The Science of Success: Why Positive Thinking Matters

Kol Chu Birke, CFP®
Kol Chu Birke, CFP®

12.17.19 in Marketing & Practice Management

Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes (916 words)

Marketing and Project Management

You’ve heard the phrase, “the power of positive thinking,” probably more times that you can count. Obviously, you can’t just sit back and think about growing your business without putting in any effort and expect to become successful. But research has shown that positive emotions can help improve your work, your health, and your life, and they play a bigger role in helping you and your clients achieve success than you might think.

The Study of Positive Psychology

In 1998, after decades of focus on depression, anxiety, and other mental illness, Martin Seligman, one of the world's leading psychology researchers, turned his focus to a brand-new field of study: positive psychology. He defines it as the scientific study of human flourishing. Over the past decade, it has emerged as a valuable complement to traditional psychology, giving us concrete ways to overcome stress, achieve more, and lead more fulfilling lives.

Interestingly, positive psychology doesn't hold that optimism is better than pessimism. In fact, Seligman advocates "flexible optimism"—in other words, we should employ optimism (or other positive thinking approaches) when that's the best tool, and pessimism (and other types of critical thinking) whenever it serves us better. But when should we use one over the other?

What Positive and Negative Thoughts Do to Your Brain

Psychologists have long understood the purpose of negative emotions, such as fear, anger, and disgust. Fear alerts us to danger, anger lets us know that someone is trespassing in our territory, and disgust evolved—quite literally—to make us throw up any toxins we've ingested. All of these negative emotions do two things: they focus our attention on the problem at hand, and they push us toward an instinctive action (in an attempt to remove the negative emotion).

What about positive emotions, such as happiness and joy? Researcher and author Barbara Fredrickson provided surprising insights on their role. While negative emotions narrow our perspective, positive emotions broaden it. While negative emotions drive us toward a single, instinctive action while ignoring everything else around us, positive emotions allow us to examine all of the options that our broadened perspective has provided and then select the best one for that moment. Additional research suggests that, while negative emotions cause us to isolate ourselves, positive emotions actually encourage people to work cooperatively.

These findings support the idea that most 21st-century challenges are better solved by giving ourselves a dose of positive emotions. To demonstrate this point, Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and Drive, likes to point to an experiment called the Candle Problem. In it, participants are given a box of thumbtacks, a matchbook, and a candle and asked to figure out a way to attach the candle to the wall so that wax won't drip on the table once the candle is lit. When participants are offered cash rewards to solve the problem more quickly, they counter-intuitively end up solving it more slowly.

How could that be? How does a cash reward make us work more slowly?  It turns out that the anxiety of earning or not earning the rewards inhibits creative thought. (Remember: negative emotions such as anxiety narrow our perspective.) To be fair, the rewards did speed people up in one situation—when they were told the solution ahead of time and, thus, no creativity or high-level thinking was needed.

Applying the Research

It’s easy to see that a "nose to the grindstone" approach can be effective with certain well-defined tasks—ones where you know every step involved and can just push to get them done. For nearly all other tasks, however, positive emotions help us succeed.

To determine which approach to take with a particular job, ask yourself: Is this task mechanical in nature? That is, could I write down all the steps so that almost anyone could perform them? If so, pressure and incentives are likely to improve efficiency. If not, the research suggests finding a way to infuse the task with positive emotions—and let’s face it, nearly all that makes a financial advisor successful relies on creativity and relationship building. In these cases, going for a bike ride or listening to some good music may help improve your efficiency.

Positive emotions can make a big difference with higher-level thinking tasks, like working through planning and management challenges and optimizing staff talents. But they also can help improve your client relationships. First, consider that if you don’t have a positive outlook yourself, your clients will pick up on your negative emotions (e.g., stress), which is likely to put them in a negative emotional state. Just as important, think about how you should react when your clients are having negative thoughts. Although you can’t force them to think positively, you can take a step back and help them focus on what’s bothering them. It may even help to take a break, get them a glass of water, or maybe talk about something other than financial planning.

A Happier, Healthier, and More Successful You

It’s always a good idea to keep a positive outlook on things. When something goes wrong, research suggests taking a break, focusing on something you’re grateful for, or even thinking about how you can respond to the challenge, rather than letting it get you down. It’s common to think we’ll feel good when we achieve “success,” but the truth is that by focusing on feeling good, we’re actually more likely to be successful.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2014, but we’ve updated it to bring you more relevant and timely information. 

This material is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific advice.

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