The Perspective Less Taken: Opportunity in Difficulty
Part 1: Putting your best power tools to use.
Posted Mar 20, 2020
In the era of COVID-19 when things are uncertain and feel out of control, it’s natural that our stress levels are on the rise. We’re hard-wired for anxiety to keep us safe when faced with uncertainty. Anxiety is our friend, our protector, warning us of potential danger when driving in heavy traffic, walking to the car in a dark parking garage, or kicking us in the pants when we’re behind on a deadline—all for our own good. The key is to make anxiety work for us instead of against us in unpredictable times. It helps to know what we can change or control and what we can’t.
Part 1 shows you that your greatest power is your perspective. It can victimize you or empower you. When you look for the upside in a downside situation and figure out what you can control and what you can't, it’s easier to accept whatever is beyond your control. Your best ally is to find the opportunity in the difficulty during an uncontrollable situation instead of the difficulty in the opportunity.
Your Negativity Bias
Mother Nature equipped us with a negativity bias to keep us out of harm’s way. This bias causes us to overestimate threats and underestimate our ability to handle them. Naturally, when we know an invisible disease is spreading around us with unclear consequences, our anxiety will go up. The key is to appreciate our anxiety’s intent and use it without letting it use us or letting it throw our rational brain offline, which it will do at lightning speed so we can act quickly in an emergency.
Here’s a simple everyday example: One day at my private practice, Ralph came barreling into my office during tax season, slinging his backpack onto the sofa and spurting curse words. When I asked him what was the matter, he groaned that he had to pay a half million dollars in taxes. When I asked how much he made for the year, he offhandedly mumbled, “Oh, five or six million.” Ralph was so caught up in his loss that it eclipsed his gain. He was a rich man living an impoverished life. This scenario reminded me of Winston Churchill’s famous quote:
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”—Winston Churchill
Your negativity bias, too, will zoom in on the COVID-19 threat causing you to focus on the problem, gloom and doom, and shake in your boots, eclipsing your personal power and the blessings and positive aspects in your life. The more you focus on a negative situation or sensation—such as pain, fear, or frustrating obstacles—the worse it nibbles away at you. When the mind is focused on lack or ruminates on fear, we operate from a position of loss and discontent and experience more lack. Pessimism is a perspective that can sneak up on any of us at any time. Chances are you’ve had knee-jerk reactions like Ralph’s that you were unaware of in the moment like my colleague Sophie, who loved the warm, long days of summer. One day in June on the longest day of the year, I stuck my head in her office door and said, “You must be on cloud nine.”
She looked up from her computer, raised a curious eyebrow. “Why?”
“It’s the longest, sunny day of the year.”
She frowned. “Not really, I’m down in the dumps. Tomorrow the days start getting shorter again.”
“But this is the day you’ve been waiting for,” I replied, “Your perspective is shrinking your joy.”
Her eyes widened, and her frown spread into a smile, surprised that negativity had hijacked her. In that ah-ha moment, she realized her pessimistic outlook had occluded her happiness.
Science Reveals the Secret Mojo
If you’re a card-carrying pessimist, chances are during these extraordinary times you’re having more difficulty seeing the upside of this downside situation. If so, you can ask if you’re freely choosing your perspective? Or are you a prisoner of the circumstances? We can’t always change what happens to us, but we can always change our perspective.
Scientists have gotten in on the act to discover the secret mojo. Their findings? The way you think about your circumstances makes all the difference in your mood, health, and success—even longevity. When you ruminate and over-focus on the difficulty, what goes wrong, who hurt you, or how disappointed you are, you will continue to suffer. If you focus on the upside of a downside situation where your power lies and what you can control in the situation, you can find peace of mind. This way of thinking moves you from a victim at the mercy of an external force to an empowered person.
One way to own your power is to perform acts of kindness for someone. Recently, I pulled into a Starbucks drive-thru and ordered my regular double-shot latte. When I handed the cashier my credit card, she said, “The person in front of you paid for your order.” I felt a boost of exhilaration and immediately said, “Then I’d like to pay for the person’s order behind me.” It had been a gloomy day with all the worry about COVID-19, but those kind acts boosted my mood for hours after. You, too, can experience what scientists call “the helper’s high,” which boosts your mood simply by doing something good for someone else in these challenging times.
Optimism is some of the best medicines to thrive during COVID-19, no matter how dire the circumstances. You don’t possess some magical joy juice. And you don’t have to become a smiley-face romantic with your head in the sand or look through rose-colored glasses. Optimists are realists who take positive steps to cope with obstacles instead of succumbing to them. Although researchers have found that being optimistic is associated with more gray matter in regions of your prefrontal cortex, you don’t have to be a natural-born optimist. You can cultivate a positive outlook. With practice, you realize you have a choice on how to view the slings and arrows life delivers, simply by choosing your outlook.
“Our greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”—William James
Optimism literally expands your peripheral vision and lets you see more possibilities and solutions to problems than pessimism, which limits our outlook. Optimism unlocks our personal resources and capabilities to deal with an opportunity embedded in a hardship. Studies show that if you’re an optimist, you’re more likely to scoot up the career success ladder faster and farther than a pessimist. One study showed that sales personnel with an optimistic outlook sold 37 percent more life insurance in their first two years than pessimists. Other studies show that you adopt healthier habits, too. Statistics reveal that, if you’re an optimist, you have a lower stress level and a more stable cardiovascular system than average, and you have a stronger immune system. You’re happier, have fewer health complaints, healthier relationships and live an average of seven and a half years longer than average.
Part 2 will cover how you can stack your positivity deck.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Discover the upward spiral that will change your life. New York: Crown.
Lewina O. Lee, Peter James, Emily S. Zevon, Eric S. Kim, Claudia Trudel-Fitzgerald, Avron Spiro III, Francine Grodstein, and Laura D. Kubzansky. (2019). Optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in 2 epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1900712116.