The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Julia Watson

Positivity pays: the art of solution-focused thinking

It's all too easy to overlook the power of an optimistic outlook, even for the bitterest of cynics in your staffroom.

Looking on the bright side can have a significant effect on wellbeing, boosting self-esteem and productivity. While this may appear naïve, understanding how the brain works under pressure reveals that positivity pays.

Where does a negative attitude come from? The answer is simple: stress. Feeling overwhelmed, not being listened to or perceiving a lack of control can leave colleagues feeling unmotivated and dissatisfied. 

However, it is the combination of these various stresses that produces a negative, counter-productive outlook.

Under pressure

The ‘primitive’ part of the human brain, in particular, the hippocampus and amygdala are designed to protect us from harm. They are hard-wired for survival and are entirely risk-adverse.

When stress levels rise, this part of the brain activates, discouraging us from trying anything new. This creates a negative outlook where everything is perceived as a threat.

How can a positive outlook help?

When we focus on the good things in our lives, our body realises serotonin, which contributes to wellbeing and happiness by regulating mood. Actively seeking the good things in your day lowers anxiety and produces a sense of wellbeing.

However, this isn’t just about feeling good. As stress levels decrease, you are better able to access your left pre-frontal cortex, meaning that you can think more clearly and creatively.

Ok, so a positive attitude sounds great. But how can you develop one?

Saying ‘thank you’ to colleagues is a great place to start. Not only will you enjoy the benefit of that feelgood serotonin, but researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that workers whose manager said ‘thank you’ to them were motivated to work harder!

Agree with colleagues to share the good things that happened during the day. Put those moments on a board in shared areas as a reminder.

Start team meetings with one piece of gratitude. What was good today? Get into the habit of sharing and celebrating successes. Being in a good frame of mind at the start of a meeting will mean that participants are using their left pre-frontal cortex, rather than their primitive brains in discussion. If you’ve ever had a meeting with a group of adults behaving like toddlers, this is the primitive brain in full flow!

Spending time with other people releases serotonin, so get out of the office and talk to other human beings. Preferably about something other than work!

Take small steps. How do you eat an elephant? One small bite at a time. Avoid overwhelm by breaking big tasks up into tiny, manageable ones. Achieving a goal, however small, provides a serotonin release, helping you feel more motivated and positive.

Become more solution-focused. Solution-focused thinking and a positive outlook go hand-in-hand, as a solution-focused approach to challenge is inherently a positive one.

What is solution-focused thinking?

The three underlying principles of solution-focused thinking are as follows.

  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • Once you know what works, do more of it.
  • If it's not working, do something differently.

Focusing firstly on the good, however small, is enabling and guards against the feeling of being ‘stuck’ or overwhelmed by a challenge. A solution-focused approach builds on success, focusing on the future and uses tools such as scaling and exception-finding to gain clarity and direction.

For example, ‘The children in Year 1 are never going to reach their writing targets’ is a hopeless statement.

The use of ‘never’ tells us that this statement comes from the primitive brain; it’s catastrophic thinking. Looking at this challenge in a solution-focused way opens up possibilities. What is working? If we woke up tomorrow and writing was improving, what would that look like? Are there any children who are making progress? How are they doing this? Can we do more of this? The challenge is opened up and we have a starting point for action.

A solution-focused approach is a very practical structure for introducing more positivity into your life.

Brains change

'That all sounds great', you might say, 'but I've always been a negative person and I can't change now.' Wrong!

Until 2005 scientists thought that the brain was like porcelain and couldn’t be changed once reaching adulthood. We now know that the brain can, in fact, change at any time due to its plasticity. Positivity, when practiced, can change neural pathways in the brain, meaning that there’s hope for even the most negative of staffroom cynics.


Grant, A. M. et. al (2010), 'A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98/6, pp. 946-55.

Quick, E. K. (1996), Doing what works in Brief Therapy, New York: Academic Press.

Pascual-Leone, A., Amedi, A., Fregni, F. and Merabet, L. B. (2005), 'The Plastic Human Brain Cortex', Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28, pp. 377-401.

More from Optimus

School leaders: why not look on the bright side?

Stress: how do we cope?

Bouncing back from a disappointing inspection outcome


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