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:
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.
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.
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.