this way, staying positive can be a group effort. Unless you're born with it, optimism can be difficult to achieve, let alone maintain, and sharing positive actions can help inspire and reinforce positive thinking. If you inject some optimism into your workplace, even if it's not all that sincere yet, it will affect the way you experience your environment. There's no faster way to feel good than to make someone else feel good, and no surer way to gain a more positive outlook at work than to actually go to work in a more positive place.
Your actions, like your thoughts, are within your control, and actions are easier to change. Crossing your fingers instead of packing up when the boss surprises you might take more time. So start with yoga and donuts. There's nothing to lose but anxiety, stress, sleeplessness and all those sick days wasted on actual colds.
For more information on positive thinking, workplace problems, and solutions and tricks to turn that frown upside-down, check out the links on the next page.
The whole "positive thinking" thing can come across as a bit New Age-y, which in my mind made it unlikely to speak to a majority of the workers feeling negative about their work. It's not easy to make a movement based on thoughts creating reality universally accessible. (Although avoiding the word "movement" probably helps.)
And so I tried to focus on what seemed to me the more concrete aspects of the practice -- avoiding thoughts that make us feel bad, reaching out to people who might be in the same boat, doing things that make us feel good about ourselves and others.
But there is no doubt a spiritual component to be found. My research revealed science on the topic, as well, and, to my surprise, a fair number of experts who believe "positive thinking" to be a destructive approach to improving our lives. But that's for another day. For now, I think it's safe to say that assuming the best and being nice to the people we work with isn't going to hurt.
- Burbank, Luke. "The Growing Popularity of Laughter Therapy." NPR. Jan. 20, 2006. (Oct. 5, 2012) http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5165226
- Grohol, John M. "Catastrophizing." Psych Central. (Oct. 5, 2012) http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/what-is-catastrophizing/
- "Job burnout: Spotting it -- and taking action." Mayo Clinic. (Oct. 1, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/burnout/WL00062
- "Laughter Therapy." Cancer Treatment Centers of America. (Oct. 5, 2012) http://www.cancercenter.com/complementary-alternative-medicine/laughter-therapy.cfm
- "Positive thinking: Reduce stress by elimination negative self-talk." Mayo Clinic. (Oct. 1, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/positive-thinking/SR00009
- Rao, Srikumar, Ph.D. "Why Positive Thinking is Bad for You." Psychology Today. April 7, 2010. (Oct. 1, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creativity-and-personal-mastery/201004/why-positive-thinking-is-bad-you
- Rosner, Bob and Sherrie Campbell. "Stay Positive: Thoughts for the Workplace During a Tough Economy." PayScale. (Oct. 1, 2012) http://www.payscale.com/positive-thoughts-for-the-workplace-recession
- Shellenbarger, Sue. "The Case for Lying to Yourself." The Wall Street Journal. July 30, 2012. (Oct. 1, 2012) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443343704577548973568243982.html
- Shellenbarger, Sue. "Thinking Happy Thoughts at Work." The Wall Street Journal. Jan. 27, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704905604575027042440341392.html
- White, Donna M. "Challenging Our Cognitive Distortions and Creating Positive Outlooks." Psych Central. (Oct. 5, 2012) http://psychcentral.com/lib/2011/challenging-our-cognitive-distortions-and-creating-positive-outlooks/