The power of positivity: Three lessons from the military

In his book, Leadership: 50 Points of Wisdom For Today’s Leaders, General Rick Hillier shares his insights on leadership, gleaned from over 30 years of service in the Canadian Forces. [General Hillier was appointed Commander of the Army in 2003, and then promoted to Chief of the Defence Staff in 2005; he stepped down in 2008.]

While numerous nuggets of wisdom are offered, I was especially impressed and inspired by the General’s views on positivity. Even in the midst of dangerous operations in Afghanistan, and other military hotspots, General Hillier emphasized the importance of staying positive, and sharing that positive outlook with his team. “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier,” General Hillier says. “Your job, your responsibility as a leader, is to be optimistic and to communicate that optimism to those who follow you as part of enabling them to be successful.”

When leaders exhibit optimism, even in times of crisis, they serve as a source of empowerment for the people they lead. According to Hillier, “at a cost of nothing, [the leader] is empowering with energy, confidence and passion everyone around her, and empowering them as a group to achieve an effect out of all proportion to the numbers.”

Being positive is a basic, yet powerful, way to empower and give a lift to people around you. While most of us will never have the responsibility of keeping troop morale high in war-torn parts of the world, we can still learn from General Hillier’s wisdom and experiences. Here are three easy ways to adopt “perpetual optimism” in your own life.

The Power of a Smile

One simple way to share positivity with others is to smile. Even in the most unlikely situations, a smile can be a force of goodwill. In his book, General Hillier talks about the disarming power of smiling at people he encountered during operations, particularly during his time in Afghanistan. He almost always got a positive response in return, even from complete strangers.

A smile is a remarkable thing. Not only does smiling help to make others feel good, it is good for you too. Studies have shown that smiling on a regular basis can reduce stress, boost your mood, and improve your overall well-being. It can also make you appear more likeable and more competent to others. There’s even evidence that smiling is linked to a longer life expectancy. To learn more about the hidden powers of smiling, check out this fascinating TED Talks presentation by Ron Gutman. According to Gutman, one smile produces the equivalent brain stimulation as eating 2,000 bars of chocolate, or receiving $25,000 in cash.

One of the best things about a smile is it’s contagious. When you smile at someone, they tend to smile too. So by smiling, you are effectively passing all of its benefits to the other person. What a kind gift to give!

It’s no surprise that leaders, like General Hillier, have learned to tap into the remarkable power of smiling – it’s a simple and effective way to foster a more positive, energized and healthy disposition amongst their team. If it can work for a battle-hardened General in a place like Afghanistan, there’s no reason it cannot work for you in your own household, workplace or community.

Show Respect

One of General Hillier’s mantras is to always treat people with respect, and he expected his troops to do the same – even with the enemy. “Never demean, insult or belittle your people, even in jest. Instead, build up their pride by showing them that each and every one of them is a respected, mature and responsible adult,” he says.

What does this mean for your day-to-day routine? One way to show respect to others is to use positive, affirming language rather than negative words in your communications. Acknowledge people and express gratitude for their accomplishments, and offer words of encouragement where appropriate. Give compliments to people, no matter if they are in front of you or not. Indeed, one of the best ways to show respect to others is to only speak highly of them when they are not present in a conversation – imagine that you’re their personal champion. One simple rule of thumb is to only speak about people in a way you’d like others to speak about you. Being positive in your communications, both verbal and written, is a wonderful way to show respect, build strong relationships and empower others to do the same.

Be Playful

General Hillier also talks about using humour as a way to share positivity with others. “What we remember from past experiences is how we felt at the time, and humour helps to mark those experiences in our memory in the most positive way.” Even in the most challenging times, Hillier found that humour was a helpful way to relieve stress and build positive, shared experiences amongst his troops. Whether you’re leading a group in the midst of a crisis, or just engaging in conversation with friends or family, humour is a powerful tool for sharing positivity with others – so long as it’s not used to belittle or demean others. So remember to be playful – and play nice.

Challenge Eight: Be positive with others

Through the years, my mom has given me the same advice whenever I’m facing trying times: “things always have a way of working out for you, Joe.”

Though I appreciate the sentiment, I admittedly chalk it up as something moms just say to provide a pick-me-up to their kids. Affectionate and caring, but not exactly practical advice for improving a bad situation. I’m all for being optimistic, but to think that a positive outcome is somehow preordained strikes me as Pollyanna thinking – too idealistic to be realistic.

But then a surprising thing happens. Mom’s message that “everything will work out” lodges itself in the recesses of my mind, like the seed of an idea planted by one of the characters in Inception. It becomes a call-to-action, more than a Hallmark expression. I tell myself that things will work out because I will make them work out. I pick myself up and start to focus on how I can overcome the problem at hand. I look for ways to create opportunities and make the most out of the situation. Simply put, I start thinking positively.

Positive thinking isn’t about seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses. It means tackling life’s challenges with a positive outlook, by focusing on actions you can take to create positive change in your life rather than dwelling on things outside of your control. Positive thinking is proactive thinking.

The long-term benefits of thinking positively are astounding. A number of studies have found that a positive approach to life can help to relieve stress, boost immunity levels, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lessen the risk of depression, and generally enhance physical and mental health. A positive outlook can also help you live longer. One landmark study of over 500 nuns (fittingly called the Nun Study) found that sisters with a more positive perspective on life lived, on average, a decade longer than their counterparts who had a less positive attitude.

Why is positive thinking such a panacea? One hypothesis is people who think positively are better able to cope with life’s challenges and, therefore, less affected by stress. Another theory is positive thinkers live healthier lives in general – they have better diets and exercise more often, and avoid unhealthy behaviours like smoking or drinking excessively. However, this doesn’t explain the findings of the Nun Study, where the women studied had similar living conditions, diets and daily routines. In other words, the observed health benefits were linked solely to the nuns’ emotional disposition, since other environmental factors were “controlled” in the study.

This is good news for those of us who naturally have sunny dispositions. But what about folks with a more cynical outlook to life? It turns out that anyone can instill positive thinking by making small, regular changes in their routine. Examples include spending time with positive people, going for walks and exercising, reading inspiring stories and quotes, listening to uplifting music, keeping a “gratitude journal,” and visiting places that boost your energy and make you happy.

The payoff from nurturing positivity is significant. In addition to the aforementioned health benefits, thinking positively can help to improve performance on the job, increase the chances of financial success, improve self-confidence, boost energy levels, and promote overall well-being and a sense of fulfillment in your life. Not a bad return on a simple investment in yourself.

Here’s the truly remarkable thing about positivity: it’s infectious. Being positive with others – by sharing positive words and actions – has the effect of releasing the chemical Oxytocin into the recipient’s bloodstream. This chemical reaction floods their body with positive feelings of love, joy and connection.

This made me reflect on my mom’s words of encouragement: “things always have a way of working out for you.” I had always tried to extract some sage advice from her words. But the true gift of her message wasn’t in its literal meaning, but in its positive spirit – a germ of a spirit that would take root and help to inspire me to tackle whatever challenge I was facing at the time.

Being positive with others is a simple, yet powerful, way to make a difference in other people’s lives. To test the power of positivity first hand, my challenge for August is to be positive in all my interactions. In practice, my intention with all my encounters this month is to: be nice to people, smile often, give compliments, be encouraging and supportive, ask questions and listen empathetically, and laugh and be playful. In short, be more like mom.