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Success in 7 Short Steps

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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People who succeed in their jobs and in life are typically blessed with a special blend of four qualities: efficacy (self-confidence), resilience, hope and optimism. This mental confection, which scientists call psychological capital, reflects our capacity to overcome obstacles and push ourselves to pursue our ambitions. Not surprisingly, having lots of it is linked to both personal and professional fulfillment.

Although individuals vary in how much of this motivational firepower they possess, the amount is not fixed. You can boost your psychological capital—and the key is changing your habits. Simply deciding to improve your outlook won’t work. Instead, people need to cultivate a positive mindset through rituals and goals, say University of Nebraska management scholars Fred Luthans and Peter Harms. Here’s how:

girl writing in journal

Courtesy of redcargurl via Flickr.

1. Write a gratitude letter. Consider the people and things you are most grateful for—and write them down. If you wish, you can write a letter to a person who means a lot to you. The recipient is likely to be touched. But if addressing an individual is uncomfortable or inappropriate, pen a note to yourself about all the things that are going well or that you feel fortunate to have. Set aside a time each day to do this. For instance, write one journal entry each night just before bed listing the good things that happened to you and what you are grateful for. Too much of the time, we focus on our fears and problems, because those relate to situations we need to avoid or solve to survive. But if you stop to count your blessings, you will realize how lucky you are.

two happy guys

Courtesy of insouciance via Flickr.

2. Seek out the good things in life. Make an effort to find situations that make you feel happy and proud. Spend time with those who love and support you. If you know people who make you feel miserable, don’t interact with them. “Although criticism can be a good thing,” Harms says, “unrelenting criticism rarely is.”

3. Don’t forget to relax. Exercise or meditate on a daily basis, even if you only have a short time to do so. Fifteen minutes per day to clear your head and relax has been shown to be associated with both happiness and physical wellbeing. Getting enough sleep helps as well, Luthans says.

4. Put problems in perspective. Think about the true scope of your troubles. “Not everything’s the end of the world,” Harms reminds me. In fact, he adds, most of us worry about relatively minor hassles and concerns on a daily basis. You worries will seem less significant if you compare them to those of people in the throes of divorce, who have lost their jobs or who have been diagnosed with a serious illness. Harms gets his perspective from soldiers he sees regularly for one of his projects. “These are people who are putting their lives on hold to go to a place where people are trying to kill them,” he reports.

5. Set achievable goals. Make sure your aims are meaningful to you so that you gain satisfaction from completing them. Make them challenging, but also realistic and specific enough that you can act on them. If you are too ambitious, you will set yourself up for failure. Then keep a record of your progress so that you can look back and see how far you have come. Seeing that improvement is possible will motivate you to keep moving forward.

boy with 3 rubber bands on right arm

Rubber bands on your arm can remind you to be nice to others. Courtesy of fekaylius via Flickr.

6. Do nice things for others. One way to get in the habit of doing nice things for others, suggests Luthans, is to put three rubber bands around one of your wrists and transfer one band to the other wrist each time you do something kind for another person. The bands can serve as reminders to finish your three tasks before the day ends.

7. Spend money on experiences, not objects. Better yet, spend money on other people. Individuals who are given cash and told to spend it on others report higher levels of wellbeing than those who spend it on themselves, Luthans says.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. makeswell 12:59 am 02/17/2012

    I’m surprised this article doesn’t mention the power of compassion meditation and Richard Davidson’s studies of practitioners whose brains changed towards these four qualities as a result of compassion meditation. And, unlike these other ‘ways of achieving happiness’, Davidson’s studies involved MRI scans and not surveys and subjective self-ratings.

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  2. 2. blshanahan 9:12 am 02/20/2012

    Just as there are studies that “prove” that one can learn to cultivate compassion and loving kindness, many individuals have difficulty integrating practice into their daily lives. Reading and being able to quote such studies does not in itself make one more compassionate and kind. Thank you for sharing some practical tips that can be used to help put these ideas into practice.

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  3. 3. CBLCSW 4:23 pm 04/13/2012

    As a psychotherapist, I have observed that for many people struggling with the lack of ‘success’ in their lives, that they often are measuring themselves against an external standard that defines success entirely in terms of career advancement or monetary gain. This limited definition of success is so deeply ingrained in our culture, that many people perceive themselves as having ‘failed’ regardless of how much they’ve accomplished. Cultivating a sense of appreciation for moments of everyday happiness and beauty is essential for creating a more balanced and nuanced understanding of what a successful life looks like. Parents can teach this kind of appreciation to children. It is indeed one of the building blocks of resilience.

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