Working Smarter

Why Brain Neurons Seek Novelty and Challenge in 2016

Posted by Joe Robinson

New year's dawn for resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are like any other new behavior. We are of two minds about them. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh/discipline is weak. Part of our brain, the higher floors, is gung-ho. Yes! Let’s do it. Eat healthier. Get more exercise. Be more productive at work.

The second mind, located in the lower rungs of the brain, has other ideas. The fear hub of the amygdala, constantly on the alert for danger and risks to life, ego, and pride, says, “Why bother?” “Too hard.” “Would look foolish.”

NOVELTY VS. FEAR

It’s a titanic struggle that goes on throughout our lives between the forces of growth and progress versus the lizard brain’s fear of venturing outside the comfort zone. We know who usually wins that battle. The default button is to do nothing. Doing something requires proaction, and that requires self-regulation, or discipline.

The science shows that the effort is worth it, because we satisfy our higher aspirations when we go beyond the autopilot. This is the best time of the year to make a new course happen, when receptivity is at its highest and we are willing to exert ourselves to try a new direction.

Embarking on a new path is no less than a physiological and psychological imperative. The research of brain scientist Gregory Berns has shown that the two key factors in life fulfillment are novelty and challenge. Both require us to move off status quo, or face the consequences—boredom, cynicism, life unlived.

Humans are programmed to seek out the new. It’s what got our hunter-gatherer forebears to venture beyond the next ridge to find new food sources. The need for novelty is so strong that even the anticipation of something new, before we have even experienced it, sets off the brain’s party drug, dopamine, which makes us feel good and encourages us to take on more new things.

BRAIN NEURONS DON'T LIKE RERUNS

Our brains seek out new data so insistently that when our neurons get the same information over and over, they literally stop noticing it. This is why you can drive to work without remembering passing the last five exits. Your brain neurons have been there, done that. They’re not paying attention anymore.

We all have certain core psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—that also depend on us engaging with the new. We satisfy these needs through acts of initiative and challenge, by going beyond our normal routines.

With so much in our biology nudging us to try a new course and feel the satisfaction from doing so, you would think it would be a little less like pulling teeth to get us to take on a new resolution—and stick with it. But that doesn’t take into account the other mind, the security-fixated default that holds you back. It doesn’t want to change anything. It might be risky, hard. You might fail. Isn’t there an easier option?

We have to overcome that static and take the very first step in the new direction. Then the next. Otherwise, we wind up doing more than we do well at work and not managing the demands coming at us. On the life side, we get locked into stale routines. Our brains were made for participation, not vegetation.

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GETTING OUT OF OUR OWN WAY

The battle between our two minds happens by rote, outside consciousness, so bringing awareness forward on the importance of trying new things is a great place to start. Change is not something to be feared. It is the fuel of fulfillment. Our autonomy and competence needs demand that we stretch, go the extra mile.

At work, this is the definition of employee engagement, bringing extra discretionary effort to the table. Employees are willing to do that (increasing productivity 28% in the process, according to the Conference Board) when they are able to demonstrate initiative and involvement in how they do their work.

The need to grow and take on challenges is what makes training and development such a key lever in employee engagement. Surveys show employee training in the top tier of factors that drive engagement, along with mentoring and managers who have open door policies. When people get skills and strategies to be more effective and manage demands better, they respond with greater engagement.

RESOLUTION: TRAINING AND DEVELOPMENT IN 2016

We can satisfy the personal growth mandate of our brain neurons as well as organizational change and process improvements with a New Year’s resolution for employee training. Change becomes, not something to fear, but a part of the innate drive we all have for self-improvement and competence. When employees get tools to work smarter, manage interruptions, eliminate overwhelm, and control stress, as they do in my Work-Life Balance, Stress Management, Information Management, and Managing Crazy Busy Work trainings, there’s an immediate reward in energy and initiative, as people feel they have strategies and support to do their jobs.

As I mentioned in my last post, “The Three Things We Don’t Know We Need to Be Happy,” the most potent motivation is self-generated through what is known as intrinsic motivation. That comes when we act for internal reasons, not for an external payoff. Key intrinsic goals include learning and challenge, exactly what employee training brings to the table. As one study reported, “employees who are intrinsically motivated are continuously interested in the work that they are doing” (Elliott, Harackiewicz).

