Thursday, February 02, 2012

OK. I gotta think positive!

You could see it in his eyes – the tears. At the same time his lips quivered. Kyle Stanley blew a three-shot lead on the 18th hole at Torrey Pines at the Farmers Insurance Open with a triple bogey. Meanwhile, Brandt Snedeker who was seven off the lead at the beginning of the day had finished with a 67 to assure him of second place – until the meltdown. Snedeker went on to win the golf tournament in a sudden death play-off against Stanley.

This is every golfer’s nightmare. Just ask Rory McIlroy and many before him. How do you stay positive when the stress is extraordinary? How do you find your centre again after such a shock?

Although extreme and relatively rare for golfers and the rest of us, the comeback techniques are universal. We humans have a remarkable ability to bounce back. Built into our biology is the tendency and ability to see the silver lining. And, that’s just the start.

The hard work is rebuilding a frame of mind to confront the same or different challenges. It’s not enough to “think positive” although positive self-talk is essential such as “I can do this”. The trouble with just thinking is that it is not doing. A routine – doing something even if it’s a little bit every day – is the key to strengthening resilience in the face of adversity. As Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage puts it:

Training your brain to be positive is not so different from training your muscles at the gym.

Twitter, Facebook and the Web are alive with tips, tools and techniques gleaned from current research across multiple disciplines. The January-February 2012 edition of The Harvard Business Review is dedicated to the science of happiness. Science Digest provides nuggets on a daily basis. The self-help book business has been thriving for 60+ years. The topic has a long history in religion and in human history.

So what can Kyle Stanley do? Here are some examples that consistently pop up as proven to work:

1. Ease someone else’s pain. Do something good for someone else. Help a person looking for something in the grocery store. Hang out for a day with young kids who can’t afford to take golf lessons. Be their teacher for a few hours. Good intentions have a two-way impact: soothe pain, and increase pleasure. Confucius called this The Jen Ratio.

2. Ponder. Handwrite in a notebook all your thoughts about the situation, free flow, no judgment or editing. That empties the mind, takes out the busyness and has a calming effect even for many athletes who prefer action to sitting quietly writing. Handwriting makes a stronger connection to the brain than working on a computer. The quieter creative and healing part of the mind can get to work.

3. See the silver lining. Exercise this biological gift to your advantage every day. Verbally or in a notebook, make a list of three reasons you are grateful. The Dalai Lama likely has practiced this to a fine art. He giggles quite a lot. We can assume he must see the upside to just about obstacle thrown in his way.

4. Listen to music while exercising. You can’t do it while competing as it does give an athlete a competitive advantage. But you can in-between tournaments. Music acts like a conductor orchestrating and coordinating activity across different parts of the brain. The repetitive beat combined with the exercise –walking, yoga, work out at a gym, Zumba, etc. – directs attention away from the negative providing a motivational boost. Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner’s Brain, wrote about the power of music in The Globe and Mail (February 2, 2012).

5. Do something silly. Be with someone silly. Permit yourself to have fun. Laughter is an infectious social phenomenon. Even a quip here and there in conversations with others will magically lift your spirits and those around you. Reach out to David Feherty at the Golf Channel. He can make even the most dour person chuckle.

These and related habits repair and develop our Buddha brain. Rick Hanson describes the process in his book Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Step at a Time. Many little mindful habits tame the amygdala, our brain’s anxiety-ridden troublemaker. The emotional tail wags the rational dog (Jonathan Haidt). But it doesn’t always have to be that way.