Why Care about a Positive Culture?

A Healthy culture has all the vibes.

By Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP (PgD)

A Healthy Culture Has All the Vibes

The following is excerpted from Lead to Thrive: The Science of Crafting a Positive Veterinary Culture, by Josh Vaisman, MAPPCP (PgD), (AAHA, 2023)

“If you don’t have any solutions, I don’t want to hear about your problems.”

“Good vibes only.”

“This is a negativity-free zone.”

“If you have a bad attitude, don’t come to work.”

In far too many veterinary practices, leaders attempting to create a positive work environment demonize any expression of negative emotion. As we’ve learned from second-wave positive psychology, this misguided approach fails to understand what a positive culture really is. We know that negative emotions are both normal and necessary to human thriving, so a positive culture must allow for their healthy expression.

For decades now, spearheaded by American culture but certainly not limited to the United States, we have become obsessed with feeling good. We continually strive for more convenience, time, leisure, wealth, and happiness. It’s not our fault; the pursuit of happiness is foundational to our country’s ethos! And this obsession clearly has an upside: Our deep drive to improve life conditions has contributed to incredible innovations—the light bulb, condensed milk, the hearing aid, the disposable diaper, Crumbl Cookies. But it may have also made us utterly impatient and deeply intolerant of life’s many discomforts.

Back when I was in junior high school, in order to download anything off the internet (in my case, usually a game created in MS-DOS) I had to rely on a rather large, clunky modem to transfer the information onto my home computer, byte by painful byte, over the course of several hours. At the time, the long wait was totally worth it (if it meant finally getting to play Oregon Trail—“You have dysentery”). Today this entire technological process is obsolete—and my patience for long download times hasn’t aged so well either. If the three-hour documentary I’m streaming in high definition freezes up for even just a few seconds, I burst into a tirade of four-letter words I didn’t even realize I knew. But even aside from thrown remotes, this increasingly prevalent kind of impatience may signify a deeper problem.

Idyllic painting of a person on a beach

“One of the fascinating discoveries of modern social science is the fact we are terrible at predicting future happiness.”

By just about every objective measure, it is better to be alive now than at any point in human history. Today we live longer, healthier lives. Our risk of being affected by starvation, crime, and even war is lower than it’s ever been. Access to resources continues to increase, and I can have just about anything I could ever desire swiftly delivered to my home by barking orders at the digital assistant embedded within my phone. Yet collective wellbeing has not improved apace; we do not thrive in the ways we might expect, despite all of these advances. These days people suffer clinical depression at rates at least ten times those of the 1960s, and the mean onset age of mental-health maladies is half of what it was then (14.5 years of age today compared to 29.5 years of age back then). In fact, it may be our obsessive efforts to make our lives as easy and “positive” as possible that are increasing our own incidence of suffering.

Why a “Good Vibes Only” Approach Doesn’t Work

One of the fascinating discoveries of modern social science is the fact we are terrible at predicting future happiness. Our experiences typically fail to live up to our predictions. We think, “If only I’d win the lottery, I’d be happy.”

Or “If I got a new job/went to Hawaii/earned a promotion . . . then I’d really have hit the happiness jackpot.” Yet this “if- then” belief about our future happiness often proves wholly inaccurate. For example, research suggests that people who win large sums of cash in a lottery do not see a long-term change in their overall happiness. Sure, they feel a significant wellbeing boost when they first win, but the feeling does not seem to last. In a relatively short period of time—often merely months—their overall wellbeing returns to precisely where it was before the supposed “life-changing” event despite their massive influx of wealth. The same is true in the opposite direction: Research consistently shows that people tend to return to the same levels of overall happiness they were at prior to suffering a traumatic injury, such as damage to the spinal cord resulting in paralysis—and the return to baseline happens fairly quickly.

In other words, living in a world of unicorns and kittens does not necessarily lead to boundless reservoirs of wellbeing. But does optimizing for unicorns and kittens actually make it harder on us? In fact, as our need to feel good, never be challenged, and have all we want when we want it grows ever more obsessive, our ability to cope with the normal, inevitable adversities of life appears to diminish. The more we obsess about feeling good, the worse we feel. In some ways, in chasing happiness we are chasing a ghost. The human brain is simply not built to be in a state of constant contentment. In fact, a powerful psychophysiological phenomenon prevents us from getting stuck in any one emotion for long. It is called hedonic adaptation.

Imagine you walk into a room where a vanilla-scented candle is burning. You immediately notice the pleasant aroma and smile as you take a seat. After a few minutes, however, without your having actively realized it, the scent has become imperceptible to you—though the flame is still burning as brightly as before. This is olfactory adaptation, part of your body’s way of giving you the information you need—in this case, through your nose—and then moving on to other things so your conscious mind can focus on the conversation you’re having with your friend or noticing the new person who just walked into the room or paying attention to the announcement being made on the radio. Of course, were the scent in the air to change drastically, your brain would notice (much like I’m immediately aware when my 14-year-old Great Dane has an accident in the house).

Hedonic adaptation is the emotional form of the same brain mechanism: our mind and body adapt to contextual elements so we can focus our attention on other things. In this way, we grow accustomed to our life circumstances—happy or sad, interesting or dull, comforting or frightening. So, sure, winning millions of dollars in the lottery is life-changing (maybe you can pay off your mortgage or even quit your job!), but even these heightened emotional shifts quickly become our “new normal.” Before long, being rich feels no different from how we felt when we were a few million dollars poorer.

Person in a dark place opening a door to bright light

A powerful psychophysiological phenomenon prevents us from getting stuck in any one emotion for long. It is called hedonic adaptation.

And thank goodness for it. Could you imagine if your best friend won the lottery and lacked hedonic adaptation? At first they would be overcome with joy. As their friend, you would gladly share in their genuine excitement. Now imagine they were to stay in that state forever. Every time you saw them—the day after, a week later, months, years on—they’d be as elated as if they’d just discovered their lottery win mere moments ago. How long would it take for you to find their company totally unbearable?

Hedonic adaptation is important. It gives us the ability to move on, refocus, and experience all the things that come after. If emotions are pieces of information that are critical to our ability to survive and respond to our circumstances, then we must be able to feel all of our emotions as they occur. And this is why we instinctively get annoyed when someone chides us that “Good vibes only” are welcome, even expected. It doesn’t feel right. It actually feels fake or forced—even toxic.

So when a leader in our hospital tells us that at work a large part of the normal human experience is simply not allowed, problems ensue. Humans are not built to be positive and joyful all the time, and if our environment expects that of us, we inevitably struggle. It is psychologically laborious to put on a good vibes only front. And, quite honestly, leaders who expect that of us are dismissive—intentionally or not. When we feel dismissed, we withdraw and withhold. A team that is withdrawn or withholding cannot reach its full potential; each person must be engaged and communicative.

A workplace must allow for the whole emotional enchilada. We need all the vibes.

Photo credits: Grandfailure/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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