This new year, seize the opportunity to grow and increase productivity by initiating an employee training or development program, wherever you are on the organizations chart. On the life side, find the one thing that can make your life more fulfilling, and take the next step to make it happen.

Let the higher brain win in 2016. The glow of satisfaction from taking on a challenge will tell you that you made the right choice.

If you would like to get the year off on the right start with a training or development program, click the button below for more details.

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Tags: employee engagement programs, happiness, employee training, employee development programs, life fulfillment, life satisfaction, employee engagement, work life balance programs, fear and risk-taking, novelty

The Hidden Key to Happiness and Work Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Experiences, like dancing, make you happier

Fifty percent of your potential happiness is genetic, say researchers. Sorry about that. You can't do much about that. Another 10 percent comes from your circumstances (geography, family, health). Sorry again. That leaves you with 40 percent you can actually do something about. This falls into a realm known as "intentional activities."

It turns out that your happiness depends on the proactive choices you make to participate on this planet, your experiences.

The participant experience is one of the most potent and least known paths to happiness and a thriving life beyond the office. It's all about engagement in activities that help gratify core needs, such as competence and autonomy, and recharge our batteries. 

Researchers Leaf van Boven of the University of Colorado and Cornell's Thomas Gilovich have found that we're happier when we choose experiences over items you can buy at a store. Whether it's a vacation, painting a canvas, playing chess, taking a dance class, or walking a park trail, these moments of full engagement contact a deeply personal realm that feeds core self-determination needs.

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It turns out that experiences help people become the type of people they would like to become.

ALIVE TO THE MOMENT

We are all inside our heads most of the day, locked in perpetual analysis. Direct experience gets us out of the thought factory and into the life-participant column, alive to the moment.

That's a good place to be, since most anxieties and stress come from the two tenses we're not in. Experiences are the nexus of now and a great work-life balance equalizer. The road to life satisfaction runs straight through engagement.

Experiences don't get on our radar, because we are conditioned to go for tangible rewards. Experience is an intrinsic affair, done for internal goals like learning, fun, and growth. But here's something that may make it easier to make the leap to a more experiential life: People actually like you better when they see you as someone with interesting experiences.

Van Boven and his colleagues Margaret Campbell and Thomas Gilovich found in a 2009 study that people were very interested in the doings of experiential people. Experience is two mints in one: a direct route to your own happiness, and an admired path by others.

Why is this realm so potent? Experiences can't be compared to anyone else's experience, so they don’t lose their value through social comparison like objects do. They are your personal event. Also, you don't habituate to experiences as you do with a new car or phone. The new car smell won't last, but the memory of a vacation or a dance lesson will.

MEMORIES PRIME MOOD

The interactive nature of experiences sets off multiple neuron firings in the brain that form memories that stick with you, creating the positive memories that remind you that you like your life.

The more positive and novel the recent experiences you can recall, the higher your life satisfaction, report researchers Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Another reason experiences are so fulfilling is that they tend to be done with others, satisfying your core need for social connection.

There's a skill-set needed to activate a participant life. Some of the most important skills are those that open the door to direct experiences, from attention-directing to the pursuit of competence.

FULL IMMERSION

The magic of direct experience comes from its ability to root us fully in the moment of living. You can't be anywhere else than where you are when you're immersed in your experience, which makes it a great stress management tool. There’s no room for self-talk about the past and worries about what's going to happen tomorrow. The ego gets benched, allowing the authentic self to step forward to enjoy, learn, or try without the judgment killjoy of the external agenda (How am I doing? What am I going to get out of it?). The experience itself is enough.

When you're in an activity where your skills meet a challenge, you're vaulted into the higher realms of optimal experience, or flow, a state of absorption so complete that your thoughts and deeds are one. This is as good as it gets on the third planet from the sun, as close to anything that can be imagined to what we know as happiness, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of flow, has put it.

And it’s out there, if you are.

If you'd like to explore the keys to a happy life, click the button below or check out our Work-Life Balance program and online classes page.

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Tags: happiness, life balance, happiness and experiences, life fulfillment, life satisfaction, optimal experience, work life balance

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