How to develop a positive mindset

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Optimism is nothing more than a set of mental habits and routines that anyone can learn

All the research shows that positive and optimistic people live longer and perform better than their more pessimistic and cynical colleagues. One classic study reviewed baseball cards from 1952 and 1953. It found that the players who smiled for the photos lived on average 11 years longer than those who did not. For a recovering pessimist this is an unnerving finding: be happy or die.

You cannot tell people to be happy, positive or optimistic. That comes from within. So how can you cultivate positive habits of the mind that will let you perform better and live longer? The critical insight is that we can choose how we feel. There are simple routines that can help anyone choose to banish the clouds of gloom. Here are some tips that help professionally and personally.

Being the positive leader

You probably remember your old bosses more for what they were like than for what they achieved. You will be remembered the same way. Here are some simple routines to help you wear the mask of positive leadership:

  • Look to the future not the past
  • Drive to action not analysis
  • Praise colleagues 10 times more often than you criticise them
  • Focus on what you can do not on what you can’t
  • See opportunities where others see risk
  • Ask WWWW: what went well and why, not its evil cousin: what went wrong and why. Catch your team when they succeed, not just when they struggle.

This is not the mindless optimism of Voltaire’s professor Pangloss, who believed ‘all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’. Positive leaders are prepared to confront brutal facts with the belief that they will prevail. The best leaders are purveyors of hope, clarity and certainty, especially when times are tough. Who wants to work with a negative, uncertain and cynical boss?

Many struggle with these simple routines, which is very good news; because if you can apply them, even in the heat of battle, you will stand out from your colleagues.

Being positive personally

The easiest way to become more positive is to cultivate the attitude of gratitude. If you focus on all the setbacks of the day you will start to feel grumpy. If you recall all the good things that you have enjoyed you will feel better. A simple exercise at the end of every day is to recall three good things and why they turned out well. Reflecting on this helps you learn how you succeed and helps you feel better. Appreciation of the everyday miracles of modern life gives us much to be grateful for.

Being positive requires dealing with the bad stuff. Many negative emotions have positive value: anxiety, fear, guilt and regret are all calls to action. They tell us something is wrong and we need to act. So do not try to banish the bad stuff as that will make it worse. Instead listen to it and then – critically – drive to action; do something about it.

Negative thoughts can get out of control. This is when we start using permanent and pervasive language such as ‘always, everything, everyone, never, nothing, no-one’, and we then start imagining catastrophic outcomes for our current situation. When your mental chatter goes this way challenge it: find facts, confirm opinions, get advice, create some options and drive to action. Avoid ruminating, which only makes it worse.

Optimism is nothing more than a set of mental habits and routines that anyone can learn. Changing habits is always hard, as anyone who has tried dieting knows. But with practice the unfamiliar becomes routine. Professionally and personally, the prize for being routinely positive is huge. It is a prize there for the taking.

Jo Owen is co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, keynote speaker and author of The Mindset of Success

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