Are You Flourishing or Floundering? Tips for Leaders

Updated: Jul 17, 2018

One evening, an old Cherokee tells his grandson that inside all people, a battle goes on between two wolves.

One wolf is negativity: anger, sadness, stress, contempt, disgust, fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame, and hate. The other is positivity: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and above all, love.

The grandson thinks about this for a minute, then asks his grandfather, “Well, which wolf wins?”

The grandfather replies, “The one you feed.”

Are you leading a Flourishing Life or are you floundering? What about the environment you create around you at work or at home - does that enable others to flourish?

Psychologist, Dr Barbara Fredrickson, has studied the power of positive emotions and their effect on our well-being. Negative emotions have a narrowing effect whereas positive emotions often initiate a cycle of more positive emotions which facilitate the development of skills, networks, resources and capacities, all which promote well-being and fulfilment. Fredrickson draws on the imagery of the water lily to illustrate her theory: “Just as water lilies retract when sunlight fades, so do our minds when positivity fades”.

For leaders and organisations looking to increase their engagement with staff, Dr Fredrickson’s work has a number of important tips to assist.

She found that people who flourish in life, who have rich relationships, rewarding work and who feel their life is meaningful, have at least three positive emotions for every negative one. Positive emotions have many well-documented benefits for us including:

  • Improving physical health

  • Fostering trust and compassion

  • Acting as a buffer against depressive symptoms and helping people recover from stress

  • Undoing the undesirable effects of negative emotions

  • Fostering better social connectedness

  • Increasing resilience and resourcefulness

Positive emotions actually change the way our minds and our bodies work—change the very nature of who we are, down to our cells—transforming our outlook on life and our ability to confront challenges.

Dr Fredrickson identified the Top 10 Positive Emotions that contribute to Flourishing (you can read more detail about what each one means here ). They are:

  1. Amused, fun-loving, or silly

  2. Awe, wonder, or amazement

  3. Grateful, appreciative, or thankful

  4. Hopeful, optimistic, or encouraged

  5. Inspired, uplifted, or elevated.

  6. Interested, alert, or curious.

  7. Joyful, glad, or happy.

  8. Love, closeness, or trust.

  9. Proud, confident, or self-assured.

  10. 1Serene, content, or peaceful.

Dr Fredrickson has created a free website for you to calculate your positivity ratio. She says, “It’s kind of surprising and humbling to realise that, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us aren’t above this three-to-one ratio on a daily basis.”

These positive moments are the micro-moments of everyday living - since paying attention to this theory, I’ve been noticing more and more my emotional state through the day, simple pleasures such as going for a walk and savouring the colours of the sky and trees and feeling joy by being outside; stopping to remember what I’ve achieved during the day and taking pride in my work; pausing to take some deep breaths and noticing how that makes me feel at peace and calm; watching the Australian Open Tennis and feeling inspired and in awe of the skills and drive of the players; and reflecting at the end of each day about what I’m grateful for.

I’ve also become more aware of the negative emotions I experience through the day, and its surprised me at how often I feel anxious. This was leading to behaviours like procrastination. Now that I’m aware of this I can choose how to respond whereas before I just hadn’t connected that my behaviours were being driven unconsciously by this feeling of anxiety.

What do you think your positivity ratio would be? Do you pay attention to the range of emotions you experience through your day? As leaders, our emotions affect the state of others with whom we work, so what impact is your emotional state having on those around you?

Dr Fredrickson developed the ‘Broaden and Build’ Theory. It says that experiencing any or all of these ten positive emotions with sufficient frequency and authenticity broadens our scope of attention, allowing us to become more open to new possibilities and ideas, creative, flexible and accepting.

The theory says that positive emotions do much more than cause us happiness, joy and contentment in the moments we experience them. Positive emotions drive our minds to broaden, and with our ‘blinders’ peeled back, we are open to take-in a broader variety of perceptual information from our environment. They also broaden behaviors such as awareness, play, discovery, and curiosity.

