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Paula Allen on Optimism and Wellbeing

Paula Allen, Senior Vice President, Research, Analytics and Innovation at Morneau Shepell, joined Victor Perton in The Centre for Optimism's Optimism Cafe shortly before Christmas 2020 to talk optimism and the new Mental Health Index.


Victor Perton:  Paula Allen, what makes you optimistic?

Paula Allen:  "What makes me optimistic is I have an opportunity with what I do and what my life brings me to face a lot of challenges. So interestingly enough, the fact that I face challenges. I like to experiment. I like to push limits. And when you do that a lot, you get set back a lot and then you go forward again. So, any kind of a little setback in life I know is temporary. I know I can move forward. I know I can move sideways. I know that there's opportunity, and that makes me optimistic."

Victor Perton: I think you've summed up the wisdom of the world in a few sentences. Fantastic, Paula. You're at Morneau Shepell, and you've got a relatively new very interesting Mental Health Index. Can you tell us about it and how it works and what it measures?

Paula Allen:  First of all, we came up with the idea that there needed to be a Mental Health Index about three years ago and started working on it at that time.

"And the reason is that we know that mental health is really the centre of pretty much everything. Your quality of life, your productivity at work, your participation in the economy, your physical health, all of those things. So we boiled down a number of different elements that are critical to mental health and benchmarked them, collected a lot of data, and then launched it in April of 2020, and moved forward from there.

And basically, what it does is it measures the mental health of the working population. And optimism is one of the sub-scales.  It's absolutely a strong research based driver of people's overall mental health, and we've been tracking that over the past several months.

Victor Perton:  Fascinating, because, of course, there's research out of Harvard and the American military and Boston University that the trait most indicative of healthy longevity is optimism. And your report discloses declining optimism amongst Australians where I live, Canadians where you live. The evidence we've looked at says it's actually been a long-term decline over 20 years. So what do you attribute this to? Is  it the pace of life, negative media, lack of purpose? What's happening to the world, Paula?

Paula Allen: Well, I'll pick on one thing that you said, and then go a little bit broader. One of the factors that we found is that people's optimism and their anxiety and a number of things that are connected to optimism are impacted by how much media you consume, because a lot of that media is negative. If you're watching news, it's almost all negative. There's barely any good news. So consuming all of that day after day after day puts your mind in a particular place. You start to view the world in a particular way, which is not always the healthiest nor the most accurate way.

"The other thing that's been happening over the past little while is that optimism isn't the only thing that has been changing.

"We've been seeing an increasing sense of isolation, not having that social support, that human contact, that feeling of belonging has been unfortunately waning. And that makes it quite difficult, because a lot of our recovery resources when things go not so well are through just interacting with other people and being connected with other people. And coincident with both of those things is that we have been seeing anxiety go up a bit as well. So as we're seeing optimism go down, we tend to see anxiety go up, and they are strongly correlated.

Victor Perton:  I think you're spot on. Steven Pinker in his book, The Enlightenment, talks about this changing media. So I'm over 60 now, and when I was young, it was roughly 50/50 good/bad. The local television channel had two crews. They used tape. But now they buy almost for free the worst news from around the world and run it 24 by 7. So it's no wonder people think the world's in decline.

Paula Allen:  "I think we've hit on something interesting. The reason why they do it is because it's marketable. People see bad news and they get drawn in. They want to understand it more, they watch it more. They see good news, and then they just take it and move on to the next stage. So that's a vulnerability that we have as human beings that we tend to, if you want to put it, we're tending to watch the accident as we're going by. We're watching the good things that happen. But a lot of that we could actually counter with choice as well. What do you choose to focus on? Do you choose to have a balanced perspective or do you choose to consume everything that's negative?

Victor Perton:  That's brilliant. Disney's Bob Iger retired recently and wrote a book on leadership.  Bob said most people are yearning for stories of hope and optimism.  Coca-Cola has similar research findings. So I suspect the bad news is a bit like poker machines, the dinging bell and the like, and it draws your attention, and people like you and me have got to get better at distributing the good news.

Paula Allen:  It is, and I think there's one thing. There's so many learnings I think that we can get from this pandemic crisis. We have learned really how vulnerable we all can potentially be as a result of this upheaval, because we have had mental health issues really rise, and we have seen a decline in mental health. We have though, we've also seen the power of our mindsets.

One of the things that we looked at is we looked at people's mindsets, and there's a range, and what we found is the biggest divide was between people who felt gratitude. They felt gratitude that was also aligned with optimism or people who felt either anxious or helpless. So biggest decline there. And when we looked at the people who focused on gratitude, so what do I have, let me recognise the people around me for the things that they are doing, even through this difficult period, their mental health actually went up. They had the initial drop like everyone else, but they improved.

"And the other groups, the ones that felt more helpless, especially the ones that focused on anger, again, everybody had that initial drop of anxiety, frustration a little bit, we were thrown off balance, but their mental health has declined over time. So really that personal attitude is strong, and I know it's not easy for everybody to move from one place to another, but there are things that can be done to make sure that we're realistic, and that we focus in a way that's healthy."

