When you feel stuck or upset, “Ask yourself ‘Is it a tragedy or is it an inconvenience?’” advised Dr. Fred Luthans in his recent guest lecture to business students at the College of Charleston.
This simple, yet insightful question can help you reset how you perceive a situation. When you change your perception, you can change your attitude and feel more positive about the situation, yourself, and your life.
With this example, Dr. Luthans, professor emeritus in organizational behavior at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, was illustrating positive psychological capital, or PsyCap for short, in action.
PsyCap is a suite of mental resources, intentions and choices to draw from and leverage – like money in the bank, as Dr. Luthans described. When you apply them, you can introduce more positivity into your life and improve your wellbeing.
More than 20 years ago, Dr. Luthans started developing both the theory and application of PsyCap. He used the emerging positive psychology movement as a springboard and backed it with empirical research suited for organizational settings.
Over this time period, the research by Dr. Luthans and others has consistently shown four criteria that work in concert to positively influence employees’ attitudes, behaviors, and performance in organizational settings. These elements are:
- Hope – having the will and the way to make plans and achieve goals.
- Efficacy – having the confidence and belief in yourself to achieve goals.
- Resilience – being able to bounce back and beyond from stress, conflict, failure, or change.
- Optimism – having positive indicators about the present and the future.
Coincidentally, the first letter of each word spells “HERO.” So, Dr. Luthans has dubbed the elements the “HERO Within” that contribute to individuals being able to build their PsyCap.
Knowing about PsyCap and your Hero Within can be life-changing for individuals, especially when they learn skills for building their level of positivity. They can influence who they are and who they can become.
For some, this means overcoming conventional wisdom about being born with a level of positivity that stays with you for life. The scientific research shows instead that happiness is more fluid than that.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, researcher and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, we do have a “happiness set point.”
However, our genetics, personality traits and early development predict only about 50% of our happiness. Ten percent is affected by life circumstances and situations, and the remaining 40 percent of happiness is subject to our self-control.
So, when you accept your PsyCap HERO within you and make intentional positive choices, you can improve your happiness and your wellbeing.
And because happiness is contagious, you also can increase the happiness of those around you.
Many of the skills and techniques are relatively simple – once you learn them and remember to practice them. For example, besides intentionally shaping (or reshaping) how you interpret situations, you also can adopt these two daily habits that Dr. Luthans shared with us:
- Practice GET daily. GET stands for express GRATITUDE, EXERCISE and take TIME to relax with friends and family.
- Do two PIFs a day. PIFs are pay it forward favors or good deeds, which you can do for co-workers, friends, family members, or even strangers.
During Dr. Luthan’s lecture, I immediately started practicing what he was preaching — reappraising the situation by saying silently: “Yes, it was a tragedy. But it helped lay the foundation for the field of positive psychology.”
That’s the story I kept telling myself throughout the lecture. There was no way I could turn my immediate sadness into happiness, but I was able to keep myself from sobbing — hardly what I expected to do on a talk on positivity.
What happened? When the term “hedonic treadmill” appeared on one of the slides, referencing its effect on the 50 percent of our happiness set point, a wave of emotions came over me.
Old memories from my time as a work-study research assistant in the social psychology department at Northwestern University emerged. Back then I played a tiny role in the groundbreaking happiness research underway, which unexpectedly came to a screeching halt just a few years later.
My manager Dr. Philip Brickman and the department chairman Dr. Don Campbell invented the term “hedonic adaptation” in the early 1970’s. Their theory was that people repeatedly returned to their baseline level of happiness regardless of what happened to them, happy or sad. The term later morphed into the “hedonic treadmill” that Dr. Luthans referenced.
In the late 1970s, Dr. Brickman and two of his students showed how the theory of hedonic adaptation worked in real life by studying people with very different life experiences. The title of the research was “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?”
Shortly after that, Dr. Brickman moved to the University of Michigan and I moved on to other interests. And in 1982, he took his life, which shocked and saddened so many of us.
For all practice purposes, the happiness research didn’t resume until after 1998 when Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania was elected President of the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Seligman started championing interest in the positive aspects of psychology, including happiness, which helped fuel first the positive psychology movement and then PsyCap. Both have contributed to individual and organization wellbeing.
So, remember that positivity leads to success, not vice versa. And through the intentional choices you make you can control your own positivity.
That’s worth smiling about (even through occasional tears), don’t you think?