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How Changing Your Perspective Can Help You Overcome Your Biggest Challenges

Research shows that by reframing challenges as opportunities, you can be more resilient, more productive and make better decisions.

Even on your very best days at work, it’s likely you’ll encounter a problem or a setback. It could be a surprise deadline, shifting expectations, demanding bosses or difficult co-workers. And of course, it’s not just work. It’s commuting delays, the long line at the post office and a million other daily inconveniences and unpredictabilities beyond our control.

What we can control, however, is our response. In every situation you encounter, you have a choice: you can meet challenges with a sense of helplessness and irritability, or you can meet them with perspective. Recent science tells us that when you choose the latter, you’ll be better able to reframe difficult situations and view the world through a different lens. And it can keep you going at your highest level of productivity and performance, even when you’re in situations that might otherwise bring your concentration and creativity to a standstill.

It’s not always easy. But research shows that, with practice, you can reframe the challenges that come your way and become more resilient, more productive and make better decisions as a result. A few small steps in the right direction will yield big improvements in your productivity, performance and mood.

Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Reframing

Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.

This Thrive Guide will show you exactly how to reframe difficult situations to view them through a new lens, so that you can always perform at the highest level, no matter what comes your way.

When you’re committed to seeing the world beyond yourself, and to rethinking situations after your initial, in-the-moment reaction, you’ll find there are wide-ranging benefits for every aspect of your performance. For example, asking yourself “what’s the worst that could happen” isn’t being pessimistic—it’s an effective way to zoom out and put a tough moment in perspective. Then there’s the time-tested method of asking yourself how you’d advise a friend in the same situation; chances are you wouldn’t be as tough or unforgiving with them as you tend to be on yourself. You’ll see how easy it is with our Thrive Global Microsteps—simple, science-backed changes you can start incorporating into your life today.

You’ll meet New Role Models who prove how effective taking a step back and being receptive to new voices, ideas and perspectives can be both at work and at home. Throughout history, people have shown that how we view situations is one of the most empowering choices we can make. For example, chef Daniel Boulud told Thrive how important it is for him to view failures as learning experiences. Model Yomi Abiola told Thrive about how reflection helped her overcome a perceived failure. And Microsoft executive Julie Larson-Green shared the perspective-altering quotes that help her persist and persevere through challenges.

Technology is a powerful engine for helping us see beyond ourselves. We’re living in a golden age of connectivity, when we can communicate with people around the world and stay informed on issues that just a few years ago would have escaped our notice. In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ll look at how technology can help you challenge your assumptions and deepen your perspective.

In today’s fast-paced, demanding workplaces, it’s all too easy to feel like we simply don’t have time to get outside of our own heads. That’s why, if you oversee a team, it’s important that you make it clear to your direct reports that you and your company value their insights and perspectives. Our Managerial Take-aways section offers advice on how to do this and make the change stick.

If you’re still wondering how exactly this applies to the challenges you face every day at work, let’s dive into the science.

The Most Important Choice You Make Every Day

When you walk into work each morning, do you feel inspired? Do you sit down to meetings and conference calls with a sense of unbridled possibility? Do you live each work day with an edge-of-your-seat excitement, in a state of constant anticipation and curiosity?

If you answered yes to any of these questions—well, keep doing what you’re doing. But for most of us, a typical day is less about wonder and awe and more about stress and frustration. Something will go wrong. The deal will fall through, the deadline will be missed, someone will call in sick and your workload will double. You’ll be blamed for something that’s not your fault—perhaps even by the person whose fault it really is.

The result, very often, can be summed up in one word: stress. If we could just do our jobs with less stress, we could certainly be more creative, more productive, and have a bigger impact.

Let’s look at a few examples of how work-related stress is affecting us around the world.

In the UK last year, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 11.7 million working days lost. Forty-three percent of Americans say their job negatively affects their stress level, according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In many countries across the world, work-related pressure has reached crisis levels. Death from overwork even has its own word in Japanese (karoshi), in Chinese (guolaosi), and in Korean (gwarosa).

At work, as in life, we can’t always determine our circumstances. But we can determine our response. And one way to respond to stress is to reacquaint ourselves with our sense of inspiration and wonder.

Conventional wisdom says that being an adult means leaving behind the wonder, awe, and inspiration of childhood. But many of the most high-achieving people owe their success to an ability to create moments of meaning and inspiration for themselves and others. By making certain choices and being open to different viewpoints, they’re able to see possibilities others can’t and find creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. It’s not because they were born with special powers—it’s because they learned perspective-changing skills and have committed to putting them into practice. And research shows that anyone can do it.

