Improve your health and performance with Learned Optimism and you will win at life

What is the difference between someone who consistently performs to the best of their ability and someone whose performance is unpredictable?  What allows someone to effortlessly tap into their peak performance and reach their goals and what compromises a person’s ability to access and sustain it?  One word- outlook.  Martin Seligman‘s groundbreaking research on learned optimism reveals how being optimistic is consistently related to improved health and longevity.  A US study of nearly 100 000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an eight year period.  On the other hand, pessimism has been linked to chronic stress and poor health functioning such as high levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased pain perception, and other signs of physiological and mental dysfunction.  Optimistic people appear to manage stress more efficiently than others so that their stress disappears at a faster rate than those who don’t utilize optimism in their outlook.

Seligman developed a test to help people identify their outlook style (which you can take here.)  If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t panic.  In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial!

Executive coaching can be an effective way to learn and adopt optimism to improve your overall functioning and sustain peak performance in all areas of your life.  I typically work with high-achieving young adults in the tech community of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.  Working with a coach is great for healthy people who are motivated to change what isn’t working, but need some guidance on how to execute strategically and efficiently.

The following tactics outline the basic tenets of Learned Optimism.  Keep in mind that our first reaction to something will always be automatic and happen instantaneously – that’s normal and to be expected!  We can acknowledge our initial reactions to an event without this becoming our permanent outlook on the matter.  That’s where Learned Optimism comes in.  We can cultivate this skill by identifying our first reaction, clarifying how this first outlook might impact our overall ability to problem-solve and perform, and challenge ourselves to adjust our outlook in order to optimize our performance and goal achievement.  With practice, we can improve our mental toughness, which is what helps a person cope with difficult situations, persevere and succeed at a high performance level.

Our outlook is shaped by our individual explanatory style, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experienced a particular event, either positive or negative.  There are three components to this:

  1. The permanence of an event – how long someone thinks it will last
  2. The pervasiveness or scope of an event – whether the person sees the event as specific and contained, or global and all-inclusive
  3.  Personalization of an event – whether the person views the event as something that was caused entirely by oneself, others or external factors

Learned Optimism tool # 1 – Adjust TIME outlook for an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as temporary:

  • “The next fiscal quarter will be better.”
  • This is a short-term setback.”
  • I’m having an off day today.”

Find ways to view a positive event as enduring and reflective of personal ability:

  • “I’m on a roll now, because I’ve worked hard, practiced, and now have a winning strategy.”
  • I know I can handle challenging things because I’ve already overcome so much.”
  • “I’ve created opportunities for myself in the past, and am capable of creating more.”

Learned Optimism tool # 2 – Adjust SCOPE of an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as specific and contained to one situation:

  • The next event will work out better because of what I’ve learned this time around.”
  • “I won’t let this personal rejection or difficult co-worker get in my way or stop me from reaching my goal.”
  • Things at my company are rough right now, but my personal life is going well.”

Find ways to view a positive event as global:

  • “Earning this promotion has gotten me on the right path to developing as a leader in the company.”
  • “My management style is more effective since I’ve made an effort to be more approachable and generous with my time.”
  • Taking social risks has been challenging but I’ve learned that overall, people respond well to me when I reach out first.”

Learned Optimism tool # 3 – Adjust PERSONALIZATION to contain one’s responsibility, recognize which personal strengths were utilized, and which external circumstances influenced the outcome of an event.

For negative events, identify your personal accountability, then factor in others’ contributions and the role of external circumstances:

  • “I can see how I contributed to the fight my spouse and I had.  I want to clarify my expectations and work on finding some middle ground so the next time this issue comes up we can avoid a blowup.”
  • “I reacted without communicating beforehand with my team members, which led to a break down in our overall progress.  I will suggest a few temporary solutions until we can figure out a more inclusive strategy.”
  • My company is going through major layoffs, and in spite of the contributions I made that demonstrated real utility, I’ve been informed it’s time to find my next position.”

For positive events, recognize which personal strengths you utilized to bring this event to fruition:

  • “I stayed focused on my goals and was willing to work harder when other people were frustrated and fed up, which helped me move forward and achieve in spite of facing real adversity.”
  • “I’m more comfortable and experienced speaking in front of others than my co-founder, so I took on the responsibility of pitching our idea to investors and now our startup has seed funding.” 
  • “I’ve worked on building up my tolerance for discomfort in social situations, which I believe gave me the confidence to ask out someone I’ve been interested in for months.  Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about stepping up and taking initiative.”

