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How to mind your emotions at work

/ Dec 18, 2012 6:46AM / Print / ()

How to mind your emotions at work

When we think about emotions at work, our minds usually go straight to that emotion – crying. God forbid we should ever commit one of the all-time cardinal sins of the workplace, especially if we worked in PR maven Kelly Cutrone's New York office. Kelly is famous for saying: "if you have to cry, go outside".

But there is more to the discussion on emotions at work than just shedding the odd tear or two. There has been a huge amount of research done in recent years about the benefits of emotion in the workplace, particularly around positive emotions. Back in time, if you saw someone enjoying himself or herself at work, you know, smiling at people, stopping for a friendly chat, and maybe even – wait for it – laughing, then they were obviously not serious about their work, and clearly didn't work very hard at all.

We now know, from the science of positive psychology and neuroscience, that eliciting positive emotions not only makes us happier at work, but it also makes us more productive, more creative, helps us think more laterally, and actually makes our brains work better to deliver better results.

If you want to be innovative at work, solve more problems, and build good relationships with colleagues and your boss, then you want to really think about positive emotions in the workplace. So let's look at the why, when and how of positive emotions – and what to do with the negative ones when they rear their ugly little heads.

The why of positive emotions

Groundbreaking psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has spent the past 20 years studying positive emotions, and the impact they have on people all over the world. In a recent interview, she explained why we should up the ante on the positive: "When people increase their daily diets of positive emotions, they find more meaning and purpose in life. They also find that they receive more social support–or perhaps they just notice it more, because they're more attuned to the give-and-take between people. They report fewer aches and pains, headaches, and other physical symptoms. They show mindful awareness of the present moment and increased positive relations with others. They feel more effective at what they do. They're better able to savour the good things in life and can see more possible solutions to problems. And they sleep better." Nice one.

Part of Fredrickson's research outlines the "Broaden and Build" theory, which is one of the cornerstones of positive psychology. This theory helps us to understand why it's so important to have the positive outweigh the negative in our day. In fact, her positivity ratio says that the minimum is three positive emotions to one negative emotion for happiness; but if you really want to thrive, you should be looking at anywhere up to six to one. And a note to all the parents out there – think about the interactions you have with your kids, and do a count of the positive to negative interactions – you could be surprised (or mildly horrified) at the reality. And the same goes for your relationship with your partner.

The Broaden and Build theory outlines that negative emotions, like fear and anger, lead to the brain actually narrowing its capacity and capability – like the lights being turned off – limiting our ability to think clearly, creatively and productively. On the other hand, positive emotions lead to cognitive flexibility, lighting up the neural pathways of our brains, broadening our abilities and, over time, building our resources like expanded skills and social ties.

I don't know about you, but I want some of that. But what exactly are positive emotions, and how do we get more of them in our days?

Cultivating the positive

To be able to cultivate positive emotions, we first need to know what they are, and we also need to be able to identify our feelings. In her book Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson explains the ten most common positive emotions which include:

Joy: experienced from delightful and cherished experiences, where we feel light and vibrant.

Gratitude: experienced when we feel appreciation or are thankful for something or someone in our lives.

Serenity: a state of peacefulness and tranquility, experienced in those times when you can just be happy in the moment. I call it bliss.

Interest: comes when you are being curious, wondrous, or intrigued about the world around you. For me it comes through writing, study and reading. It's a big one for me.

Hope: the feeling that things will turn out for the best. I think this is one of the most critical, as without hope, what is there?

Pride: being able to feel dignified, accomplishing something that has a level of social value, and being proud about it. This can come from a sense of purpose and holding meaning in what you are doing.

Amusement: experiencing fun, humourous and playful situations, and being amused by others. Amusement helps us build connections with others too.

Inspiration: comes when you have an uplifting or moving experience. This can happen when you see true goodness in someone. We can accomplish amazing things when we are inspired.

Awe: thee feeling of wonder. Think about watching the ocean waves crash, admiring beautiful art, or looking at a structurally-amazing building. We think about how small we are, compared to the enormity of the world we live in.

Love: this one's the grand prize, the compilation of all of the above. Love is about strong affection and personal attachment, strong positive feeling towards someone else. Love really is everything.

So there you have it. The ten scientifically-studied and researched positive emotions which will lead you to the good life. So what do you do with these? The biggest part is to be aware of the emotions you are feeling, and choose to experience these positive ones whenever you can. Be open-minded, and allow for moments of joy, gratitude, inspiration and awe in your life. We are so busy, we don't often stop to think about how we are feeling, or if we are experiencing those moments of goodness that lead to happiness. Create the space and make the time, and watch the positivity flood in to your life.

Check back tomorrow for tips on how to avoid and minimise negativity at work.

This is an edited extract from Megan Dalla-Camina's book, Getting Real About Having it All.

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