World Mental Health Day: How to Raise Psychological Capital

October 9, 2019 Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D.

4-minute read


Listen to Dan's Workhuman® Radio interview here.

Hope is a cousin to optimism, but it is different in what it needs to make it work. Of all the positive emotions, it is the only one that requires uncertainty or negativity to be activated. There is no need for hope if you are positively certain of the outcome. Disappointment, frustration, and the unknown are hope’s necessary ingredients.

Greek mythology tells us that Pandora opened her jar and released all the difficulties and unspecified evils into the world, but she closed it before hope escaped. Hope is precious because it knows how to survive against adversity. Hope may also be at the very core of improving employee mental health and well-being.

One of the main ingredients in understanding productivity and capacity to succeed at work is engagement, and how well we engage is a direct way to look at mental health. According to research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, engagement is defined as “a positive, fulfilling, and work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” Striving for this type of fulfillment should be part of your organizational strategy. But what engages people in a balanced way? What makes the difference between dynamic absorption and feeling disconnected?

Studies repeatedly show the difference is determined by positive psychological capital – the extent to which people have resiliency, self-efficacy, optimism, and hope. Each of these ingredients of psychological capital are outlined below.

  • Resiliency is our capacity to bounce back from a difficulty. Most research on resilience has focused on developing mental agility in combating repetitive (typically negative) thoughts –  thinking traps that keep us stuck in one point of view. They kick in either after something has gone wrong or from fear that something will go wrong. Thinking traps limit your well-being, and the ability to challenge these thoughts helps shift your perspective. John Spence, a business and leadership development expert, has said, "You cannot change what you refuse to confront.” This is particularly true when it comes to self-limiting and disengaging thoughts. For example, if someone has been saying, "I can't do this," to themselves and others, it will be hard for them to remain engaged. Teaching people to challenge this thought with, “I can’t do this – yet,” can jump-start reconnection.
  • Self-efficacy is the belief in our ability to perform at a certain level of competence.  Typically, people with high self-efficacy demonstrate persistence in achieving goals. As such, strategies for increasing self-efficacy often include cultivating ways to extend your grit and follow-through. Maintaining a balance between persistence and self-care is the sweet spot for effectiveness. Engagement without this balance often contributes to burnout.
  • Optimists explain what happens to them in a way that exaggerates the good and minimizes the bad, while pessimists do precisely the opposite. They each think differently about how the world is seen, and each way of seeing creates a powerful expectation about the future. These expectations either help us thrive or set limits on how we live our life. They are forged by the degree to which one believes they can exert control over future outcomes. If someone believes they can influence the future, they are typically optimistic and engaged. If not, they’re likely to be pessimistic and cut off.
  • Hope can be a way of using a natural resource. In a number of studies, the key feature for work engagement is hope – believing to have pathways to desired goals and the agency to use those pathways. But new research may explain why this is so important. Hope can transform disappointment into a positive emotion. The key to how this happens is calibration. People with high hope, a group I study, are masters of being able to recalibrate after a swing and a miss, and then connect. They often do this by readily adjusting their goals or their approach to those goals. This generates a positive emotion that keeps them engaged and thriving while inspiring others.

What does this mean for organizations? Perhaps one of the best investments would be in hiring, training, and retaining individuals with high levels of hope. They not only have what it takes to do a job well, but they can also do the job in a way that brings more positive psychological capital to work for themselves and others. They’ll do more than help a company survive – they can help it thrive.

(Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., will present a session entitled “How to Recharge When You Are Emotionally Depleted” at Workhuman® Live in San Antonio, May 11-14, 2020.)


Self-efficacy, optimism, resilience, and hope

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About the Author

Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Dan is a counseling psychologist, psychodramatist, author, professor at Columbia University, and a featured speaker at Workhuman Live in Atlanta.

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