Bringing it all together- learned optimism is a winning strategy to get through challenging or unfair situations by shining a spotlight onto where there is opportunity for improved coping, positive progress and effective solutions.  Our initial response to a situation may not be the most effective way to navigate it successfully.  The key to adopting an optimistic mindset is to acknowledge the inherent choice we have in our response.  Learned optimism is not an exercise in avoiding responsibility or ignoring dire circumstances either.  Adopt an outlook that encourages personal accountability, and supports your performance growth in every area of life.  From your education to your work to your health, it is your outlook that predicts your level of success above all else.

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Trump style slurs: you don’t have to get your feelings hurt.

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With the Trump administration ahead of us, many Americans will witness or receive hate-filled comments meant to devalue, belittle and shame anyone who is demographically different.  The major uptick in hate crimes dates back toward the end of 2015, which corresponds with Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.  Since the presidential election results came in, national news and social media sites have already begun documenting a new surge of confrontational hate-mongering behaviors aimed at racial/ethnic/sexual/religious minorities.  Generally speaking, the most important response to hate mongering is to ensure one’s physical safety first and foremost.  This article is not meant to provide guidance on physical or legal protection tactics, but rather outlines the most accurate and effective way to emotionally immunize yourself to this type of ignorance.  You don’t have to get your feelings hurt.  You don’t have to feel the blow of belittlement when ignorant remarks are flung at you.  You don’t have to feel insulted or devalued.  In fact, when someone says or does something racist/misogynistic/etc, it’s an instant opportunity to recognize the disposition and circumstances surrounding the offender.  You will know immediately that this person is experiencing one or more of the following:

  1. People who feel compelled to point out their categorical superiority to others based on race/gender/religion/sexual orientation differences often do so because they feel a deep sense of resentment about not feeling good enough about themselves.  (They will vehemently argue that nothing could be further from the truth, but there is something called the subconscious (part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings) and it is working furiously in overtime to correct low self-worth.)  By actively engaging in a game of “I’m better than these people” (through various verbal or behavioral acts) they can give themselves a short-lived burst of much-needed self confidence.  It quickly dissipates, so they often choose to surround themselves with like-minded people so they can commiserate and boost each other up through mutually insulting group outsiders.
  2. People need to blame and find fault in whole categories of people out of fear: when older regions of the brain dominate a person’s cognitive style, more complex intellectual processing is superseded, limiting more complex comprehension of circumstances surrounding their perceived ‘problems’.  Attempting to solve one’s problems by persecuting a whole group of people in a scapegoat fashion is usually a tell-tale sign of shortsightedness that does not result in lasting solutions.  Failed solutions often leads to increased blaming and anger.  It’s a vicious cycle which some people remain stuck in, and then pass on to others as a narrow worldview.
  3. The bottom line is, people who are effective and successful in pursuing their life goals, feel a sense of personal resourcefulness, and are benefiting from genuinely loving relationships do not need to actively engage in hate-mongering and devaluing/disrespecting whole groups of people.  There is no need to assert oneself as superior at the expense of other’s basic rights, to the contrary, they enjoy embracing a spirit of generosity because they can afford to give and share without feeling threatened.  Being chronically unhappy does not give way to hate-mongering behaviors, but there’s a good chance they are prone to certain habits that perpetuate their own unhappiness.

That said, people who feel compelled to a seek momentary boost of self-importance through hate-mongering in the name of Trump support or otherwise, are likely doing so because they don’t feel adequately important enough in the world, prefer to indulge in overly simplified, fear-based solutions to their problems (or are less intellectually equipped or compelled to grasp more a complex understanding), and see anyone different than themselves as a threat to their well-being and/or way of life.  The last thing you should feel is slighted by someone else’s irrational fears and ignorant solutions to protecting and improving their station in life.  Recognize the pattern as something that has ensnared them, not you.  

Move forward by choosing to focus on the positive aspects of your own life rather than toil in the negativity that someone else is stewing in.  Stay true to your core beliefs and values.  You may feel discouraged and understandably frustrated with the influence of Trump’s hateful rhetoric that has emboldened some people to lash out against America’s longstanding value of inclusion.  The point is, you need not allow those people’s efforts to bring you down and keep you there.

