Whenever anything went wrong in her life, our dear friend Samantha became a broken record, stuck playing the same refrain over and over. If a colleague criticized her work, she’d call five of her friends to tell each of them the story in detail. If someone cut her off in traffic, she’d blast it out on social media and further fuel the fire by replying to all comments. If her husband put his dirty gym bag on the clean kitchen table, that would be her top story for days. Samantha was stuck focusing on the problem, with no thought to the solution.
Our new research sheds light on just how toxic behavior like this is for both the problem-focused person like Samantha as well as the people listening to her. More importantly, it reveals exactly how we can all approach problems in a way that makes everyone feel better faster and that also yields better solutions. For parents, business leaders and teachers, there are important implications to this research.
The negativity spiral
Focusing on a problem has value, but getting trapped there leaves us stressed and decreases our ability to fix it. In a study we just completed with Arianna Huffington and researcher Brent Furl, we found that when people are merely exposed to problems and don’t spend any time thinking about solutions, their brains get stuck in negative places.
However, pairing a problem with a discussion of a solution instantly makes us feel better. More importantly, though, if we focus on the right kind of solution, it fuels creative problem solving and overall performance.
A study in contrasts
In this study involving nearly 250 research participants, we tested each person’s mood and creative problem solving ability by having them read a randomly assigned article and then tested them again. There were four possible articles to read: Two pieces presented a problem in our world (either the mass shooting crisis or food bank shortages), while the other two articles discussed these same problems but then quickly moved on to solutions.
The people presented with a solution-focused article reported feeling much less negative than the people who only read about the problem (specifically, 23 percent less uptight). This means individuals could be aware of a negative event but be buffered from its negative effects if they are also made aware that something can be done about the problem.
The performance boost occurred when participants were presented with solutions they could be a part of. Focusing on personally actionable solutions increased creative problem solving on future unrelated tasks by 20 percent. In the solution-focused article about food bank shortages, we featured five ways you could help food banks, such as by donating or fundraising. The solution-focused article on the mass shooting crisis, by contrast, discussed measures a police department had taken to keep its city safe—and it did not create the same jump in performance. Personal solutions show our brain a path forward and give us a sense of empowerment.
For anyone in a leadership role, including parents guiding their children through the pitfalls of growing up, here are three ways to apply this research to fuel success in others:
1. Ask a question
Questions can sometimes be the simplest, least threatening way to move a conversation about a problem forward. For instance, if your son is worried about getting another C in math, you could ask him, “If you could do one thing to raise your grade, what would it be?”
2. Pivot the topic
If a friend is having issues finding a solution to one problem, talk about ways he or she could solve another one. Seeing success in that domain can help fuel your friend’s success with the original issue, as we saw with the people who read the food shortages article with personally actionable solutions.
3. Be a positive role model
The people around a leader often adopt his or her pattern of behavior. When discussing a problem in your own life, don’t just vent. Come up with solutions or invite other people to brainstorm with you. By consciously switching your focus to solutions when talking to others, you become a positive influence on them.
In an amazing turn of events, our friend Samantha recently mentioned to us she was tired of having so many problems in her life, and she wanted to start taking action to fix them. (We of course told her that if she wants someone to brainstorm solutions with to call us anytime!) The result? Her Facebook feed is more positive, she gets along better with her husband and she has more time to focus on things that make her happy.
It’s just more proof that a small shift in your attention can create an incredible ripple of positive change in your life.
SHAWN ACHOR is best-selling author of the The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Shawn’s TED Talk is one of the most popular ever, with over 5 million views, and his PBS program has been seen by millions. Learn more about Shawn at goodthinkinc.com.
MICHELLE GIELAN is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success and the author of Broadcasting Happiness. Formerly a national news anchor for CBS News, Michelle holds a masters of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more at goodthinkinc.com.