The secret to your best year yet

I went running the other morning. It was cold and pitch black, which went well with my mood. I felt a bit like the Grinch before his heart grew two sizes that day. Besides feeling snarly, anxious, and grumpy, I was feeling robbed. This time of year we are supposed to be awash with joy! ‘Tis the season of hope and light and miracles and magic! I want my sense of goodwill toward men! I want my merriment and mirth!

Bah humbug.

I almost wrote a post last week I was tentatively calling “the world really does revolve around you.” The gist would have been this: that our own lived experience and external behavior are the only things we have control over, and that we have both the power and responsibility to direct them. I might have made the case for this kind of personal responsibility being the foundation for effective relationships and therefore ultimately team and business success. But I was too grumpy  to write about it, because I didn’t want to face the fact that I’m the one chasing away the elusive magical holiday feeling I desired, that I wasn’t feeling it because I wasn’t creating it, or creating the conditions for it.

Luckily for me, two events intercepted my foul mood: an unexpected work project that flummoxed my plans for a nice long holiday, and getting taken down by a one-two punch of sicknesses. How is this lucky, you ask?

For starters, the work project involved conducting 360-degree feedback interviews for an individual who by all accounts is a genuinely admirable person. As I listened to people extol his commendable personal qualities – generosity, graciousness, warmth, positivity – I felt them settle around me like a warm, cozy blanket. I was struck again by this idea of choice and responsibility. The choices we make and actions we take day in and day out create behavioral and perceptual patterns that determine both how others see us and how we see ourselves. And I had gotten into a bad habit of thinking and acting like Ebeneezer Scrooge. And getting sick in the midst of it reminded me I had a choice about how to see the situation: I could be a grouch, or I could be grateful for the things I take for granted, like working with people I respect and having loved ones who quietly pick up my slack when I’m knackered.

So I did find up finding the secret ingredient to brewing up my own dose of holiday magic: choosing to be grateful. And brought me full circle back to the importance of taking responsibility for your own experience and impact, because it doesn’t just affect you but also those around you.

Fun fact: researchers can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will divorce based simply on the ratio of positive to negative interactions between the couple. Unsurprisingly, positive interactions need to outweigh the negative, by a factor of five. The further a couple is from the “magic ratio” of 5:1, the more likely they are to end up divorced. Why am I mentioning this little marital tidbit? Because of this other fun fact: highly effective teams have a higher ratio of positive to negative comments made to one another compared to less effective teams. And guess what? The average ratio of positive to negative comments in the highest-performing teams was 5.6 to 1.

Individuals, relationships, and teams are better when they’re skewed toward positivity and gratitude.

From an individual perspective, looking for things to be grateful for improves well-being, mood, stress levels, life satisfaction, and self-control. From a social perspective, this 5:1 foundation greases the wheels of the relationship. It helps cultivate a foundation of trust and respect and a store of social credits – we all make missteps at times, but people find it easier to give you a pass and excuse jerky behavior if most of the time you seem to extend them your care and concern. In teams, it creates a safe environment in which to admit to mistakes or failings or throw out crazy – but potentially innovative – ideas.

The tricky part is that the human mind is really good at finding what is inconsistent, what is wrong or could be better. It’s not as good at looking for what is right, even when it’s right under the nose. It makes sense from a survival point of view to have a mind bent toward potential threats, but over the long term, it’s harmful. We have to work hard to create a different pattern, a habit of looking for what is right.

This time of year, I find myself torn between being revolted by the notion of New Year’s resolutions, but simultaneously drawn to feeling reflective of the past year and looking out ahead and thinking about what I can do differently next year. And while I’m steadfastly refusing to make any specific resolutions, I am adopting a theme for the year, and it’s about gratitude and positivity. We could all use a bit more of it.