 

#Squadgoals for grownups: how to build your social crew with confidence

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The Bay Area is home to a large number of people who relocate here for improved work or educational opportunities.  After settling in, most find themselves wanting to establish new local friendships, set up a social community, and increase their sense of group inclusiveness.  Many could benefit from developing their social crew with confidence, a.k.a. #squadgoals for grownups.  For some, building new friendships in an area brimming with overachievers in tech can feel intimidating, and lead to a sense of social isolation and loneliness.  Others who feel more comfortable in high achieving social contexts may find networking for professional purposes easier, but feel uncertain about how to read social cues outside of structured work settings.
One of the first things people can do is aim to understand the role they typically take on in group settings.  Most people can look back to childhood and notice re-occurring patterns in their social lives.  What influential experiences or people shaped your beliefs about friendship growth?  How did you come to understand yourself in comparison to others in a group dynamic?  Taking historical inventory can help people better understand and reflect upon their unique social development.  Why did some groups feel enjoyable and easy, whereas others felt uninteresting or even toxic?    Here are a few examples of young millennials working through social challenges:
29 year old  Jason “I’m bummed that some friends who said they’d do a 10k with me a few months ago ended up flaking- it felt pretty rude.  One person basically said they’d go if another mutual friend was going, but not if it was just me.  I feel like my social value in the group is lower than I thought, and now if I don’t go, it just proves I don’t have much influence.”
25 year old Sunako “I feel nervous in group settings, even when everyone in the group is a friend of mine.  I get worried that I don’t have anything interesting to contribute to the conversation, and I feel like everyone is smarter and funnier than me.”
28 year old Kiaan “I haven’t found a group of friends like the ones I had in NYC- I used to have a group of friends I could just hit up for random stuff, you know, grab a drink or a bite, shoot some hoops, whatever.  I can do that with work people here, but it’s just not the same, you know?  I don’t really connect with people here in the same way.”
Around the same time I decided to pen this article on #squadgoals for grownups, my daughter (who’s in the 3rd grade) hosted a sleepover for ten of her friends.  There’s nothing like watching a group of kids resolve social predicaments over and over as a way to examine the social nuances of group functioning.  As someone who’s well liked by her peers, makes new friends easily, and has successfully welcomed newcomers into her friend group, I wanted her to weigh in on what can help people feel confident in social situations.  I was hoping she’d give me a few basic points of reference to build upon how and why friendships grow stronger, and how to best enjoy social groups.  (The secret is out- multi-tasking parents are not opposed to having our kids do our work for us whenever possible!)  She offered the following tips in plain language, pointing out the most important tenets of developing friendships and navigating social groups.  These universal concepts are timeless, and I truly believe apply to all ages and social strata.  As we get older, we can overcomplicate things, take things too personally, and assign unnecessary value to social roles that undermine our confidence and ability to enjoy others.
  • If you’re feeling shy but would like to make new friends, it helps to remember: no one wants to play alone.  Everyone likes the feeling of being included.  By being part of a social group you can enjoy things differently than when you’re alone.  A group is only fun if people in it are getting along well.  How you can help this happen?  There are different ways you can be included in a social group.
  • If you want to build a leadership role within a group, you have to gain other people’s trust that a suggestion you have is going to go well and be fun.  Some people really like coming up with new ideas for the group, and other people like to add their opinions to a new idea.  A good leader pays attention to other people’s opinions and preferences when they’re coming up with suggestions for the group.
  • Everyone feels good when their idea is used for a group activity, so it’s good to take turns and let other people suggest ideas.  Be enthusiastic about their idea, and pay attention to how they’d it to go.  They’ll probably invite you back to do stuff with them again.
  • Move on from an activity that isn’t working well and don’t take it personally.  Focus on paying attention to what people find fun, and accept that some times an idea doesn’t go as planned.  Just let it go, and do something else.
  • It’s ok if you don’t enjoy coming up with ideas for the group- other people will still really like including you because you make a point to enjoy their suggestions.  They’ll keep including you because by participating you add to the fun of the group, and you’ll become closer friends with others that way.
  • Sometimes you might want to do an activity that other people in your group don’t want to do.  You have to decide what’s more important to you in that moment – doing the activity you had in mind, or doing something with the group.  If other people aren’t interested in joining you for this activity, you should focus on the reasons unrelated to you to that have probably influenced their decision.  You should not take it personally.  Just move on and stay focused on having fun, what ever you decide to do with your time.
  •  If you decide to do something different than the group, you can always meet up with them later, you don’t have to feel like you’re not part of the group anymore.  By getting together with the group another time, you get a chance to do different things, and other people can do the same.  If people in a group get mad anytime someone wants to do something different for a change, it’s probably not going to feel as much fun in the long run.  The best groups should still be able to have fun when people come and go at different times.
  • Most new friendships are established and reinforced because people enjoy doing the same types of things- even doing them alone these activities are fun, but by sharing the experience with other people, it adds to the fun.  In the beginning maybe you don’t feel that close to someone new, but as you do an activity with them, you end up feeling more comfortable and closer to them.  Before you know it you’re very close friends.
She makes it sound pretty simple, right? 🙂
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