Resilience is our ability to respond and bounce back to ongoing stressors and dramatically changing circumstances. When we build resilience, we are not striving to eliminate all experiences of distress or difficulty from our lives. Rather, we are aiming to grow and navigate difficult circumstances more gracefully. These principles apply at organizational levels, too.
The American Psychological Association names “positive thinking” and “maintaining a hopeful outlook” as two key facets of building resilience. Focusing on the positive rather than the negative allows us to surf the waves of difficulty rather than getting caught up in the undertow of the wave. In other words, it allows us to better regulate our emotions during stressful and challenging times.
More Than Platitudes
For those going through a particularly challenging time, hearing the well-intentioned advice of, “Stay optimistic!” or “Try having a more positive outlook!” may elicit nothing more than an eye roll. While the advice sounds simple and straightforward, it’s rooted in neuroscience.
Human brains are constantly learning, changing, and developing. The brain is a collection of neurons (nerve cells) that talk to one another by firing short electrical bursts. The more they talk to one another, the better they get at it. As Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb coined in 1949, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” Once these neural pathways develop, complex tasks become easier: brushing your teeth, playing a sport, strumming a guitar.
Different neural pathways control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When the brain experiences negative emotions and thinking, those neurons get “wired together,” which means they fire together more easily. That also means that the brain gets better at experiencing negative thoughts and emotions because they are more deeply rooted. On the other hand, if you don’t use certain neural pathways for a while, then the connections between those neurons get weaker and those thoughts and feelings start to fade.
As Alan Gordon, LCSW, and Alon Ziv (who has a degree in neuroscience and was awarded the Certificate of Distinction in Teaching in Biology from UCLA) explain in their book The Way Out, “If you have negative thoughts throughout the day, you are reinforcing those associations in your brain. You are training your brain to get better and better at fear. When you stop buying into those thoughts, those neural pathways weaken. Over time…the negative thoughts are less frequent.”
“Focusing on the positive rather than the negative allows us to surf the waves of difficulty rather than getting caught up in the undertow of the wave.”
Putting Positive Thinking into Practice
What does that mean for those of us receiving the advice to “think more positively”? It means that thinking positively isn’t just a pretty phrase; there are actual neurological processes changing within us when we practice replacing our negative thoughts with positive ones, even if we don’t believe them at first. The more frequently you think positive thoughts, the more your brain will absorb them. Over time, your automatic negative thoughts will become less automatic, and your brain will gradually learn to gravitate toward positive thoughts.
These principles go beyond individual mental health benefits; in fact, they can have a real impact on business and government. Take leadership, for example. A positive approach to leadership (focusing on organizational possibilities instead of the challenges) has been found to:
Energize and empower employees
Increase employee satisfaction
Improve the performance of individuals, teams, and organizations
And it works all the way down the line. Whether or not you are a leader within your organization, your shift in tone and mindset can have a huge impact on those around you. By building your individual resilience, you can set an example for what resilience on a broader scale might look like for your workplace.