The One Habit That Turns Pessimists Into Optimists

“At any point in our lives, our neural pathways are malleable. We can form new habits, which can create new mindsets.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How to increase your chance of being promoted by 40%
  • Which part of your morning routine makes you 27% more likely to have a bad day
  • Why happiness is a choice anyone can make

Michelle Gielan is a national CBS News anchor turned positive psychology researcher, and the bestselling author of Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change. She recently sat down with Srinivas Rao on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss the surprising science of becoming a happier, more positive, more fulfilled human being.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

Srini: Could you tell us a bit about your journey?

Michelle: I was a CBS news anchor, anchoring two national news programs, and I got tired of telling negative news stories. I was curious about how we can talk about negative news around the dinner table and in our businesses in a way that doesn’t make people feel hopeless and helpless, but actually empowers them. So I left my job at CBS, and I went and got a Masters at the University of Pennsylvania in positive psychology, which is the scientific study of happiness and human potential.

I also had this epiphany: We’re all broadcasters. It’s not some special power reserved for national broadcasters, or professional athletes, or celebrities. We all have this incredible power to influence the people around us, as parents, as leaders, as friends. The small choices that we make—to talk about and focus on certain things in our reality—influence other people and how they move throughout their day. I became fascinated with this research, and now that’s what I do—I’m a researcher and an author.

Working at my current position as a researcher, I was [once] in Memphis to pilot a program at Walmart. This woman came up to me and said, “Oh, you guys are happiness researchers? I’m the happiest woman in the world! You should study me.”

She goes on to tell me this story of how she waited until later in life to get married because she hadn’t met anyone special until that point. She was supremely happy with this guy, but about six months into their marriage, her mother, who she was very close with, died suddenly of health complications. Her husband was there for her in such a beautiful way, and supported her through the period of mourning. But just as she was starting to feel better six months later, he died in a car accident.

I’m looking at her thinking, “You’re the happiest woman in the world? I don’t understand.” What I came to realize was that every morning, she consciously chose to be happy. She went through her period of mourning for her husband, but at the end, she said, “Okay. Now I need to move on with my life in a positive way. That’s not only good for me, but also good for the people around me.”

So I talked to the people around her, her colleagues and coworkers at Walmart. She was the type of person that would come in, and always be in a good mood—giving out high fives, complimenting and supporting people. I just love that, because it shows that even in the midst of the biggest challenges we’ll ever face, we can still make the choice to be happy. It’s not always easy, and yes, there are terrible things happen to us. But whenever possible, we can make that choice.

[This woman also] started out conversations with, “It’s a great day. How are you?” [That’s an example of] this concept called a “power lead,” starting off conversations by saying something positive and meaningful—and that can change the trajectory of an entire conversation. You can use a power lead with your kids, or with your colleagues when you start a meeting. When we start with something positive, we [get others] thinking of their successes, wins, and connections with other people. And that turns on the brain to its highest potential.

“Even in the midst of the biggest challenges we’ll ever face, we can still make the choice to be happy.”

Srini: From the perspective of a journalist, what are the implications of [your happiness research] for our media-consumption habits?

Michelle: We recently did [a study] with Arianna Huffington looking at the impact of just a few minutes of news on the brain. What we found is that if you begin your day with just three minutes of negative news, you have a 27% higher likelihood of reporting your day as unhappy six to eight hours later. That negative mindset that you adopt in the morning stays with you for your time at work and your time with family. So if we can make a small change to the news that we consume in a way that fuels us, then that [positive] mindset can stay with us through that same amount of time.

In order to maintain a modicum of happiness, we think that we need to ostracize ourselves from the events going on in the world, because they all seem so negative. It’s better to just stick our heads in the sand and feel happy in ignorant bliss, right? But there’s a much stronger path that doesn’t involve being in the know about every single negative thing, and it also doesn’t involve ignoring the negative stuff.

This third path involves talking about solutions in the face of challenges. It’s what I call “transformative journalism.” It’s activating, engaging, solutions-focused reporting. It activates your belief that your behavior matters, it engages you through discussion and calls to action, and it focuses on solutions that we can try. It’s not just problem, problem, problem—if we’re only exposed to a barrage of problems, our brain starts to believe that everything in the world is beyond our control. That, in and of itself, is the biggest problem that I think we’re facing right now.

So for our news consumption, I encourage people to be picky about what kind of articles they read or news they watch. If it’s just negative stuff, forget it. There are news outlets that focus on problems and potential solutions, so [pay attention to those]. And don’t forget to fill your brain with inspiring stories of people and organizations that have overcome challenges, and are doing good things in the world. That is fuel and motivation and empowerment for us as we face challenges and move through our lives.

Srini: I’d love to do a deep dive into the concepts in your book. Maybe explain what they are, and then follow up with some examples.

