Working Smarter

The Law of Life Effort: The Work of Happiness

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mountain top rally

Your brain is at war. With itself. There’s an epic, daily battle going under your pate for dominance between the forces of fear and safety and those that represent what it is our brains actually want—engagement, participation, novelty, and challenge. No wonder we need Advil.

The victor is usually the don’t-rock-the-boat team. Don’t try that. This couch is so comfortable. I’ll look like a fool. I don’t have time to take that yoga class. I’m exhausted. And, of course, the most effective weapon of the forces of non-engagement: It’s too much effort. What’s hard is having any work-life balance, or life period, when these and other ephemeral reflexes have us in a headlock.

LIFE TAKES WORK

We're so good at staying in the comfort zone that there is an actual psychological principle defining the behavior: the law of least effort. We are prone to take the route of least energy, difficulty, resistance, and unfamiliarity. Our basic self, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is a little on the I-don’t-want-to-budge side, hence, TV remotes, Amazon, groceries delivered to your door. 

Couch surfing is precisely the opposite path from where a number of branches of science say our brain neurons want us to go—straight into the thick of effort. This is where we introduce the antidote to the law of least effort, the Law of Life Effort. Life takes work.

Of course, we knew that already, when it comes to the job and obligation sides, but it's also true for the fun and fulfillment arenas. Effort is the skill that injects us into the experiences and vicinity of folks that lead to learning and gratification.

COMFORT VS. ENGAGEMENT

A raft of studies show that in the battle between comfort and engagement, it’s the latter that leads to gratification—so much so that the chemistry of satisfaction is based on it. Just the anticipation of something novel and out of routine sets off the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel good. This advance payoff is known as the exploration bonus, a reward designed as an incentive to keep us learning and exploring, whether it’s the next waterhole, food source, website, or money-making opportunity.

Meanwhile, too much of the same thing leads new data-seeking brain neurons to get bored, or worse. The average state of someone watching TV is a mild depression, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Optimal Experience and Flow. When you consider what's been on TV, Dog the Bounty Hunter, the Kardashians, it's no wonder we're depressed.

Brain scientist Gregory Berns makes the point in his book, Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment that satisfaction is a byproduct of doing something that is difficult, something that requires effort. Doing what’s easy doesn’t satisfy. Satisfaction comes after challenge and effort, navigating a novel and unfamiliar road. 

Open road

Where’s the satisfaction for the top team in beating the worst team in the league? They did what they were supposed to do. On the other hand, if the worst team somehow defeats the best team, those players no doubt feel great satisfaction from doing what was a difficult task. 

After studying brain scans of people involved in various passionate pursuits in search of what sets off the dopamine equipment, Berns concluded that the two big keys to long-term fulfillment are novelty and challenge. To get there, though, we have to push past the safety mind that keeps that stuff at bay. That means a different kind of thinking than we are accustomed to in our performance and work life.

THE CALL TO KNOW

The life side requires another skill-set than what gets the job done. The work mind is necessarily focused on external goals, outcomes and results, whereas the life mind is about experiences for their own sake, an intrinsic purpose. The work side calls for control and staying within certain parameters, while the life side, and brain neurons, require that we step out, try new things, take risks, and plunge into challenging experiences for an internal payoff, such as learning or growth.

It takes effort to learn a new language, salsa dancing, or Asian history in an online course just because you would like the experience, skills, or knowledge. No one is there to make you do it. It’s hard in the beginning. There are so many other easier things to do. The temptation to not budge is enticing, but we must resist vegetating and engage, because participation is our prime directive.

We are designed to engage with our world and more than that, to do the selecting of those engagements, to determine the content of our life. The more of that we do, say Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the authors of self-determination theory, the more we satisfy core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence, find novelty and challenge, and set off the dopamine gratification dance in the brain.

INITIATE TO PARTICIPATE

You are the entrepreneur of your life. No one else can make it happen for you. You have to initiate to participate. You have to find affinities, ask others to do things, do the research and legwork to find interesting outlets and activities, commit to doing a hobby regularly or often enough to get past the learning curve and enjoy it, discover new music that lifts your spirit, find places off the beaten path that you’ve never been to before, and get in the habit of acting on curiosities, which can lead to the best discoveries, friends, and experiences.