This broadening effect not only happens in the short-term, as we are experiencing positive emotions, but it also has longer-term benefits. Positive emotions allow us to build personal well-being resources such as:

  • psychological resources –the development of resilience and optimism and of a greater sense of identity

  • physical resources –improved strength, co-ordination and cardiovascular health

  • intellectual resources – enhanced problem-solving skills and a better ability to learn new information

  • social resources – strengthening of existing bonds and new connections made

These resources are durable and can be drawn upon in later moments, in different emotional states, to maintain well-being - hence the “build” part of the theory. As we put these resources into action more positive emotions are generated which build more resources resulting in an ‘upward positive spiral’ resulting in us experiencing ‘flourishing’.

Dr Fredrickson explains, “Our day-to-day positive emotions function as nutrients for our overall well-being. Today’s positive emotions do not simply exemplify today’s well-being, they also help to create next month’s increases in well-being.”

On the other hand, negative emotions like anxiety, fear, frustration or anger cause our minds to constrict. We focus in on the threat, whether it’s real or perceived and this limits our ability to be open to new ideas and build resources and relationships.

Please note that Dr Fredrickson is not advocating for the elimination of negative emotions as they have a very important role to play in our lives, as do positive ones.

It is up to us to pay attention and be on the lookout for positive moments. Our brains are wired to notice more negative events than positive ones (negativity bias) so it’s up to us to purposefully notice the good things. When we experience a positive moment, we are invited to appreciate it and take in how it makes us feel. We should notice when we feel these things, and draw strength from the feeling. Focusing on and experiencing the positive aspects of life actually builds new neural structures in the brain.

Again for leaders, what environment are you creating at work or at home? Is it a positive one where people are at their best and can flourish? Or is it one of fear, mistrust, where people feel anxious? The science shows us that this is counter-productive to productivity and performance.

So what are the tips for leaders from Dr Fredrickson’s work?

Start with yourself - like most things, it all starts with you. Dr Fredrickson says, “One individual’s experience of positive emotion can reverberate through other organisational members and across interpersonal transactions with customers, positive emotions may fuel optimal organisational functioning, helping organisations to thrive and prosper. Leaders’ positive emotions are especially contagious.”

Here’s some ideas for how you might increasing your own state of ‘Flourishing’:

  • Most of us have a ‘to do’ list.....and why not also consider also having a ‘to feel’ list?

  • Schedule in time for activities that you know build your own positive emotions - what are these for you and what emotions to they elicit?

  • Press the pause button more often through your day and pay attention to your emotional state.

  • Use the Top 10 Positive Emotions as a checklist to assess the state of your ‘Flourish’. For each of these positive emotions you can ask yourself - when was the last time I was feeling this? Where was I? What was I doing? How might I pay more attention to noticing these emotions throughout my day?

  • Right now in your life, which of the ten emotion types on the list above do you feel least often? Which of the emotion types on the list is the most underrepresented in/missing from your day-to-day life? Pick one of the group of emotions you’re most interested in increasing. Spend 10 minutes generating at LEAST 15 ideas for how you could increase your opportunities to experience those emotions. Let your mind roam free - be courageous, creative, experimental. Then just let your ideas sit and try to practice one over the next few days and note what happens.

  • Track your positivity ratio daily, discover what makes you come alive and give those activities higher priority. We need three positive emotions for every negative emotion to stay in balance.

  • Practice gratitude daily - it’s one of the easiest and most powerful ways to experience positive emotions.

Here are some tips to help your people experience more positive emotions while they’re at work (courtesy of Elizabeth F. Cabera, The Six Essentials of Workplace Positivity)

So which wolf are you choosing to feed? I hope you’ve found this newsletter useful and that you come away with some practical tips on how you and your people can lead a Flourishing Life - imagine how things would be and how we could all benefit if we could all have more Flourish and less Flounder!