Michelle: Sure. Overall, it’s important to remember that we’re all broadcasters. We’re all constantly sharing information with other people, small messages like, “I’m stressed. I’m tired. The boss is driving me nuts. I don’t deserve to be at this company.” Versus, “How are you? I’m doing great. I’m grateful for this opportunity. I’m so excited that my son got an A on his math test.”

“If you begin your day with just three minutes of negative news, you have a 27% higher likelihood of reporting your day as unhappy six to eight hours later.”

When we make those small changes to our communication style, it raises our chances for promotion at work by 40% over the next year. We’ve seen people deliver one piece of positive praise to one person on their team, and are able, in three weeks time, to [boost] the entire team’s productivity by 31%. Or some parents, instead of just saying, “How was your day?” will say, “What was the best part of your day? What was the coolest thing you learned?” They get their kids to not only scan their day for more positive things, but also, from a scientific perspective, train their brains to be more optimistic.

The brain is an incredible processor—we can process 40 to 50 bits of information every single second of the day. The challenge is that from all of our nerve endings from our body, we are bombarded by more than 11 million bits of information every single second of the day. So what that means is that we have limited resources to experience our reality, and there are choices to be made about how we devote our attention. If we focus on all the hassles, complaints, problems, and challenges, we literally don’t have brain resources left over to see the meaning embedded in our work, the things that we’re grateful for, the relationships we have, all the good stuff—and that stuff is fuel for us, our happiness, and our success.

One of the things we often advocate for is the power of gratitudes—saying three new and unique things you’re grateful for, each day, for 21 days. We recommend 21 days because it’s a nice way to jumpstart a positive habit, and by day 28 and 29, neuroscientists can actually see new neural pathways being formed in the brain.

One of our clients decided to say these gratitudes around the dinner table with his family. Two or three weeks later, this guy gets a call from the father of his teenage daughter’s friend. And the other dad says, “Your daughter was at my house for a sleepover this past weekend, and we have to talk.” He was like, “Oh no, what did she do this time?”

His daughter felt that the girls at school were being mean, and she was now well-versed in this practice of speaking up about positive, good things. So she decided to get all the girls at the sleepover to sit in a circle, and go around saying nice things about one another. That dad was modeling this behavior of speaking up about the positive, being grateful, and praising the people around him. And it was so infectious that the daughter adopted that behavior, and then spread it to her friends.

When you make those small changes to the way we communicate, bringing more attention to the good things going on in life, we give other people licenses to feel as if they can talk about the good stuff as well. It reorients their brain to focus more on that, versus the hassles, complaints, and problems that everyone has in their lives.

Srini: If our natural tendency is to have a negativity bias, how do you shift it? And how do you deal with this in the context of anxiety, depression, worry, and negative people in your life?

Michelle: When I was in my mid 20s, I experienced a yearlong battle with depression. I had gotten a job in London, and because I was working from home and had no friends, I felt socially isolated. And that doesn’t work for me—my personality is very outgoing. So I got to the point where I knew that either I was going to do something about it and hopefully get better, or I was going to languish in those anxious, depressed feelings for a long, long time to come.

Two things helped me: Exercise was incredibly transformative, but not for the reasons that people often think. Yes, I got a boost of serotonin and endorphins, but what was really important about going to the gym every day was that I was getting out of the house, and I was doing something that made me feel better. So it communicated to my brain that my happiness was within my control.

And then the second thing was this concept of fact-checking, which is still the number one thing I do when I’m feeling stressed. Fact-checking is the idea that there are stories that we come up with that either work for us or against us. And if a story isn’t working for us, we can fact-check the story to find one that fuels us in a different way.

I’ll give you an example: People are often stressed with their deadlines, and they’ll say, “I’m never going to finish this product on time. I’m exhausted, and I’m totally overloaded with work, and my son’s recital is this week, so I’m not going to finish.” Listening to that, I totally understand why someone’s feeling stressed. I’ve been there myself. But if we can find new facts in our environment, we can change the story.

So taking that deadline example, we’ve already come up with a set of facts that prove that story could be true—“I’m exhausted,” etc.—so then the stretch is to find other facts that are equally true, and don’t necessarily prove the original story wrong, but illuminate a new story. So those could be, “Well, I’ve been at this company for four years, and I’ve never needed a deadline extension before. I submitted a similar proposal last week, and I’ve got the template on my computer, so I can use that as a launch point. And if I add up the number of hours between nine and five between now and the deadline, I have more than 20 hours to devote to this project.”

Those facts start to calm our brain down as we see the new story. It’s not about whether our story is objectively true or not—it’s about whether it’s working for us. If it’s stressing us out, it’s not working for us, so how can we use resources, successes, wins, connections, and other positive parts of our reality to form a new story that propels us forward?

Srini: People often wrestle with much more serious problems than a deadline, like a death, or an illness, or bankruptcy. So I’m curious to know how this works in those cases, and what separates the people who pull themselves out of a dark spot from the ones who don’t.