Stefon Harris

I saw a brilliant performance recently from vibraphone master Stefon Harris and his band Blackout (photo above). Prior to going out, the usual array of seeming obstacles tried to tempt me to forego my engagement need. It was raining. It was Friday night, the worst for rush-hour traffic. As usual, the moment the car was rolling, I knew I had made the right move. Action begets agency begets autonomy begets discovery, and, in the case of Harris, a knockout set of contemporary jazz, fusion, and propulsive artistry that begot major bliss.

Making our lives happen takes effort, and that includes happiness and relationships. We can’t wait for it or them. The foremost researcher in positive emotions, Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina, has found that we need three positive events to every one negative to stay on the positive side, because the negative is so powerful. For relationships, other research shows we need five positive events to every one negative. The lesson in these ratios: It takes work, proaction, to manage emotions or have a thriving relationship.

We are as happy as the most recent positive and novel event we can remember, says Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri. The memory operates as an ongoing status report of your state of mind. It needs enough recent data from things you have participated in to give you the reading you want. This means a proactive approach—off the chair, planning something, and getting out there and doing it.

LIVING WITHOUT EXPECTATIONS

Even though we would prefer to not stand up when it’s so cozy sitting down, there is something that can make it easier to act: having the right goal, the intrinsic purpose that is key to unlocking quality life experiences and play. We can get so used to external goals—what am I going to get out of it?—that we write off life activities that can’t advance career, status, or bankbook.

The science tells us that we shove our potential happiness aside when we do that. When we act for the inherent interest, not for anyone else’s approval, we satisfy our inner aspirations—autonomy, competence, and connection with others, not to mention the hunger to learn through novelty and challenge.

In other words, you act unconditionally. Without expectations and judgment, you engage in an activity for intrinsic goals such as fun, amusement, learning, challenge, excellence, or service. In it for the process, the experience, you are then 100% available to the moment of your life, riding the wave of effort.

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Tags: happiness, fulfilling life, live life to fullest, challenge and happiness, law of life effort

Passions Power Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Dancing to well-being

The Declaration of Independence may guarantee the pursuit of happiness, but, as we all know, landing the prize is a different story. It's a winding road through the options we're given. Status, wealth, popularity, the refrigerator, the medicine cabinet -- all the standbys have failed to get the job done. What really works, though, is something that wouldn't cross most of our minds: a passion or a hobby.

Robert Vallerand from the University of Quebec at Montreal and his associates found that participating in a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I think we could all hoist a glass to an extra eight hours of bliss each week.

But a passion doesn't just plug you into a dependable source of rhapsodic moments each week, it also provides the best kind of happiness: gratification, a lasting sense of fulfillment that the instant mood upgrades can't. Passions demand initiative and mastery, which go deep to satisfy core self-determination needs.

And maybe deeper. "Playfulness is the very essence of the universe," philosopher Alan Watts noted, in music, dance and activities that get us off the bullet train and allow us to celebrate where we are.

PRIMING THE POSITIVITY PUMP

Passions are stellar at this, planting you in optimal moments and connecting you with others equally ecstatic, widening your social circle. Studies show they increase positive emotions during the activity, boost positive mood, and decrease negative feelings afterward, and go a long way to delivering work-life balance you can feel to the tips of your hair.

Stocking up on positive events is important because we're usually in a losing battle against the negative avalanche barreling down on us from all sides. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented that we need a three-to-one ratio of positive to negative events to stay on the positive side of the ledger. The negative is that powerful, and it tends to be our default, part of the survival worrywart instinct we know and don't exactly love. Hobbies and passions keep the positivity pump primed.

GO FLY A KITE

I met dozens of people in the course of doing a book ("Don't Miss Your Life") whose lives were changed radically by something as simple as flying a kite. Amy Doran was a youth program director in Bend, Oregon, newly divorced, without friends in a new town and facing the challenges of her son's epilepsy when she took up flying stunt kites. As she learned the ropes of the flier's aerial ballet, she wound up becoming a confident festival performer. She now has a host of friends and her son, Connor, doesn't need his meds anymore.

Connor took up flying after he saw the fun his mother was having, and he got so good at it, he flew in front of millions of viewers on a couple segments of "America's Got Talent" last year. Because of his epilepsy, he had thought he was worthless, but that all changed with kite-flying. "My whole life I've been told I can't do things," he said. "But kite-flying changed that. I have something I'm good at."