For example, people who experience awe feel they have more time available to them and are less impatient, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. Jennifer Aaker, one of the study’s authors and a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said that awe enlarges our perspective because, paradoxically, it makes us feel small—thus allowing us to see beyond ourselves. Awe, she said, isn’t a mysterious force that descends on us randomly; it’s a mindset that can be cultivated. “When it is present, awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values.”

Have you ever felt rejuvenated by an awe-inspiring experience—viewing a great work of art, for instance, or visiting one of the world’s natural wonders? Research shows that the awe produced by such experiences can make you healthier. University of California Berkeley researchers found that the positive emotions we get from art, nature and spirituality are linked to our immune systems in ways that are good for both our physical and mental health. Jennifer Stellar, the study’s lead author and now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, said the findings “demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with the markers of good health.”

That doesn’t mean you need to book a trip to see the Sistine Chapel or the Taj Mahal though. Taking a walk in nature or listening to a moving piece of music can bring health benefits and help you return to your work with fresh perspective.

For all the convincing power of the science, what’s perhaps most inspiring are the examples of wisdom and perseverance set by individuals who encountered challenges far greater than a bad boss or an overbooked schedule.

For example, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and author of Meditations, believed that no matter how many hardships we encounter, we can still choose to find possibility even in life’s darkest chapters: “Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?” It’s the choosing that’s so important here: when we feel victimized or overwhelmed by demands and expectations, we can choose to view the situation on our terms—not in a naive way, but in a way that empowers us to take the best next step forward.

Centuries later, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, captured a similar sentiment in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. Writing about the unfathomable atrocities he witnessed in a concentration camp, Frankl also told stories of his fellow victims’ acts of kindness, generosity, humanity and dignity in the face of unimaginable horror: “Every day, every hour offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”

Frankl was writing about a very specific and morally reprehensible horror, but his wisdom is universal: no matter how difficult the circumstances, there is always a “decision” before us on how we view it.

Think of Diana Nyad, the American marathon swimmer who became, at age 64 and after five failed attempts, the first person to swim the treacherous route from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.

Nyad’s extraordinary career has been a testament not only to endurance and grit, but to the power of one woman’s mind in the face of enormous obstacles. As Nyad pursued her dream of swimming the 110 miles from Havana to Key West, she encountered many obstacles—suffering an asthma attack during one swim, for example, and being stung multiple times by poisonous jellyfish. After one failed attempt, she said, “I think I’m going to my grave without swimming from Cuba to Florida.” Even as many of her closest friends and supporters urged her to give up on her dream, Nyad persevered, in part because, as she told The New York Times, she had been rehearsing and picturing in her mind the exact moment of her success, in great physical detail, for more than three decades. “The world looks green instead of just blue,” she envisioned. “And then I’m there.”

There’s power in this realization, according to the latest science. For all the stress and challenges we may face at life and in work, our ability to persevere is linked to how we perceive our situation. The researcher and author Shawn Achor, for example, has found that “your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed.”

Finally, if you’ve ever felt stressed by the loss (or waste) of time, here’s a useful tip from Tessa Watt, whose book Mindful London shares ways to recapture lost time by making small shifts in how you see the world. Her insights about London can be applied to anyone, in any city, who wants to reframe a frustrating situation into meaningful moment. She writes: “Use the famous British queue—at the bus stop, post office, or shop—as a chance to slow down and practice mindfulness. Instead of letting the frequent wailing of sirens irritate us, we could use the sound to remind us to take a pause and notice the moment. At the traffic crossing, instead of being impatient for the green man, appreciate how the red man gives us a chance to stop, breathe and look around.”

Changes You Can Make Today

So now let’s put all this science-backed advice into action.

1. When you’re stressed or struggling, think of a specific time in your past when you overcame an obstacle.

When you put your problems in perspective and remember that you’ve made it through challenges before, you’ll feel more resilient so you can persevere through whatever you’re facing now.

2. Whenever you’re about to do some demanding work, take a moment to think about how it will make someone’s life easier or have some positive effect.

It’ll give you a deeper sense of meaning and help you stay motivated.  

3. Let go of something today that you no longer need.

Think about something that is draining your energy without benefiting you or anyone you love: resentments, negative self-talk, a project you know you are not really going to complete, anything. And then let it go.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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