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The science behind positive thinking your way to success

By Oliver Joy, for CNN
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1556 GMT (2356 HKT)
Psychology expert RIchard Boyatzis says there is strong evidence to suggest that regular physical or leisure activities throughout the day stokes compassion and creativity at work.
Psychology expert RIchard Boyatzis says there is strong evidence to suggest that regular physical or leisure activities throughout the day stokes compassion and creativity at work.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Activating our parasympathetic systems stokes compassion and creativity, say scientists
  • Positivity increases when workers are given more flexibility in their roles
  • Research shows chronic stress levels hinder professionals and those in leadership positions

Editor's note: "Thinking Business" focuses on the psychology of getting ahead in the workplace by exploring techniques to boost employee performance, increase creativity and productivity.

(CNN) -- Whether it's infuriating colleagues, inept management or a lack of appreciation, the modern day workplace can be a positivity free zone.

Sometimes counting to ten or daydreaming of a desert island just won't purge the everyday monotony of office life and it's common to become trapped in a spiral of negativity.

But regular coffee breaks, yoga and even praying to a loving god could change all that.

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According to psychology expert Richard Boyatzis, these simple exercises can engage the parasympathetic nervous system -- the function responsible for relaxation and slowing the heart rate -- resulting in renewed optimism and improvements in working relationships.

Boyatzis, psychology and cognitive science professor at Case Western Reserve University, said there is strong neurological evidence supporting the theory that engaging our parasympathetic systems -- through regular physical or leisure activities -- stokes compassion and creativity.

Read more: Don't get stuck in your own success

"Strain causes a person to be cognitively, perceptually and emotionally impaired," he said, "if you're under pressure and stress at work, then you can't think outside the box because you can't see the box."

Boyatzis maintains that chronic stress levels hinder professionals and those in leadership positions from performing to their best. He argues that while we need stress to function and adapt, too much can cause the body to defend itself by closing down.

"You have to engage your parasympathetic nervous system so that you change your hormonal flow," Boyatzis told CNN, adding that mood and positivity can be "infectious" in the workplace, particularly in positions of leadership.

He added: "If you're having a horrible marriage, or your teenage kids are dissing you right and left, you get to work and it's very likely that you are just a bummer."

Read more: Training the brain to stress less

Evidence shows that positivity increases when workers are given increased flexibility in their roles and more work-life balance, according to a report on well-being and success produced by the World Economic Forum [WEF].

[When] people enter a more positive space they become more willing to take risks and make comments."
Sarah Lewis, chartered organizational psychologist.

Meanwhile, the report showed bad management and bullying in the workplace can have a damaging effect on employees' physical and mental health.

Can positivity and happiness lead to success?

A recent study by the University of California, Riverside, titled 'Does Happiness Promote Career Success,' professors concluded that 'happy people' are more satisfied with their jobs and report having greater autonomy in their duties.

Additionally, they perform better than their less happy peers and receive more support from coworkers.

Finally, positive individuals are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to be physically healthier and live longer.

And the debate over happiness and work goes way back in history. Ancient Greek philosopher Galen said employment is "nature's physician, essential to human happiness."

Read more: 'Power naps' may boost right-brain activity

Sarah Lewis, chartered organizational psychologist, told CNN that when people are positive at work it can lead to opportunities because they are more engaged and resilient:

"[When] people enter a more positive space they become more willing to take risks and make comments," she said "they go into the more difficult conversations and they're more productive."

But in a study entitled 'Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?' the results concluded that positive attitudes can sometimes lead to poor problem solving.

If you want to instigate behavioral change you need to engage the implicit system which operates in the subconscious realm."
Reut Schwartz-Hebron, founder of the Key Change Institute

The study also stated that the evidence to suggest happy people are more popular and have superior coping abilities is "almost non-existent."

Reut Schwartz-Hebron, founder of the Key Change Institute -- an organization that focuses on workplace behavior -- believes that a constant state of positivity in the workplace can be "dangerous."

"There's certain things that have to be challenged," she said, "certain things that have to be improved you can't just constantly think that everything is going to be fine and positive."

Schwartz-Hebron -- a former Israeli military lieutenant -- said to improve working life, it is first necessary "to rewire your brain" by creating new experiences and engaging two different cerebral systems; the explicit and the implicit memory.

The explicit is responsible for storing information and facts while the implicit memory relies on previous experiences to perform a task and is associated with the subconscious.

"If you want to instigate behavioral change you need to engage the implicit system which operates in the subconscious realm," said Schwartz-Hebron, who runs workshops for Fortune 500 companies.

She added: "We typically work in very, very negative environments because our expertise is actually in difficult change."

"[The people we work with] don't see the need for the change; they don't feel the problem is being defined correctly or they don't believe that the solution is correct."

The University study concludes that while positive emotions are particularly important to encourage optimal success at work, it is important for employees and those in positions of leadership to experience both positive and negative feelings in day to day routine.

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