Unlike romantic passions, the pursuit that becomes a reason to get up in the morning doesn't appear across the room, setting your heart aflutter. It comes out of a process of building capabilities and a persistent quest for mastery. There are no thrills until you've gotten the skills.

Passions take foreplay. The passion that can transform your life from missing or just okay to extraordinary has to be developed. Vallerand, a pioneer in the field of passion research, and his associates have studied passionate cyclists, dancers, music students and swimmers in search of the keys to avid involvement. Along the way, they have put their fingers on a couple of very important pieces of optimal life.

DO IT TO DO IT

One, pursuing happiness has a lot to do with pursuing competence. It's the pursuit of competence, wanting to get better at something, that fuels the skill-building process. Secondly, you won't get the satisfaction you want from a hobby unless your motivation for doing it is intrinsic. You have to do it to do it, not for a payoff.

As Alan Watts put it, "When you dance, do you aim to arrive at a particular place on the floor? Is that the idea of dancing? No, the aim of dancing is to dance."

Harmonious passions, as Vallerand calls them, spring from a goal of mastery, an intrinsic aspiration that puts the focus on learning and drives practice. A lot of it. This jibes with findings on happiness that show that effort is a critical component of satisfaction. Repeated practice leads to improved ability and further interest, until the activity begins to define you. The activity becomes your conduit to self-expression, tapping your core values and creating a focal point for life.

DANCING CHANGED HIS LIFE

Chicago investor Richard Weinberg is a perfect example of this. A dinner at a Mexican restaurant that featured salsa dancing sparked him to take dance lessons at the age of 49. A few years later, he was competing in 14 different dance categories and had found something central to his entire being. "It's changed me totally," he says. "It's really given me a purpose. I went to the office, had a great family to care for, but dancing shifted my spirits and energy and direction in such an amazing way. I feel 20 years younger than I am."

Having an enthusiasm that connects with you at a core level and gives you something to look forward to energizes your life and provides a sense of direction and meaning, far from the rap of triviality hung on hobbies. I can't think of anything as potent as a passion or hobby to activate life to the nth degree.

So how do you get your hands on this elixir? You have to select the right activity, something that would have internal value for you. It all starts with interests. Try many kinds of pursuits and see what connects.

INTERNALIZING AFFINITIES

When you find something you'd like to learn, stick with it. You need to be persistent to get through the adult phobias about not knowing everything and looking like a fool. An intrinsic motivation will get you through it. You're in it for the learning, not to be an overnight champion triathlete or tango dancer. A study of music students found that only 36 percent developed a passionate interest in playing their instruments. The students who felt it was their choice to play, and not the result of pressure from others, were the ones who found the love.

For an activity to turn into a passion, it has to click with your core needs, especially autonomy and competence. You have to increase the intensity of your interest, says Vallerand, with more practice. That increases your skill base to the point where you're good enough at the activity to enjoy and meet the challenge. The final stage is internalizing the activity by valuing it as a part of who you are. You wind up seeing yourself as a "runner" or a "salsa dancer," which gives you a critical sense of self apart from the almighty identity on the business card that is not you but is very convincing at making you think it is.

This might be one of the best services passions provide. They introduce you to yourself, long forgotten under a pile of duty and obligation. They reacquaint you with the enthused, eager soul you used to be, pre-adult straitjacket, and give you a reason to be that person more often. You're home, at last.

 

Tags: happiness, fulfilling life, wellness, passions, recreation, living well, gratification, work life balance programs, work life balance

The 6 Skills You Can't Live Without

Posted by Joe Robinson

dance class

Despite all the classes we take, degrees we get, documentaries we watch, many of us never get the word about a remedy as key to health and happiness as watching cholesterol or eating the right food. It's the invisible cure for a host of our problems, from stress to obesity to loneliness: leisure skills.

What's that? Microwave popcorn popping? Isometric finger exercises for the remote? Actually, what we do with our time off-the-clock has a lot to do with our satisfaction with life and work, too, since life is the engine of our energy, creativity, and productivity. Knowing how to participate in engaged recreational activities is also one of the best stress management tools and guarantees that we have work-life balance in our lives.

