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A fundamental attitude change is vital in order to slow New Zealand's relentless tumble toward the bottom of the OECD's economic rankings, says Jamie Ford, manager of the Foresight Institute.

Ford says New Zealand might punch above its weight on the rugby field but the same is not true in the board room.

"It's not as if businesses have got a lot of All Blacks in their ranks that will persist and achieve in the face of adversity."

Ford runs a course on how to become more optimistic and says Kiwis are hurting our economic potential by being so pessimistic.

"As a country we're handicapping ourselves in international competition because we're not addressing this on a major scale."

New Zealanders score at the bottom of the chart on a test that measures pessimism on a scale of one to five.

"We see New Zealanders frequently scoring as low as one. The majority of Kiwis are scoring between one and three."

An international database on pessimism/optimism was compiled from tests on various sales people, who he says are a barometer of the optimism or pessimism of the rest of the population. The test was developed by Dr Martin E.P. Seligman at the Optimism Project at the University of Pennsylvania and measures pessimism by determining the extent to which someone considers an adversity permanent. Seligman calls this a person's "explanatory style." Ford says it is a predictor of our future performance.

"We know we have the tall poppy syndrome where we don't really admire people greatly who are outstanding achievers. We call Americans brash and we call Aussies arrogant. They outperform us but all we're doing is describing a difference in their explanatory style," Ford says.

Ford, originally from Whangarei, says the attitudes of people in other countries allows them to score higher on Seligman's pessimism/optimism test and be more successful.

"One of the reasons why some of the other countries in the OECD have outperformed us has a lot to do with this attitude foundation. It insulates them against depression and the downs. It enables them to be much more resistant and to bounce back a lot faster when things don't work out the way they want."

So why should people living in clean-green Godzone be so pessimistic? Ford says optimism and pessimism are learned skills that we pick up from our family and classmates early in life. But they can be changed.

"Just as we learned pessimism when we were very young, we can unlearn it and learn to be much more optimistic."

Ford says pessimism is very deeply embedded in the New Zealand culture. He admits he's not an anthropologist but has a theory as to how New Zealanders became so negative. He says it dates back to colonial days when people came to New Zealand aspiring for a better life.

"They came from the working class in the UK and maybe they were inclined to moan and groan and grizzle and grumble about their situation. Then they got on a boat and came out here and, in spite of the opportunities that were here and the new life that they created for themselves, maybe they just carried on with that kind of approach."

Whereas when the first Australians were originally shipped down under, they didn't exactly have the highest expectations for what the rest of their lives had in store.

"The Australians have been smiling all the way to the bank."

Ford realises his views might offend some people. He says everyone wants to view themselves as being optimistic.

"If you were to ask everyone you met if they were optimistic or pessimistic, most of them would tell you that they are optimistic. But when we use Seligman's definition, the result is very different."

Unfortunately pessimism is holding New Zealanders back from achieving greater economic prosperity, Ford says.

"People don't take the opportunities. They don't seize opportunities as quickly as they might. They don't take the risks that they might otherwise. They hold back from going for it full throttle."

Ford says our performance in business is all about attitude. Can we persist in the face of adversity and persevere? Do we have the guts to take the knocks and get up again? Are we tough minded and resilient? Can we move on quickly from failures?

"New Zealand businesses focus on a whole lot of other things except this fundamental matter of attitude. At the end of the day it comes down to people's attitude. We will criticise Aussies for their arrogant attitude but they just get on and make it happen."

What Ford says he sees in New Zealand is endemic pessimism which is leading us down the road towards depression.

"What we're doing through pessimism is setting ourselves up for more depression. Depression is a serious problem in New Zealand. It's got to be a serious problem for businesses."

Since depression is de-motivating, it's hardly a tool to pull us up the OECD's ladder of economic rankings. But Ford says there is hope.

"Businesses can insulate themselves against depression. They can inoculate their people against it. They can vaccinate their people against it by providing them with optimism skills."

Some people might not actually think they're pessimistic at all and call themselves realists. But the result is the same.

"Seligman would say to you that a pessimist has a more realistic view of the world but the optimist is the one who'll succeed because they won't give up," Ford says.

Optimists are more likely to survive and thrive in the tough adverse international business climate.

"At the end of the day it's their guts. They can take the knocks and get up again fast. They are resilient. They can persevere in the face of adversity."

But pessimists will find just the opposite things happening in their work lives, he says.

"People unconsciously create barriers within themselves through being pessimistic. People will give up too soon."

Ford says the answer lies in psychologically adjusting what we tell ourselves about what's happening in our lives. He says this is known as our "automatic explanations." He says we should argue with our own negativity. But unfortunately changing our belief structure is something that is innately difficult to do.

"When you tell yourself something, you will agree with it. But if some other person told you that, you might argue vociferously with them and defend yourself against it. But you agree with it so you're constantly brainwashing yourself and writing bad programmes in your own mind."

Ford says you can consciously make an effort to rewrite your internal programmes and become more optimistic and successful.

"It is possible that people can change their attitudes and their internal deep-seeded beliefs that are the authors of their actions and therefore the quality of their life."

Ford says the best thing to do is to recognise your own negative thoughts and confront them.

"Bring those inner beliefs to the surface. Examine them. Then learn how to dispute them and how to change them."