Michelle Gielan is a big fan of positive thinking. A former journalist for CBS News, Gielan believes that focusing on good news goes much further than harping on the bad.
Gielan, now a positive psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Broadcasting Happiness, previously examined the impact that solution-based news reporting had on readers. She found that people don't necessarily favor depressing or sensational stories. They also enjoy stories that present society's problems as opportunities for improvement -- and they were more likely to share those stories with friends and family.
Intrigued by the results, Gielan decided to take a look at whether a solution-based approach would help solve problems in the workplace too. Her latest research, conducted in partnership with The Huffington Post, focuses on how managers can better talk about issues in the office and get people to think creatively.
The key, once again, is to not just highlight what’s going wrong, like poor quarterly results or a change in management, but to offer solutions for those specific problems. That way, team members are thinking about how to improve going forward, rather than becoming dejected by less-than-ideal results at work.
“Managers struggle with telling their teams about bad news, but you don’t have to isolate your team from bad news,” Gielan told HuffPost. “You have to do it in a way that gets their brain moving from problems to potential solutions.”
For the study, 248 participants were asked to read an article that either revolved around a problem or explained both the problem and solutions. One article, for example, looked at food insecurity in the United States, while another discussed ways in which food bank shortages could be avoided.
Those who read a solution-based article reported feeling less hostile, less uptight and less agitated than those who had read a problem-based article. But the researchers didn't just observe a difference in participants' mood: When individuals read about solutions or actions that would be easy for them to recreate (like donating to a food bank), they improved by 20 percent on a task they were asked to complete later.
“When you remind people of their ability to control specific things, people do better” on tasks, she said.
In a way, she added, putting forward solutions among team members in an office isn’t too different from a news outlet highlighting positive stories for its readers.
“We’re constantly broadcasting info to people, as team members, as managers, as parents, and it can fuel people to success or hold them back,” Gieland said. “How can a business change what it’s broadcasting to its employees?”
Positive thinking can go beyond the office, too. A growing body of research has supported the benefits of this optimism to physical health, including reducing the risk of heart disease and improving immune system function.
But some caution against getting carried away with positive thinking. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science posits that leaning too heavily on optimistic fantasies could, in the long run, exacerbate symptoms of depression.
Instead, those researchers suggested that positive thinking be taken in the right doses -- and that people remain realistic about achieving their goals.