Given that I’m a happiness researcher, you might think I’d strive to help people eliminate unhappiness in their careers. But unhappiness actually serves a crucial function, signaling the need for change, prompting us to switch companies or fields, or even just motivating us to secretly update our resume at home (just in case). Unhappiness is what motivated me to jump from computer engineer to national CBS news anchor to now, happily, a positive psychology researcher.
But here’s the rub: The same unhappiness that can prompt us to look for something that’s a better fit often does not serve us well as we engage in that pursuit. From a scientific standpoint, a positive, optimistic mindset is better fuel for the journey than the dissatisfaction or negativity that got us started on a new path in the first place.
Optimistic thinking empowers us during uncertain times, prompting us to take positive action steps. The reason for this is that optimists generally expect good things to happen in the face of challenges and, most importantly, believe that their behavior matters for creating positive change. In the work my colleagues and I do counseling people who have recently lost their jobs, we can almost instantly identify the optimists in the room: They take action more quickly to find a new job because they believe negative events are temporary; they update their resumes, jump on LinkedIn, and network with former colleagues to find an opening. The pessimists will get around to those behaviors, but it often takes them longer and is done with less enthusiasm, which in nearly all cases affects end results.
Optimism is also helpful during the interview process, making candidates appear more likeable and capable. When a hiring manager asks about a recent challenge and how you solved it, the way you frame your response is telling for future performance. I regularly tell managers looking for optimistic hires to simply listen to how people answer that question. Optimists focus more on the energizing aspects of work and the areas in which they have control. If an interviewee gives an empowered response with a focus on the solutions instead of merely discussing the problem, that person is worth a second interview.
When we land a new job, optimism pays dividends there, too. My research with Shawn Achor (who also happens to be my husband) has found that work optimists are five times less likely to burn out than pessimists and three times more likely to be highly engaged in their jobs. In a study conducted at MetLife, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that optimistic sales professionals outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 37%. Optimists have also been found to make more money over the course of their careers and to be more satisfied with their path.
The most hopeful aspect coming out of optimism research is that our mindset is malleable — just like a muscle at the gym, we can work on it to strengthen it. Our mindset is not merely a result of genes and upbringing. By refocusing attention on the positive, meaningful parts of life and our personal strengths, we can scientifically retrain the brain to default to that way of thinking.
Three daily habits we’ve researched and found incredibly effective for building optimism are thinking of three new, specific things you’re grateful for each day; emailing a two-minute positive note to someone new every morning to praise or thank them; and spending a few minutes each day writing about the most meaningful moment from the past 24 hours. Rather than focusing on hassles, complaints, and annoyances, these simple actions reroute our brains to infuse our lives with meaning and gratitude. This practice is good for the meantime, but it also helps us cultivate happiness, and therefore success, in our new jobs, too.