The importance of a positive proactive approach

March 8th, 2021

In my previous blog, I wrote about resilience. Resilient people, organizations and societies are able to cope with setbacks or negative events in an effective way. The great thing about resilience is that we can all get more of it. Resilience is an infinite resource. So, if someone else or another organization becomes more resilient, we don’t have to worry that this will be at our or our organization’s expense. On the contrary, if the number of resilient people and organizations in our environment increases, our chances of becoming more resilient will only increase. And the good news doesn’t end here. More resilience is obtained by means of a positive approach. Increasing resilience doesn’t happen by removing setbacks or negative events, but by increasing protective factors. After all, setbacks and negative events are an important source to learn from. And our ability to learn develops along with our resilience.

Despite all this good news, in practice, the greatest investments are being made in trying to prevent or eliminate future negative events and setbacks. Investments in negative reactive approaches predominate. An important reason for this is our wait-and-see attitude. For a variety of reasons, we usually try to hold on to the existing situation and only take action when a problem arises or when our attention is drawn to a major imminent problem. The time pressure, urgency and threat associated with problems have a strong effect on the way we perceive the world. We are faced with a situation that we want to move away from. This narrows our view, creates a negative perspective and limits our flexibility. With this, risks increase that an acute problem will become chronic. 

Personally, I think that the story of Dr. Stuart Brown is a very good example of a practical application of resilience. In 1966, as an assistant professor of psychiatry, Brown was asked to study why mass murderer Charles Whitman had come to commit such horrible crimes. While researching Whitman’s life, Brown discovered that Whitman had never been able to play freely during his childhood because his father didn’t allow him to. To investigate whether the absence of play could actually leave such deep marks, Brown decided to expand his research. He visited Huntsville Prison in Texas and interviewed 26 convicted murderers. Based on the gathered information, Brown noticed similarities between these men. Particularly, a lack of play and a lack of empathy. Moreover, these two elements seemed to be connected. In the years that followed, Brown conducted extensive research into the childhoods of murderers like Charles Whitman and the men he interviewed in prison. Brown found that a lack of play at a young age had major consequences. And that play is very important to people at any age. Brown found that play activates virtually all parts of the brain. This applies to both animals and humans at any age. At this point in time, Brown’s research had not progressed far enough yet to come to any general statements or conclusions. But Brown knew that play was very important. How important exactly became clear from a study with young rats. The rats were divided into two groups. One group of young rats was allowed to show natural play behavior while they grew up. But the rats in the other group were stopped when they started to play. After this first period, the rats were presented a collar that was saturated with cat odor. Initially, the rats from both groups reacted instinctively to the smell of the collar. All the rats fled and hid. But the rats that had been allowed to play at a young age came out of their hiding place after a short while to explore the area and go on with their lives. While the rats that were not allowed to play when they were younger remained hidden in their hiding place until they eventually died.

According to Brown, play allows animals and people to explore new possibilities, absorb new information, adapt and become more flexible. And all while having fun. Armed with a lot of knowledge about the importance of play, Brown decided to focus the rest of his career on play. Dr. Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute for Play. This institute is successfully committed to introducing knowledge about play, practical applications of play, and the benefits of play into public life. 

I believe in the importance of investing in positive proactive approaches. A positive proactive approach offers opportunities to choose in which direction we want to move. It provides us with a broad perspective, it increases our flexibility and it results in positive development. That does not mean that it will stop negative events from happening or that we can ignore problems. Negative events and problems are inevitable and very important for us to learn from. A positive approach increases our ability to perceive positive events, to take advantage of opportunities and possibilities, to deal effectively with our problems and setbacks, and most importantly, to learn from negative events. Do you also believe in the importance of positive proactive approaches and would you like to increase the resilience of your organization or team? Or do you experience difficulties switching from negative to positive approaches? Please reach out to me!

Consulted sources:

How Does Play Shape Our Development? By NPR/TED Staff. Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Press Play. August 13, 2019 

National Institute for Play.

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