Kathy Caprino | Forbes, June 2015

When I was in my corporate life years ago, I could see very clearly how bad news and rampant negativity could crush an organization and everyone in it. I didn’t understand until I became a therapist and career coach, however, exactly what to do about it – in other words, how to realistically address and talk about the deep and serious challenges organizations and individuals face every day, but in ways that highlight and amplify people’s empowerment, positivity and success. Now, I’m a devoted fan of the work being done in applied positive research, and can see every day how shifting the way we perceive, deal with, and communicate about our life challenges can significantly alter the outcomes we achieve in life and work.

To learn more about how we can “broadcast” happiness, I was thrilled to catch up with Michelle Gielan, founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, and the author of the upcoming book Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change. Michelle is an executive producer of The Happiness Advantage with Shawn Achor on PBS and has emerged internationally as one of the top female speakers using scientific research on positivity to drive business results.

Kathy Caprino: Michelle, what has your time as a newscaster showed you about the ill-effects of the onslaught of negative news?

Michelle Gielan: Watching a few minutes of negative news can transform your entire day. As the anchor of two national news programs at CBS News, I saw the powerful paralyzing effects a barrage of negative news can have on how we process the world, specifically whether we believe that our behavior matters to create positive change in the face of challenges.

In my time as a broadcaster and in my research in applied positive psychology research, I learned this:

We are all broadcasters.  Managers broadcast to their teams during meetings. Team members broadcast to one another about the likelihood of success. Clients broadcast to potential clients about the company. Even introverts broadcast through their non-verbals. What makes the difference iswhat we choose to broadcast.

New research from the fields of positive psychology shows that making small shifts in the way we communicate — to focus more on previous successes and possible solutions — can create big ripple effects on business outcomes, including:

  • 31% higher productivity
  • 25% greater performance ratings
  • 37% higher sales
  • 23% lower levels of stress

I now work with individuals and organizations to help them positively influence people around them through the messages they choose to broadcast. Additionally, in partnership with Arianna Huffington and the “What’s Working” team at the Huffington Post, my research institute is investigating the ripple effects that changing the focus of a story can have on everything from your workout at the gym to your cognitive functioning at work to your health.

Caprino: Why you were compelled to do something different along the lines of broadcasting happiness?

Gielan: At CBS News, I saw how when we changed our story to be solutions-focused, those messages created an empowering ripple effect on families across the nation. During the height of the recession, news organizations aired one story after another about the debilitating effects of the economic downturn. We featured families losing their homes, jobs and retirement savings. These stories were depressing and unhelpful in creating forward progress. I did not want to ignore the seriousness of the situation, but staying steeped in all the negative consequences does not give our brains the resources needed to move forward.

My team and I decided to experiment. We produced “Happy Week,” a series of interviews with authors and researchers from the field of positive psychology to discuss ways to foster greater happiness in the midst of real challenge, in this case the recession. Our hope was to apply an activated approach to real challenges.

We received more positive messages from viewers as a result of that week of programming alone that we had from the prior year combined! One viewer from Oklahoma wrote in, and his story is still my favorite. His home was facing foreclosure. He had not talked to his brother, who lived just 25 miles away from him for the past 20 year because they had gotten in a fight over money. He had recently heard that his brother’s home was facing foreclosure too, and after watching the segment on CBS on rethinking financial stresses, he decided to reach out to him. The two men ended up combining their resources to save one of their homes and moved in together! This story was one of many that showed us how by changing our story we can change other people’s mindsets about challenges and motivate them to create a new reality.

The results of Happy Week were so convincing that I traded in my news studio at CBS News for a research lab the University of Pennsylvania and at companies including Nationwide Insurance, Walmart and Google to study the effects that changing our story can have on shifting people’s mindset and raising business outcomes—and what I have witnessed so far has been remarkable.

Caprino: You explained how changing our story can fuel success in business. What’s an example you’ve seen in your work?

