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Positive thinking can help campus employees thrive (essay)

Harvesting Positivity
October 5, 2012

I.

The word October begins with a promising “O,” a mandala to fill in with the details you choose. What is your expression today? Sad? Scowling?

Can you tilt the corner of your mouth up a bit? Enough of the intrusive you, patient reader. How about I try that myself?

As you know from a previous A Kinder Campus (“Rx for Foot-in-Mouth Disease”): I don’t like to be told to smile on demand, even by myself. Yet despite my resistance, I suspect that cultivating positivity could enhance my well-being. And yours, too. And maybe the ripple effect will reverberate on campus.

II.

Not long ago, I found via Google Scholar an MLA publication, "Reflections on Academic Burnout"  by Mary Louise Briscoe published in ADE Bulletin 79 (Winter 1984), 1–7.  Burnout  was a word I first heard as a secretary from an unexpected source: a calm, capable instructor. My image of burnout up to that point was a frazzled person making unrealistic demands of others, not this gentle person, well-liked by students and colleagues. Burnout prevention as well as creativity cultivation are my twin passions in dealing with students, and I fight this battle within myself at times. Health professionals, others in helping professions, and K-12 teachers speak openly of burnout; in my circles in academia, however, I rarely hear the term though I suspect it is an unacknowledged reality. So the word beckoned to me again when I took my first counseling class years ago, discovering then a sole article on burnout in liberal arts faculty as well as abundant research by Christina Maslach and others, which I found eye-opening.

III.

Friends and colleagues and family can be buffers against stress, but we can’t always lean on them. Therapists and clergy provide lifelines, too, but it is often the resources of our own minds and hearts that we rely on. Sustaining worry, anxiety, anger, or jealousy over a long period of term is an energy drain with possible health consequences. Perhaps neural networks of our brains can extend creatively beyond rumination and griping; the networks themselves were beautifully described by Nicholette Leanza in October’s Counseling Today. Even as we work to transform our institutions, we need to take time to care for ourselves.

I am fond of music and sometimes compare the bass line with our temperamental inclinations and the melody with our interactions.  Insights of positive psychology might allow us to modify the composition (if we are inclined) with pleasure, meaning and gratitude. Spawned by behavioral scientists such as Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of California, positive psychology, is “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive” as described on the University of Pennsylvania website. Barbara Frederickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Positivity (Crown, 2009), has studied the power of a three to one ratio of positive to negative emotions to improve well-being. She has expressed on YouTube that “fear closes down our minds and our hearts” and “positivity is an encompassing word ... [including] love, joy, gratitude, interest, and hope.” She maintains that “we are surrounded by sources of goodness all the time,” including human kindness and natural beauty but cautions against “toxic insincerity.”

IV.

Michele Tugade has been on the Vassar College faculty since 2004, teaching social psychology, individual differences, health psychology, and affective science.  Her Ph.D. in social psychology is from the University of Michigan, where she worked closely with Barbara Frederickson; she then completed a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral research fellowship in the Interdisciplinary Affective Sciences Laboratory at Boston College, working with Lisa Feldman Barrett. Her research focuses on positive emotions and coping along with mechanisms that promote resilience under stress; in addition, she studies emotion-related processes connected with health and well-being.

She offered insights via email on harvesting positivity.

MSS: I think it’s very important to distinguish positive psychology from magical thinking or stuffing one's emotions. Would you agree?

MT: Yes, I would agree. Positive psychology is an approach in psychological science, and it is based on empirical evidence. 

MSS: Students worry a lot and do their share of griping. Should this be short-circuited?

MT: Worry can be useful.  It allows one to be able to process what needs to be done to manage a stressful experience, and prepares one to handle an upcoming event that feels threatening. Too much worry, however, can impair problem-solving, disrupt social relationships, and enhance negative feelings – especially anxiety.  So, it is important to try to minimize worry, so that one does not perseverate on their anxiety, but can actively manage their stress.

MSS: Administrators have worries and a lot of responsibilities. Do you have tips on cultivating positivity, perhaps to promote creative thinking?

MT: Express gratitude to others:  Feeling appreciative can foster the savoring of positive life experiences and situations, so that people can extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from their circumstances.

Practice courage:  One of the characteristics of being able to make sound decisions (which administrators must do all the time) is the capacity to be courageous. Courage entails taking steps to handle difficult emotions when they arise.  It also involves identifying what one fears, and working towards conquering those fears and anxieties.  As well, courage can involve standing up for what one believes and knows is important for one's future.

Be flexible:  Flexibility is the hallmark of resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from stressful circumstances efficiently and effectively. There may be roadblocks along the way when one is dealing with finances and relationships, so being flexible can be useful when one is temporarily derailed, so that one can get back on track and move forward.

Share the good news of others: “Capitalization” is a term used to describe the act of sharing the good news of others.  This helps to spread positive feelings to a number of individuals, thereby fostering stronger social connections with others.

MSS: Professors at all phases of their careers are under pressure. What suggestions might you give, particularly to avoid burnout?

MT:

  • Reflect on a personal strength:  This can be useful for enhancing performance and redirecting attention to be more productive.
  • Have self-compassion:  Research shows that self-compassion refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself rather than being harshly critical or judgmental.
  • Be present (rather than focusing solely on the future):  Having mindful awareness can be a useful antidote to stress.  It allows one to pay attention to one’s current circumstances can gives one the opportunity to reflect on  events in one’s life in a non-judgmental way.
  • Take pause:  Rather than being reactionary, the ability to take a momentary pause, or a short breather, can often be useful in helping an individual get a better grasp of one's personal goals and decide what to do next. This can help to restore and replenish one's body and mind when thinking about issues of great significance or importance. This can be also especially important for maintaining meaningful and genuine relationships.

V.

October brings piles of work -- as well as leaves -- and tends to be a time of concerted effort and pressure. Perhaps gently harvesting positivity will help lighten the load for our campuses and for ourselves.

 

 

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