How to Be Positive During Tough Times

Here's why it's so important to stop complaining.

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It's too easy to complain right now. You're paying through the nose for gas, you've put off retirement for another five years, your company just sacked 10 percent of your coworkers, and your workload has doubled. Even worse, your CEO made more money than the Chicago Cubs last year. It's ridiculous! It's outrageous! And you can't get a day off to save your life.

Well, you're probably the reason Jon Gordon, an author, speaker, and consultant, wrote The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways to Deal with Negativity at Work, because negativity is contagious. It spreads through organizations, hurting performance and productivity. Gordon recently sat down with U.S. News to talk about finding a better outlook on hard times. Excerpts:

Are you suggesting all complaining should be wiped out?

It's the mindless complaining and the subtle negativity that really destroys organizations and teams. Complaining is contagious, as we know. You get off the phone and you're surrounded by people, maybe in a cubicle, and you start complaining to that person next to you, and that person starts complaining to the person next to them. One person can really affect an organization with their negative attitude.

What really separates complaining from other conversation?

There are two kinds of complaints. There's a chronic, mindless complaining which is just venting and complaining, where you just feel helpless, you feel powerless. No. 2 is because it's becoming a habit. You're just so used to doing it. On the other hand, a justified complaint says: Here's what I don't like, here's what I don't want, here's what's wrong. But here's what I think we should do about it. It's all about intent. If you care about the organization and you want something better for everyone, then it's a positive complaint. If it's all about your own ego, then you're not interested in serving the team.

How can almost-retirees stay positive, when they have to stay at work or go back to work because they aren't financially able to retire?

It's "get to" versus "have to." You get to go to work. You get to have a job, versus "have to." So many people your age are sick. Many people have not even made it to your age. My mom passed away at 59 a year and a half ago. She was young. She was a real estate agent, and she got cancer. When I speak to people in real estate, I'll say, 'I know you're facing a tough market right now, but you get to have this job, you get to live this life. My mom wishes she was in your shoes.' And that really resonates with them. You get to drive in traffic. Many people don't even get to drive a car.

No. 2: They can go to work every day and say, 'What bigger purpose can I fuel up with today?' The research is clear—people are the most energized when using their strengths for a bigger purpose, beyond themselves. Older people have a lot of gifts to give in the workplace—a lot of wisdom and a lot of advice. Mentor, teach, share, and serve.

How do you face challenges?

When you're facing that obstacle, look for the lesson; look for the opportunity in the challenge. Look for the solution in the complaint. Look for the action that needs to take place. The next president of the United States will be someone who has a clear vision for the future and offers solutions, not complaints. Stay positive. This is not Pollyanna. But you have to have a positive vision for the road ahead. Looking forward—no matter what age you are—and being optimistic is the key.

Gratitude seems to play a big part.

It's everything. I think it really is everything. All the research on gratitude is so powerful: You see that you can't be stressed and thankful at the same time. It's the way our brains and bodies are wired. So you focus on gratitude and you won't be stressed. It's the best stress reducer. Is gratitude in short supply?

No doubt. OK, you're paying $4 a gallon for gas, and I'm as upset as anybody. But you can say: 'We're not paying $8 a gallon. And we live in a free country. We live with so many amenities. We live with so many free things that we can enjoy.'... Instead of focusing on that complaint, you can now be grateful for what you have. And which emotion's going to uplift you? Gratitude. Which one's going to enhance your longevity? Gratitude. Which one will strengthen your immune system? Gratitude.