Gielan: One of the most compelling cases happened at Nationwide Brokerage Solutions. After applying strategies featured in my upcoming book, Broadcasting Happiness, this company tripled revenues from 350 million to more than a billion dollars in just a few years. The funny thing is that the president of the company, Gary Baker, originally thought happiness research was fluff! It wasn’t until our partner company—the International Thought Leaders Network—trained the sales team about how to apply that research to their workdays, and Baker saw his sales revenues skyrocket that he became truly convinced about the value of using positive psychology at work.

Caprino: Why do the messages we listen to and share with others make such a difference in our potential and our success?

Gielan:  Our brains are wired to scan the world for threats, which is not often ideal for fueling success. While we are able to process 40-50 bits of information per second, our brain is bombarded with 11 million bits per second. If we are consumed with mitigating threats at work or with our families, we don’t have brain resources left over to scan the world for the opportunities and resources. As a manager for instance, if we are consumed with “fixing” our employees and don’t spend time leveraging their strengths, we will never really see what they are capable of.

This showed up really clearly for me in a very personal example. My husband Shawn Achor (who is a happiness researcher as well) and I met in our 30’s, and before we knew it, I was approaching the doomsday deadline to have a baby. It is so common to hear that women 35 years and older have significantly lower chances of becoming pregnant. The often-repeated statistic is that according to a study published in the prestigious journal Human Reproduction one in three of women ages 35 to 39 will not get pregnant after a year of trying. (from Age and Fertility: A Guide for Patients Revised, Patient Information Series, Birmingham: American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 2012). The 2012 report still has the same findings as the 2003 report!

That story was not hopeful or motivating, so I decided to apply one of the seven strategies to broadcasting happiness I write about in my book—Fact-Checking. It is where we actively search for facts that create a new, motivating story. In my research I came across an article discussing how the published study is based on French birth records from the years 1670 to 1830—a time before fertility treatments and antibiotics! Additionally, a 2004 study (see Dunson, D. B., Baird, D. D., and Colombo, B. “Increased Infertility with Age in Men and Women.” Obstetrics & Gynecology 103, no. 1, (2004): 51–56) found that women in that same age group are 82% likely to get pregnant after trying just twice a week for one year. A positive outcome was very possible. And it was–Baby Leo was born within a year!

Fact-checking debilitating beliefs can help us see another reality in which positive change is possible, and that in turn fuels our behavior and raises many measurable outcomes in business, health and our relationships.

Caprino: Can you offer some critical strategies we all can employ to broadcast happiness?

Gielan: There are seven critical strategies you can use to instantly become more influential with other people and not only fuel their happiness and success, but yours as well.

The easiest one to adopt is the first: The Power Lead.

Start conversations, meetings, emails and other communications by saying something positive. Humans are socialized to reciprocate so the likelihood is that the person you are talking to will match your positivity, as opposed to complaining or venting. A power lead can be as simple as responding when asked “How are you?” by saying “I’m great. I had breakfast with my son today, and he was being really funny.” For meetings, you might begin by praising someone or getting your team to share their biggest win from the past week. Influential people write the social script and bring out the best in those around them.

Six other key strategies:

Flash Memories
Leverage past wins to fuel future success by creating and solidifying a narrative of success and creating a culture of optimism.

Leading Questions
Spark positive thinking by asking questions that get other people to focus on the energizing, positive parts of their reality.

Move from paralysis to activation by uncovering fueling facts that illuminate a new, motivating story.

Strategic Retreats
Deal with negative people more effectively using a research-based method that improves future communication by retreating, regrouping and re-entering the conversation.

The Four CsCreate Social Capital, Give Context, Express Compassion, Stay Committed
Deliver bad news better by using a four part approach to crafting the message that not only allows you to talk about the negative without sounding or becoming negative yourself, but also leverages these conversations to create scientifically better business and personal outcomes.

Go Viral – Generate contagious optimism in your networks by getting others to rebroadcast your positive message, thereby strengthening your signal as a positive broadcaster.

These days, in the midst of challenges including restructuring, low retention, low engagement, and poor grades, creating a positive mindset is only the first step.  The real key is to understand ways to keep positive change going by getting others to maintain that optimistic mindset and leverage it to fuel success.


Image credit: Dartise Johnson