1. We’re poor at decision making – Kahneman & Tversky (1979), Gilbert (2004)
When weighing up the costs and benefits of a decision, we make two errors. First, we overestimate the probability of failure in a new direction because of our negative bias. Second, we underestimate the benefits of change because we fail to imagine or visualise the results of that change in much detail. This has been shown time and again, not least by Dan Gilbert.
Conclusion: we have to think differently about career decision making. Firstly, we need to become more aware of our successes and achievements. Second, we should try to visualise what we actually want in life in greater detail. Sounds obvious. Not many do it.
2. Our brains are pre-wired for survival, not fulfilment – Maslow (1943)
We’re survival machines. Our brains think evolved to anticipate and predict the worst and we try to eliminate this risk. That’s why our cognitive functions and emotions evolved too – and why we’re 3 to 5 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive.
But as Maslow predicted, once we have survival we adapt and want fulfilment. And fulfilment isn’t created by avoiding risk, or by surviving. Happiness, after all, is not the absence of sadness. Fulfilment often requires us to imagine something better and to take risks to achieve it.
Conclusion: your brain will protest if you consider something new, but fulfilment probably depends on it. Fulfilment is about contributing something unique to a cause you believe in. And remember we adapt and learn from failure – very few decisions are irreversible.
3. We learn helplessness – Seligman (1975)
Let’s say you fail once at something. Then you try and fail again. The third time you don’t try quite so hard so you fail again. Then you give up. You stop trying. This is known as ‘learned helplessness’ and it is amazingly easy to induce. In fact, it’s possible to induce learned helplessness in about 2 minutes.
When we think about our careers we often come at it from the perspective of a learned helplessness. When all you’ve done is what you know, it’s hard to imagine that you could do anything else.
Conclusion: being aware of where you may have learned helplessness is a good first step. But second, ask yourself how useful these thoughts are to the achievement of your goal.
4. Negative emotions are to be expected – Hayes (1998)
We often treat emotions like fear and anxiety as though they must be avoided, when in reality they are an inevitable part of growth – and of being human. Equally we often treat our internal thoughts as representing the ‘truth’, when in reality they are just thoughts. Many people try to avoid negative emotions or ‘fight’ the pain, but research shows that being willing to accept these thoughts whilst progressing towards your valued outcomes is more effective.
Conclusion: Negative emotions are an inevitable part of any activity where we learn and grow. Acceptance of negative emotions whilst continuing to make progress towards one’s valued goals is a far more effective strategy than avoiding or fighting them. (If you feel the need to beat your negative emotions first, check that the valued outcome is valuable enough and check that you are truly willing to accept the emotions that come with it).
5. Happiness is not a luxury –Fredrickson (2000)
Many people see work as something to be endured. But happiness has consistently been shown to lead to better health, longer life and more productivity. Barbara Fredrickson’s famous ‘broaden and build’ theory explains why people who regularly experience positive emotions show heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness, and "big picture" perceptual focus. These experiments have also shown positive emotions play a role in the development of long-term resource such as psychological resilience and flourishing. However, it is happiness as the side product of meaning and engagement that counts. Hedonic happiness cannot be controlled!
Conclusion: The fact is, being happy is as likely to make you more successful at work, than less. However, chasing happiness by trying to limit our exposure to unhappy thoughts is a trap!