It might seem odd to open a blog on positive psychology with a negative event, but bear with me. Hemingway’s famous account of bankruptcy contains an important insight. In The Sun Also Rises, he wrote:

“How did you go bankrupt?’

‘Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.’”

It’s that gradually then suddenly bit I’d like to focus on. What’s true of a bad experience is equally true of a good experience, such as becoming happier, less anxious or less stressed. That old Confucian proverb about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step has stood the test of time because it’s fundamentally true. Positive psychology, which has been embraced by many enlightened businesses and organisations, holds that change is best fostered not by focusing on the negatives, but by helping people (and organisations) become what they already are at their best.

We’re used to thinking of terms such as happiness, self-respect, and confidence as though they referred to a kind of tangible substance, which some people have more of than others. From the perspective of positive psychology, they’re effects, not things: the outcomes of positive thinking and positive action.

Here’s one example of an unfortunate but not uncommon attitude some employers adopted during the recession: as job markets tightened and employees became anxious about their prospects, some employers assumed that uncertainty and even intimidation could be used to spur productivity. Bad move. The bulk of recent scholarships suggest the exact opposite – stressed, disgruntled employees don’t engage in increased productivity; they get ill instead. Happy employees are the productive ones.

That means that practising “positivity” strategies will almost always be good for business. If an executive takes the trouble to send one email a day recognising someone’s contribution, it can be one of those gradual processes that accumulates enough momentum in time to bring about sudden transformations (people love to feel appreciated, and they take fewer sick days when they are).

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