On motivation and attitude

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference” – Winston Churchill

People often wonder what motivates people. If you broaden the question by also asking what demotivates people, the answer is “just about everything.”

This is why conversations about motivation can easily devolve into chaos. Let’s build a framework to explore and understand this fascinating topic.

First, there is compelling evidence that job satisfaction, i.e. morale, is a predictor of individual and organizational performance. Similar evidence shows that personal satisfaction, a much broader measure, is a key measure of quality of life. Job satisfaction is a large component of life satisfaction (also known as “happiness”) and thus, it is reasonable to conclude that how people feel is likely both a major influence and measure of quality of life.

So is positive emotion a causal variable or an outcome of other variables? What makes this discussion interesting is that the answer to this question is “yes.”

Second, there is also evidence that how we think about ourselves and others has a very large effect on how we interact in a variety of situations. Our expectations about our environment and ourselves can become self-fulfilling prophecies of our behavior.

When our expectations of ourselves are positive, the ensuing behavior is likely to be functional; when our expectations are negative, our behaviors are likely to be dysfunctional. In the former case, psychologists call high expectations that produce fine performance self-efficacy. In the latter case, they can be anything from unhappiness to despair. Put simply, people usually get what they expect.

So what of expectations? Expectations are probably the result of attitudes. Until recently attitudes, while clearly important, seemed difficult to define. Because of some fine research, we now know that attitudes are a combination of cognitions and emotions.

What we need is a simple model to understand our and others’ actions and behaviors.

This is a story I love to tell. In 1927, 4-H developed a pledge with help from Iowa State College that succinctly and elegantly describes the realm of psychology:

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,

my heart to greater loyalty,

my hands to larger service, and

my health to better living,

Head is cognition/thought, heart is emotion/feelings and hands is action/behavior. This defines the three domains of human psychology. Health refers to the operating system that exists to support the psychology. Much has been written about this but it seems to me that health also has three dimensions: nutrition, exercise and sleep. Get these six dimensions working in concert and you are more likely to live long and prosper.

So where do we begin to develop and maintain a fine quality of life?  Our greatest ally and most effective tool is our ability to think. The quality of life of college graduates is better than those who only finish high school and the quality of life of those who finish high school is better than those who drop out. Education, when well done, teaches people how to think; thinking invites us to manage the other six dimensions.

One of my favorite examples of a tool for managing our lives is the optimism – pessimism dimension. Realistic optimists are healthier, live longer, build and maintain more effective interpersonal relations, and feel more personal satisfaction throughout their lives.  And here is the really cool aspect of optimism: It is learned.

This means you can become more optimistic if you work at it. Unfortunately, the reverse is also the case. Optimism is an attitude, a combination of thoughts and feelings driven by our self-talk, also known as thinking.

Optimism is the tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation, defined by how we self-talk to frame events. Bad events are temporary setbacks, isolated to particular circumstances and can be overcome by effort and abilities

Pessimism is the reverse: Bad events are long lasting, have major and far-reaching effects, and I have little ability to control them.

Are optimistic or pessimist? Check yourself against the above descriptions.

If you are interested in measuring and improving your optimism, please visit http://langhorne.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/optimism-1/. This is the first of a series of five blogs on optimism. There is a link here to a positive psychology site that has an optimism self-assessment. It’s good place to start.

When I say “have a good life,” I mean it, and you can lean how to do it. However, as with all good things, it does take a good bit of effort.