In 1998, psychologist Martin Seligman announced he was founding a new branch of psychology—one that, unlike old-fashioned psychology, focused more on the brighter sides of human nature than on the negative, dysfunctional, or pathological. His theory: That by looking at what makes you healthy and happy—rather than what makes you miserable and lonely—you’re more likely to achieve that healthier, happier state. It’s a subtle shift in the framing of how to view things, but studies show it’s one that actually works: A 2013 analysis of 39 studies totaling more than 6,000 participants and published in the journal BMC Public Health found that positive psychology interventions were indeed effective in enhancing psychological well-being and reducing depression.
Happiness isn’t a state of being, but a process that must be worked at and approached methodically. And it’s a process that holds special relevance for women in the workplace. More than men, women have a tendency to fear ambition and success often unconsciously. Women worry they’re not deserving of the promotion, or the raise; they’re concerned success will alienate them from their friends and potential partners; they don’t ask for what they want. Applying some of the principles of Positive Psychology has helped more than a few women reach their full potential without apology or fear. Studies show that greater levels of workplace happiness can help both workers and businesses flourish—one reason a number of Fortune 500 companies have, in recent years, begun to adopt Positive Psychology as a management tool to foster greater employee satisfaction and productivity.
Liza, a market analyst at a mid-sized firm, was someone who again and again got caught up in her defeats. When she didn’t manage to make a goal her boss had set for her, or which she had set for herself, she tended to obsess about what had gone wrong. “I thought of it as learning from my mistakes,” she said. “But as time went on, it became harder and harder for me to let go of slip ups, to move on from them.” Instead, she’d find herself dwelling on old errors and losing confidence in her abilities. She started to dread going to work. In the simplest terms, she wasn’t learning from her mistakes but, rather, letting her mistakes define her and keep her from moving forward. She also lost sight of those qualities that had made her a good analyst in the first place.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially for women. But Positive Psychology is about being proactive rather than reactive, and, in its simplest terms, shifting the emphasis away from what’s wrong with a certain work situation (or situations), or what needs solving, to what is right, and then going after that.
A few ways to start working positive.
Focus on what you’re good at. Too timid to speak up in meetings? Unable to think quickly on your feet? Instead of laser focusing on your faults, or even improving your workplace weaknesses, incorporate into every workday something at which you excel: managing others, say, or writing compelling briefs. Similarly, instead of obsessing over a goal you didn’t reach, move on and focus your energy on current successes, and ones soon to come.
Practice small steps. Establish more attainable goals. While long-term goals that take a while to achieve are important and valid, balance them with incremental goals along the way. When such smaller goals are reached, celebrate—marking even small achievements will help boost energy levels and focus.
Find the positive in coworkers, and avoid the negative. If you’re faced with a workplace bully, incorporating positive psychology into your workday doesn’t mean “trying harder” to make the boss like you. Instead, avoid confrontation and instead try seeking out positive mentors, colleagues, or others whose work you admire.
Mentor. According to positive psychology, altruistic behavior can help create lasting happiness. Selfless acts of mentoring can therefore benefit you as they benefits others. External research confirms this: Studies have shown that those who serve as mentors within their workplace report greater job satisfaction and commitment.
Express thanks. The ability to express gratitude and appreciation is an important part of positive psychology and can easily be put in place at work, showing thanks to the coworker who filled in while you were sick or the one who praised your efforts in a group meeting. Seligman notes in his research that when people give thanks to those who deserve it, “When we test people one week later, a month later, three months later, they are happier and less depressed.” Recognizing others’ contributions to your success can also help enforce positivity and respect among other coworkers.