Last week’s post was about the causes of resilience. In that post I mentioned that resilience is a matter of nature and nurture. Resilience is a positive psychology construct and relates closely to other positive psychology ideas such as happiness, optimism, etc. You will see that Lyubomyrsky’s perspective on happiness is that it is about 50% genetic, 10% situational and the rest is made up of how we come to regard the world. Researchers will argue about the 50%, with some asserting a figure as high as 70%, but let’s agree that there is a fair slice left over which we can alter for our own benefit.
That is where resilience techniques come in, which improve the levels of positive emotion in people, but can also be shown to reduce stress. The combination of the two proves to be very powerful.
Technique cluster no. 1 – focus.
“The secret of life is what you focus on.” The old question of whether the glass is half full or half empty is actually an excellent one. People who practice techniques of focussing in the positive – for instance Martin Seligman’s three blessings (1992) can markedly reduce their levels of negative thoughts and improve their optimism. It is all a matter of practice. The more you practice picking the positive kernels out of your experience the more your optimism and resilience will increase.
Here is Seligman’s three blessings exercise, for those of you who don’t know it. Find 5-10 minutes per day to sit down and reflect on your day. Write up to 3 good things which happened to you that day. Things you are grateful for. When you wake up the next morning, review what you wrote yesterday and remind yourself that you are going to do the same exercise that day. Write the three blessings that night, and so on. I have coached many people to do this and the feedback is often surprising. People can’t believe that such a small exercise can have such a big impact. People who lack resilience often struggle initially to do this exercise. In a couple of weeks, however, they usually find that they can do it easily. They have literally built the neural pathways of positivity and are more resilient for it.
You can also vary this exercise and apply it to the future. Instead of writing down three blessings, write down three things to look forward to. If you are expecting to have a tough week at work, pick out some things which you think you are going to enjoy, or maybe if they are going to be tough, what positive outcomes will they ultimately achieve? Practising this will once more build up the neural connections of optimism. When people do this consistently, especially if they take the time and trouble to write the ideas down, they will diminish their nervousness about what is coming and increase the amount of positive emotions they bring to their activities. I have had clients reduce their insomnia through using the two techniques above.
Locus of control. One of the solid foundations of psychology is Albert Bandura’s concept of self efficacy (1997). Bandura showed that some people focus on the things which they can’t control, which cultivates a perception of victimhood. They have an external “locus of control” – control is outside of them. A third resilience building technique is to develop an internal locus of control by focussing only on the things which we can control. I have had the joy of managing companies during recessions in Australia (showing my age here) Asia and in London. One of the common features of running a consulting firm during such tough times is that the consultants can feel helpless. They try their hardest, but it seems that they cannot bill. They worry (quite rightly) about losing their jobs if the company can no longer pay their salaries.
I found that a very powerful technique for increasing resilience and levels of optimism during these times was to tell them to forget about billing. We agreed as a group a series of activities that each person would undertake each week which we knew would contribute to their billings if they did them well. Then at the end of each week we would agree that each person who achieved their activities would go home a winner whether they had billed or not. This made a massive difference to their mood, but guess what? They improved their billings. Why? They had increased their levels of self-efficacy by virtue of adopting an internal locus of control. It is amazing the energy one can find when one stops being a victim.
Tune in next week for more resilience techniques.
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Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman, p. 604, ISBN 978-0-7167-2626-5
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K, & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9 (2), 111-131.
Seligman, M. (1992). Learned optimism: how to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.