The Little Engine That Could

Quick: Will you be crazily upset if you lost ten thousand dollars?

Or will you be so absurdly happy if you won the same amount in the lottery?

Which emotion will be stronger, lasting and more powerful?

Studies show that the anguish for the lost money is much stronger and longer lasting than the joy of winning. Lottery winners, a year later, are not happier than those who didn’t win. At the same time, survivors of serious traffic accidents who got paralyzed as a result, are not as unhappy as you’d expect; they rate their joy in living out small victories like lifting a finger as high – as the lottery winners.

But, overall human brains have a tendency to focus on the negative.

Martin Seligman, the “daddy” of the Positive Psychology movement argues that the brain is hard wired to be negative. Based on evolutionary theory, his thinking stems from our homo sapiens ancestors who would not have survived to kick start our genealogy lines unless they were tuned on to danger – mammoths, floods, earthquakes, glaciers and plain daily life in the ‘hood during the Pleistocene epoch. We certainly inherited the pessimistic genes that served us well in our game of survival.

So, worrying is a natural and default position – unless you do something to control and limit it.

The cynics will scoff here. Sure – great idea – but…how do you “arrest” your own thoughts from the gloominess of the bad case scenario, the fear and the anxiety of all the things that might go wrong, the pain you feel is coming on.

So, how about resilience?

“More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom,” wrote Dean Becker in the Harvard Business Review (May 2002).

The study of resilience started back in the 1960s and 1970s with psychologists who were studying children growing up in high risk environments. They realized that some kids developed into well-rounded and healthy adults, despite the difficulty they faced in their lives. Those who appeared to be doing great psychologically, in spite of poverty, hunger or war were quickly seen as being resilient, stress-resistant, survivors or “invulnerable”.

Whether facing small scale set-backs, like ruining your favorite pair of shoes in the mud or extremely difficult situations like the death of a family member or your house burning down, some people pick themselves up and get on with life. Others don’t. They get stuck, choose to stay on at victim status or sink deeper into depression and despair.

In an edgy, restless and rapidly changing world, boosting individual as well as community resilience could help inoculate against depression and pessimism, while boosting self-confidence, achievement levels, performance and productivity. Is there a secret? Can you teach resilience – is there a recipe to make the switch?

So, here’s a quick and dirty shopping list:

  1. See the humour in spite of the toughness and the difficulty – look for the other side of things – around the box, inside out or whatever as long as you don’t let yourself stay in the cage.
  2. Have Plans A & B ahead of time. While destiny, “kismet” or fate are widely accepted – don’t take comfort into that. Take action, be in control.
  3. Dare to abandon “unattainable goals”  – after all there’s a fine line between quitting and being smart. If you can’t see the bigger mission and the end-goal, start with smaller ones. Little goals are better than no goals at all.
  4. Connect with people who can help – after all sharing is part of the human experience and decreases the feeling of isolation.
  5. Never, ever be afraid to fail. The greatest lessons come from failures – so give yourself permission to flunk – that will teach you how to get up and move on.

So, next time you feel like giving up or giving in – don’t. Take your own bet – only you will know who won.

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