Victor Perton:  At the Centre for Optimism, one of our slogans is, "We foster realistic and infectiously optimistic leadership." So not Pollyannaism, but rooted in realism. Your role at Morneau Shepell includes innovation.  The research we've done and research we've shared says it's really hard for a pessimist to do innovation, because they get ground down in what went wrong and who's at fault.

Paula Allen:  "Well, I think at every stage of innovation, optimism is absolutely essential.

I think right from the very beginning, you cannot possibly innovate if you don't have a mindset where you're looking for opportunities, for possibilities for improvement. It has to be very positively focused. So if you're focusing on a current state or a past state or barriers or blockages, you're not going to have the kind of creativity that will open up the possibility for innovation. And then the next layer where you absolutely need it is that innovation rarely happens with one person in a room. Innovation happens when you're listening to other ideas, you're gathering things from other people, you're seeing the jewel in things that you're related to, and then you're integrating that in. That requires an open mindset as well. If I'm talking to you and I'm expecting you to bore me and I'm expecting you to tell me something that isn't valuable, I'm never going to see the value of what you can bring and never be able to incorporate it into my own thinking. Actually, you're not even capable of learning to the extent that you otherwise would be.

The third level where you need to have optimism as part of innovation is that, as I said, with my own experience, which I actually think I've been fortunate to have that experience, is that you are going to not get what you want a lot. You are going to have a direction that you need to go to and you're not going to have that set three months timeline where you come up with the next big thing. You're going to have to learn that you have setbacks and you have to course correct and you have to problem solve, and you have to keep going and you have to have the energy to keep going. And you have to have the resilience to pivot and do something else without feeling badly about not going in your direction. So if I'm spending a lot of time saying, "Plan A really didn't work," and I'm lamenting on that and I'm beating myself up about that and I'm saying my team isn't good, then I'm missing the opportunity for Plan B, which is the opposite of what you need, if you are an innovator.

So you have hit on something very important and I would think that anybody who is in that innovation role or hiring for that innovation role should really look closely at people's optimism as well, and foster that in the environment.

Victor Perton:  Paula, you're a psychologist by profession and training, and you're doing this incredible analytics work of the world's optimism and you're into innovation. So what are the tips and tricks you use for optimism to enhance your optimism and that other people can use as they prepare for Christmas and new year and adopt a new habit for 2021? It's probably too many questions in one, so what keeps you optimistic? How do you enhanced your optimism?

Paula Allen:  Well, first of all, one of the things I know about optimism, because I do the research, is that you can actually learn. People can actually learn a way of looking at the world, a way of being in the world, a way of acting. So even if you are tending to be more on the pessimistic side, that doesn't necessarily mean that that is going to define your life forever more. So that is one thing. And the other thing is I know even as I believe I'm a very optimistic person by nature, but it doesn't mean that I don't have moments where that would not be the case. At the end of the day, I really like to step back and take a hard look at the situation that I'm responding to and be as realistic as possible. And the only way to be realistic is to look at it from a 360 degree point of view.

So this is what I'm perceiving right now. Is there another way to look at the situation? Is there a third way to look at this situation? Is there another way to learn from this and move forward? So that is my personal strategy. It doesn't all automatically happen all the time, but I don't like being in a negative place. I don't like being in an unrealistic place either. I like to be able to look at situations in the most realistic way possible and I like to feel like I can create the control to move positively from wherever I am.

Victor Perton:  And to others thinking about new year and new year's resolutions, the question we ask, what makes you optimistic? Martin Seligman said, "We've nailed it. We don't say, 'Are you optimistic?' We say, 'What makes you optimistic?'" so even a pessimistic person. I recently did an event with Rotary and everyone was expressing their optimism except the president of the club who said he was a pessimist. And I said, "Well, just tell us what brings you joy." And then, of course, he was quite articulate. We love doing that. So what's your tip or your trick for someone who's feeling a bit down and wants to be a bit more optimistic for 2021?

Paula Allen:  "I think 2021 brings a whole new set of possibilities for us. I think 2020, really, it's been negative in a lot of ways in people's experiences and all the massive change and some predictability. But there have been some wonderful silver linings as well. People have really started to focus on their priorities. People haven't had an opportunity to reflect even on their mental health and be open to conversations like this, whereas previously we were just on a different path and we went so quickly. Over the holidays, I know some places in the world are not doing so well and some traditions might have changed. But I think the best thing really is to say, "I'm going into this next year, and I want to figure out just one way to make it awesome."

"I don't like resolutions because they focus on weaknesses and how you're going to change things that are not good. I don't know. That doesn't put me in the best mindset. But if you're going to focus on how you are going to make this 2021 awesome, that is changing the way that your brain is going to be wired. That is going to have you look for opportunities. That's going to give you a challenge that'll give you a fair bit of reward. And if you can challenge others to do the same thing, then you have this collective energy that I think is quite positive.

Victor Perton: Well, that's going to be one of my new mantras for 2021, Paula, "make it awesome".

Paula Allen:  "Make it awesome. Absolutely."

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