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Fueling Positive Emotions in a World Gone Mad

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If there is anything this nasty, fear-driven, dispiriting political season has demonstrated, it's that no politician -- Democrat, Republican, or otherwise -- has any compelling solutions to what ails us. Even as partisan a figure as Jeb Bush is suggesting voters are feeling "disgust with the political class."

We live in a world that has grown increasingly complex and contradictory, angry and fearful, polarized but utterly interdependent.

How, then, to feel more control over our destiny amid so many daunting challenges and so few clear answers?

Here are four very personal behaviors to consider, offered in a spirit of hopefulness and humility:

1. Practice Realistic Optimism.

There is a powerful principle in psychology called "bad is stronger than good." We're quicker to notice threats to our well-being than we are to focus on what's working well.

Often, it's an instinct that serves us poorly. There is a difference between the facts in any given situation, and the story we tell about them. It's easy to latch onto a negative story in difficult times like these.

The alternative is "realistic optimism." That doesn't mean putting a happy face on every situation, which is just blind optimism. Rather it means intentionally telling the most hopeful and empowering story in any given situation, without subverting the facts.

Just think about your current life for a moment. What are you most worried about? Write down a few examples. Next, ask yourself what's the most realistically optimistic story you can tell about the one of those situations -- the best possible outcome given the same set of facts?

Plainly we have a choice about where to put our attention. Exercising that choice effects how we feel. Because emotions are contagious, how we feel profoundly influences how we make others feel, and how effective we are at whatever we do.

2. Build More Bridges

In an era marked by fractiousness and extremes, what connects us rather than divides us? Where can we find common ground? Certainly, there are universal desires we all share: a safe and secure world, people we can love and who love us, a hopeful future for our children.

But so long as our value depends on devaluing what others believe, or judging the way others live, we're in a zero sum game that insures defensiveness, conflict and pain.

I have a good friend with a worldview that couldn't be more different than mine. Still, there is much about him I appreciate: his generosity, integrity, commitment to his family and friends, and incredible intellectual curiosity.

When we have lunch, we don't dwell on our differences. We focus on our shared interests. He enriches my life, and I believe I enrich his. We enjoy hanging out together. Nothing so lifts us up as feeling valued by another human being.

I wish I had more friends like him.

3. Add Value Every Day

After three years of a recession that shows all too few signs of abating, it's no surprise that people are feeling the full range of negative emotions from terror to rage. But to what end?

We derive little value and create even less by complaining and whining, bickering and blaming.

It's an illusion that expressing anger is cathartic. Expressing emotions strengthens them, for better and for worse. Anger simply begets more anger. The more blame we dole out, the better we get at blaming, and the more helpless we feel.

Taking responsibility is the alternative. That means investing energy in what you can influence, and not dissipating it on what you can't.

How, in short, can we find ways to add value to one other and to the commons, every day? The first key is shifting attention from our own immediate desires and anxieties so we're free to focus on the needs of others. Doing so calls on a capacity many of us haven't sufficiently cultivated: deliberately delaying gratification.

You can feel good, effortlessly, by drinking a couple of beers, but it won't last. Adding value takes effort, and sometimes means sacrifice, but it makes us feel good about ourselves in more enduring ways.

I'm not suggesting a life devoted exclusively to selfless service, because that's not realistic. But how much of your energy do you expend right now in anxiety, complaint, envy and advancing your own cause?

What's one very specific behavior could you ritualize in your life to make the world you live in a little better each day?

Paradoxically, the more we give away, the more we get back.

4. Give Yourself a Break

The greater the performance demand, the greater the need for recovery. As the world speeds up, we need to keep a balance between doing and not doing. By building in a true renewal break at least every 90 minutes, you'll feel better, think more clearly, be less reactive and ultimately you'll get better, more considered results.

And finally, at the end of every day, take a few minutes to reflect on what's right in your life.

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