When we don't have leisure skills, what do we do? Flip on the TV. The average state of someone watching TV, though, is a mild depression, reports Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow and the pioneering authority on optimal experience. Considering what's on the tube -- Dog the Bounty Hunter, Worst Tattoos -- that's no bulletin.

GET ON UP

A sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for heart disease and other serious health problems. A recent study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise reported that men who spend 23 or more hours a week sitting, watching TV or glued to car seats had a 64% greater chance of fatal heart disease than those who only logged 11 hours or less per week in seated mode.

That could well be a bigger problem, since some 78 percent of Americans over age 30 don't get any exercise, according to Census Bureau statistics and Seppo Iso-Ahola of the University of Maryland.

The root of the problem? Missing leisure skills, something we don't know we need. The assumption is that leisure is a vegetative condition, and therefore there are no requirements aside from batteries for the remote. But it's actually the exact opposite. As Aristotle saw it, the non-work arena is a realm of engagement, of self-fulfillment and learning. 

In one of the not-so-great ironies of the modern world, we are trained to make a living, but not how to do the living we're making. We wind up without the skills to do what is essential for physical and mental health -- participate in our lives through engaged experiences.

WORLD'S HAPPIEST PLACE

The link between active leisure and health is plenty clear to researchers. Leisure experiences have been found to reduce stress by buffering setbacks and building coping mechanisms. They also build self-esteem and confidence and improve mood through increased self-control and social support.

Aerobic exercise and vacations have both been shown to reduce depression. The more active leisure life you have, the higher your life satisfaction, says Iso Ahola.

Passions and the active leisure skills that create them work wonders for your health and outlook because they satisfy core psychological needs for autonomy, competence and connection with others. Yet this power of this health resource doesn't filter down to us because we are using the wrong skill-set to access it.

THE LIFE SKILL-SET

You can’t play hopscotch with a flowchart. The work skill-set is the opposite of what’s needed to activate your life. On the work side, the objective is results, output. On the life side, it’s about the experience itself, not where it’s going. On the work side, it’s about control and micromanaging; on the life side, risk-taking. On the work side, it’s about the familiar; on the life side novelty and challenge.

It takes another skill-set to create a fulfilling life outside the professional world. Here are some of the key leisure skills that get your life going:

1. Intrinsic motivation. Pursuing and enjoying experiences off the clock takes a different motivation: intrinsic motivation. You do it for the inherent interest, fun, learning or challenge. Research shows we enjoy what we're doing more when the goal is intrinsic. Expect no payoff, and you get a big one, internal gratification.

2. Initiating. We have to break out of spectator mode and self-determine our lives to feel gratified. We need to research and plan activities, seek out and try new things, invite others to get out and participate -- and if they don't reciprocate, go alone.

3. Risk-taking. The real risk is not risking. Security is a red flag for the brain, which is built to seek out novelty and challenge. Make the risk intrinsic (the result doesn't matter), and you're able to venture much more because, instead of having anything on the line, you're just exploring.

4. Pursuit of competence. Since competence is one of your core needs, it's a handy thing to build and sublime to feel. The idea here is that you want to get better at something -- not to show off, not for anyone else but for your own gratification and mastery need. Pursuing competence leads you to build your skills at an activity to the point where it can become a passion. It's a fabulous happiness-building skill. Having a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week.

5. Attention-directing and absorption. The key to optimal experiences is being 100 percent engaged in what you're doing now. That means losing the electronic devices and distractions and putting all your concentration on the activity at hand. The more absorbed you are, the more your thoughts and deeds are the same, and the happier you are.

6. Going for the experience. Observation and hanging back don't satisfy the engagement mandate of your brain neurons. To activate a fulfilling life, we have to participate in the 40 percent of our potential happiness  we can actually do something about -- intentional activities. That's the realm of experience. Experiences make us happier than material things because they can't be compared with anyone else's experience. They don't lose value through social comparison. They are personal events that engage our self-determination needs.

These skills take us inside the participant dynamic essential to a healthy and extraordinary life. They show us that the good life comes from a place quite a bit different than we thought, and only we can make it happen, nobody else. Life's out there, if you are.

 

Tags: happiness, fulfilling life, life satisfaction, life coach, life skills, happiness speakers, happier life, work to live, work life balance programs, work life balance

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