Michelle: I think the biggest differentiator is our levels of optimism. When a serious challenge strikes us, there has to be a period of mourning the ramifications of that situation. That’s how we stay in touch with our hearts and who we are. But from that point, there are lots of moments to make choices, both in our minds and our behavior, that either propel us forward or hold us back.

“If we focus on all the hassles, complaints, problems, and challenges, we literally don’t have brain resources left over to see the meaning embedded in our work, the things that we’re grateful for, the relationships we have—all the good stuff.”

If you’re an optimist, you believe that negative events are temporary and local, and most importantly, you believe that your behavior matters. If you’re a pessimist, you believe that negative events are pervasive and relatively permanent. You believe that if some challenge strikes in one domain of your life, like work or your relationship, it will bleed into others, as you experience low mood, or anxiety, or other problems.

This comes to life when we work with people who have recently lost their jobs. Both pessimists and optimists mourn the experience, but because the optimist believes that this is a temporary, local event and that their behavior matters, they more quickly update their résumé, jump on LinkedIn, and reach out to former colleagues to look for opportunities. The pessimist will get around to those behaviors, but it takes a lot longer because of how they process the challenge.

Obviously a death is a different ballgame. But even with the woman that we met from Walmart, Sharon, she said, “This is a constant choice. I constantly have to choose to see the parts of my reality that will connect me to the people around me, will help me feel happy in the midst of the fact that I’m never going to see two of the most important people in my life ever again.”

She told me, “I just have to think, what would my mother and my husband want for me? They wouldn’t want me to wallow and be sad for the rest of my life. They would want me to remember them, but also choose happiness, because I have the opportunity to be alive right now, to experience my life.”

Srini: [When it comes to] dealing with difficult people in our lives, I grew up with a mother who worries about everything. She thinks that every car on the road is going to hit her, and that I’m going to drown every time I go surfing. How do we handle people like that?

Michelle: My mom does the same thing. The best thing to do with people like that is to understand where they’re coming from. Your mom is coming from a really loving place—she’s worried about you. My mom too, and I think [knowing that] lessens the annoyance factor.

But there are people that are just constantly negative—complaining about things, telling you all the terrible office gossip. And that behavior is actually very toxic, not only for them, but for us as well. That’s something where we can take a more proactive approach to our relationship with them.

I worked with this woman from Google, and she says to me, “I’m working next to the most negative person at this company. He’s negative in meetings, and comes back to his desk huffing and puffing. Then he gets on the phone, and I’ve got to hear these toxic conversations he has with people.”

“At any point in our lives, our neural pathways are malleable. We can form new habits, which can create new mindsets.”

So we mapped out a strategy for her to reorient her desk in a different direction, so that he was out of her line of sight. She started wearing noise-canceling headphones so that she didn’t have to hear his negativity. And when she did actually have to deal with him, she came up with a two-minute drill. In football, you have a two-minute drill, which is how you score a touchdown when you’ve only got two minutes on the clock. You practice and practice this, so you don’t have to think about it when you’re in that situation during a game.

She mapped out this two-minute drill: “I’m going to get in, say something nice, compliment him on something else, ask my question, get the information, say one more nice thing, and get out—and keep it all under two minutes.” She said that when she started doing all that, his power over her and her bad mood lessened, because she was taking back control.

When we’re faced with a negative person, the other important thing to realize is that negativity is merely expressed suffering. So when they’re being negative, complaining about their lives, talking about how stressed out they are, or telling you about how bad the boss is today, what’s really going on inside them is that they’re suffering. Ultimately, that realization lessens their power, as we start to feel a sense of compassion for them.

Srini: We’ve talked a lot about optimists and pessimists. I’m wondering, is it possible to shift from being one type of person to the other?

Michelle: It’s not written in stone. There was a study done with grumpy 80-year-olds who had been pessimists their whole lives—they were testing as moderate-level pessimists. But when the researchers had them list their gratitudes—three new and unique things they were grateful for each day—the ones that kept up that practice for 14 or 21 days actually started testing as low-level pessimists. The ones that kept up the practice for six months tested as low- to moderate-level optimists. And what that shows us is that at any point in our lives, our neural pathways are malleable. We can form new habits, which can create new mindsets.

I just completed a study with Arianna Huffington and my husband Shawn Achor. We found that if you pair discussion of a problem with discussion of a solution, [as opposed to] just dumping the problem on people, you significantly alleviate negative moods like irritability, hostility, and anxiety, and you positively influence people’s ability to be creative and solve problems. When we start talking about solutions that people can [try] themselves, that even increases problem-solving by 20% on unrelated future tasks.

So if you have a problem—whether it’s with your family or your team at work—and you talk to them about it, pair it with a discussion of potential or actual solutions. Not only are you doing good for solving that particular issue, but you’re empowering them with this activated mindset that they carry on to other things they’re doing.

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