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  • Writer's pictureRenee Conklin

Yup, it’s possible to be more positive. Here’s how to do it easily.

Me: “Where are you finding your joy?”

Client: “Huh.”


This is one of my favorite questions, especially for my clients who are stuck, at the end of their rope or unable to find a way forward. I found myself asking this question many times as 2021 kicked off and many clients found themselves in the same situation they’d been in for much of 2020—some version of lockdown/quarantine, kids still home-schooling, no travel and “working from home” taking over their lives.

It may seem counterintuitive to ask someone how they are finding joy when all they can do is keep their head above water to get through the day. But this question invites a different perspective. Is there anything in my life right now that brings me joy? 99% of the time, there is. This can be even the smallest thing, such as:

· A sunny day

· A hot cup of coffee

· Catching the train just before the doors closed

· Going to bed on time

· A discount at your favorite noodle shop

The joy doesn’t have to be monumental. Too often, the happy moments we think about are the big-ticket items—an amazing trip, getting promoted, the birth of a child. But looking out for, recognizing and celebrating the small things can make us realize that maybe everything isn’t so bad or unbearable after all. This is a form of joy spotting.

Joy spotting has a big following. The idea was coined by Ingrid Fetell Lee in 2009 and culminated in her book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness as well as a Ted Talk that has been viewed almost 3 million times. The beauty of joy spotting is that it is free. It is personal. There is no right or wrong. You can even download her handy guide here to help you spark some ideas to get started.

According to Lee, research shows that managers who exhibit more joy had teams complete their work with less effort and do so in a more coordinated way. She also cites research that shows that joy influences our working memory (the function that enables us to complete work and tasks), meaning we are 12% more productive in a state of joy. Imagine if you could be 12% more productive at work by making a small change to focus on joy! The idea is so simple. The more you practice spotting joy, the more it will impact your mindset and have a snowball effect, propelling you forward out of your current situation.

Another way to open up possibility again is to keep a brag file. A brag file is an ad-hoc record of all of the good feedback you receive as well as the things that you achieved over a period of time. I keep mine in a OneNote folder and any time I receive positive feedback from a client (via an email or a feedback survey), I copy and paste it there. You can also save links to files or projects you are particularly proud of, photos from events, social media posts that went viral or metrics that you exceeded.

When I have my bad days, I can pull up the brag file and remind myself that it is only temporary. There are other ways a brag file can be useful. During year-end performance reviews, you often forget all that you have achieved and all of the informal, ad-hoc feedback you have received throughout the year. If you keep track, it makes it much easier to write your self-review and even advocate for a promotion! Brag files are practically a mandatory tool when you are switching careers or applying for new roles. Bringing a concrete list of your achievements with you into the job search process is guaranteed to start you off on the right foot as you update your resume, optimize your LinkedIn profile and prepare for interviews.

Bragging has a negative connotation. It may bring to mind expressions like “get too big for your britches” or “his head is so big, it won’t fit through the door.” Interestingly, research shows that we get a dopamine hit when we share information about ourselves. The Cambridge dictionary defines bragging as “to speak too proudly about what you have done or what you own.” Underlying this definition is the word pride, which relates to feelings of self-respect and personal worth. In response to this negative connotation, I say, if we don’t own our accomplishments and shout our stories from the rooftops, who will do it for us?

If we don’t own our accomplishments and shout our stories from the rooftops, who will do it for us?

Keeping a gratitude journal is another useful tool. Similar to joy spotting, gratitude journaling involves writing down three things at the end of every day that you are grateful for. Slightly different to joy spotting, keeping a gratitude journal asks you to be more intentional and reflect back on the things that really made a difference to you that day. It has its roots in positive psychology – the scientific study of happiness. Perhaps it was your husband making you breakfast or you child getting dressed by themselves in the morning. Or it could be a bigger realization, like “I am grateful for my partner,” or “I am grateful to have an understanding boss.”

Intentionally writing down three things each day makes us realize that there are many things to be grateful for (likely many more than three!). I have kept a gratitude journal in the past and it’s nice to review it once in a while and to reflect on all of the things to be thankful for. Similar to a brag file, the medium is not important. It can be a physical notebook, an electronic file, or even a voice file you record with your phone each evening. The important piece is the ritual, the act and the intention.

People have a tendency to focus on the negative. The human brain gives more weight to negative experiences and interactions than positives ones. This is why, when I ask my clients to talk about their strengths, they automatically recite a list of their weaknesses and things they want to improve upon. This is called a negativity bias. According to Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.

When you feel down or like things are spinning out of control, pull out your joy spotting list, your brag file or your gratitude journal. These three approaches can help to remind you to move away from your inherent negativity bias and focus on the positive. Use these different techniques to help you pinpoint what you have control over and to summon your strength to move forward.

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Renee Conklin is a Coach and HR Consultant who coaches individuals to career success and consults businesses on people-focused solutions. Check out more of her articles on LinkedIn.

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