Skip to main content

As a heroic caregiver to the world, it’s easy to put others' needs first. This “putting others first” is a hallmark of 9-1-1 superheroes, who are committed to helping others both on and off the job. In many cases, however, this wonderful quality can stretch thin the most resilient caregiver. Identifying the hallmarks of happiness and prioritizing your own today can make it easier to weather the ups and downs without turning into Negative Nelly.

dispatcher guy

Happiness and positivity have a bad reputation in 9-1-1.

Bright and bouncy trainees are often condescended towards: “Oh, isn’t that special,” the tenured public safety dispatchers say, “just wait until they find out how it really is around here.” As if it’s a sign of weakness, the positive approach is shunned as too “Pollyanna,” while crusty and bitter is accepted as normal.

The problem with bitterness being the norm is that it begets more bitterness. In his article, “How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity,” author Travis Bradberry writes that, the more we complain, the easier it is to complain in the future.


Negativity changes your brain

Over time, if your default mode of thinking becomes negative, you may suffer additional effects including diminished ability to process and overcome roadblocks. Rampant negativity also increases stress levels. One Stanford study showed that complaining shrinks the hippocampus—an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Negativity diminishes healthy brain function!

9-1-1 is a battleground for positive thinking

The transition—from positive to negative—is inevitable, it could be argued. Years of listening to 9-1-1 calls and radio traffic can wear down the hardiest of souls. There are those telecommunicators, however, who manage to keep their spirits lifted throughout their career. My former coworker Toni is one of these shining examples.

At work, she was always a delight to talk to. With an easy smile on her face, she was pleasant with callers too. I would overhear her talking with callers on the non-emergency complaint line, reassuring them in the kindest tone, “Don’t worry sweetie, we’ll get the police out there just as soon as possible.” It was almost like the challenges of the job didn’t affect her. She recently retired after 35 years in the profession with her good health still intact, having spent her entire career working the phones and radio.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a life-threatening illness or loss to inspire lasting change. On more than one occasion I’ve seen hardened 9-1-1 career lifers shift toward a more hopeful disposition only after grappling with cancer. During these times, more than others it seems, optimism and lightness become powerful ways forward.


Why it’s important to create a habit of positive thinking

It isn’t necessary to be sunshine and rainbows all the time. In fact, the common misconception about lasting happiness is that we must ignore negative feelings or challenging times. Quite the contrary, our ability to meet the challenges and continue moving forward can be a source of strength and contentment.

Active and daily tools help promote thought change

Martin Seligman, one the people behind the positive psychology movement, offers five elements essential to lasting contentment. Consciously bringing these elements into daily work and home life can be the difference between feeling positive your efforts are making a difference, or feeling rundown and burnt out. The elements form the acronym, “PERMA:”


Positive emotion

The best way to change your emotional state is to practice gratitude. What are some things that bring a smile to your face? That make you feel abundant and joyful? Reminding yourself of these things regularly can lift you up. Especially when you notice the telltale complaints of the day creeping into your mind, quickly look at the silver lining. In time, negative thoughts occur less frequently.


Think of the last time you were completely lost in a task. These moments of “flow” are a consistent hallmark of contentment. These moments on the job and hobbies that take you to this place help shut off the negative thinking mind, while bringing your focus and attention directly into the present moment.


The happiness research conclusively shows that people who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not. Make it a point to spend time with those in your inner circle who lift you up, and have the courage to say “not today” to those who are no longer a positive impact.


Daily, remind yourself of the difference you are making. While 70% of the calls are non-emergencies, that still leaves 30% that are. Outside of work, it’s likely that you’re the provider for many. People count on you. You make the world a better place for someone, every day.


Accomplishment/ Achievement

For lasting happiness, we must also feel like we are improving, becoming more than we were yesterday. Like a tree that is always growing, we have to push out of our comfort zone and into our vision for the future. Plan small wins. Chart goals that are important to you, and take daily steps in their direction.

“Healthy positivity doesn’t mean cloaking your authentic feelings,” says Jennifer Moss, co-founder of Plasticity Labs. It’s about meeting the bumps in the road, feeling whatever comes up, and rising above.

It’s never too late!

It might be tempting to say that Toni, my former coworker with the constantly effervescent personality, was kind to callers for their sake, which might be partly true. It’s more likely, however, she did it for her own happiness. To her, positivity was the journey and the destination. Not a bad way to travel.

About the Author


Adam Timm is the president and co-founder of The Healthy Dispatcher.

Previously a 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade with the Los Angeles Police Dept., Adam now provides leadership and resilience training to PSAPs around the country.

His second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now. Visit for more.

Stay Connected with Watson

Receive more articles like this right to your inbox.