While on vacation I was reminded of the power of positivity.
During lunch, my wife and I couldn’t help but notice a particular waitress who bounced from table to table, serving her customers with a smile and a side of joy. We watched as she delivered a child’s sandwich in a sing-songy voice.
“Here comes your grilled cheeeeese and haaaaam.”
She made it fun. She delighted every person she served.
I didn’t get her name, but I will never forget her great attitude.
That night, a second waitress grabbed our attention. Her name was Molly and she had such presence. She was confident, engaged. She smiled and made eye contact. She seemed like she was having a wonderful time. She made us feel the same.
Now these were no ordinary restaurants. They were two of the busiest, most popular restaurants in the heart of New York City, during one of the most hectic weeks of the year.
The customers were packed in like sardines. The service was fast and the wait staff blocked and tackled their way to each table. Their brows were knitted in a tight thin line. Their shoulders were hunched over and their gazes averted. They took their orders and promptly moved on. They were stressed, over-worked, and we couldn’t blame them.
But not these two waitresses. Nope. They stood out in stark contrast. Like little pops of color amongst the gray.
Inspired by Molly’s happy nature, we engaged her in a little small talk as she topped off our drinks.
“Having fun? You sure look it.”
Molly joked, “Thanks. I guess those acting classes really paid off.”
It turns out Molly wasn’t having a great night after all. She was gritting her teeth on the inside, willing her way to the end of her shift. Like all the rest.
But what made Molly different was we didn’t know. From where we sat we never would have seen her internal struggle. For us and for every other customer in that restaurant, she was putting on a show. And it was a happy one.
How’d she do it?
A little smile and shift.
How to hack positivity
Amy Cuddy, author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, is famous for saying, “tiny tweaks can lead to big changes.”
She asserts that our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior and our behavior changes our outcomes. Fake it until you become it, she says.
As Cuddy suggests, Molly worked from the outside, in. She started with a smile – perhaps something she learned from acting class. In the end Molly smiled her way to a happy place and her customers loved her – and we tipped her well. Most would agree that’s a positive outcome.
While Molly uses a smile, Cuddy suggests there are other ways to change your thinking through body language. For example, standing in a power pose – even when we don’t feel confident – could have a fruitful impact on our success.
I’m reminded of the many teachers who encouraged me and my classmates to stand tall with our chests out and our heads up. I know that always made me feel better.
Shirzad Chamine, author of Positive Intelligence, suggests that our thinking processes are always at risk of turning negative because of “a set of automatic and habitual mind patterns…that work against our best interests.”
He calls these mind patterns Saboteurs. They are universal – we all have them – because they are connected to the functions of the brain focused on survival. The problem with these Saboteurs is they make it difficult to see a problem as an opportunity.
But, that can also be a healthy thing. Chamine explains:
…a few brief seconds of feeling anger, disappointment, guilt, or shame are fine as immediate reactions to an event. This is similar to feeling pain when you touch a hot stove. A moment of physical pain should alert you to remove your hand to avoid further damage. A few seconds of psychological pain should similarly alert you to shift your mind to the [positive] mode so you can deal with the situation without further distress and damage from your Saboteurs. If you don’t shift your mind, it is like keeping your hand on the hot stove and continuing to feel the pain that was only initially useful.
As a way of shifting your mind, Chamine recommends the Three-Gifts Technique. It is simple. When faced with a bad situation, come up with at least three scenarios where the problem could turn into a gift and opportunity at some point in the future.
Perhaps Molly’s three gifts were:
This is a chance to try my acting skills
Maybe a customer is having a worse night, and I can make it better
A big smile equals big tips (and it did)
How positivity benefits us
Tom Rath, author of Strengths Finder 2.0 and Strengths Based Leadership, recognizes “Positivity” as a core relationship-building strength. He suggests that people who lead with positivity “have an enthusiasm that is contagious. They are upbeat and can get others excited about what they are going to do.” Being positive can make you a better leader.
Further, research in neuroscience, organizational science, and positive psychology suggests there are positive correlations between positivity and performance, health and happiness.
Research aside, doesn’t being positive just feel better? And doesn’t it make others feel better?
I think so. And all positivity needs is a little smile and shift.
Bonus Hack: When in doubt, sing it out
If smiling or mind-shifting doesn’t quite do the trick, maybe try singing.
When I was a child, any time my sister and I felt the blues, my mother cheered us up with a song. Recently I asked her where this song came from and to my delight I learned she made it up.
So in closing, I share the lyrics to my mom’s original number – The Positivity Song – in the hopes they inspire you as they do me.
Think positive, believe you can,
Do anything that you plan,
If you do life will treat you grand,
Think positive, man!
Smile, shift, or sing it out!