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 Three Things We Don't Know We Need to Be Happy

Posted by Joe Robinson

Mtn_bikers-1.jpg

There's a difference between what humans really need, as opposed to what we or others think we want.  If we knew what that was, we would know exactly how to get what would satisfy us. How big would that be?

For most of human history, the answer to that question has been a gray area that peers and marketers have happily filled in for us. Luckily, we live in a time when some very sharp minds have deciphered the correct motivational wiring and pinpointed what it is we need to be happy.

THE GPS OF SATISFACTION

Researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have led the way, with a framework that points the way to what it is we really need, as opposed to desire. Self-determination theory, as it is known, is a veritable GPS to fulfillment, decoding our innermost longings and linking the world of science and spirit. It has been vetted by hundreds of scientists in more than a dozen cultures and is key to work-life balance and the effectiveness that leads to productivity.

How to Stop the Hidden  Engine of Stress: Rumination

No longer do you have to rely on guesswork to know what you need to feel satisfied. No longer do you have to have expectations that constantly disappoint. You can live more fully than you ever imagined when you finally know what needs you need to satisfy.

Deci and Ryan found that at the root of human aspiration, there are three core psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (the need for social connection and intimacy). You need to feel autonomous, that you can make choices in your life. You have to feel effective and competent, doing things  that make you stretch. And you have to have close relationships with others to satisfy your social mandate.

EXPECT NO PAYOFF AND YOU GET ONE

The catch is that you can only satisfy these needs through intrinsic motivation, the reverse of the motivational approach we're all raised with—external motivation. With intrinsic motivation, you seek no payoff, only the inherent interest of the activity itself—for learning, fun, growth. Do it just to do it, and you'll get a whopping internal reward in the form of the lasting version of happiness, gratification.

"When people are oriented to goals of doing what they choose, growing as a person or goals for having good relationships, they experience higher levels of the basic psychological needs," says Tim Kasser, of Knox College, a leading researcher in the psychology of motivation. 

STOP THE PAY, STOP THE PLAY

Deci showed in one experiment how external rewards can sabotage us. Subjects were asked to solve a puzzle in an exercise in which some got paid while others didn't. The ones who received no money kept playing with the puzzle after the teacher left the room at a strategic moment, while the financially motivated had no interest playing unless they got paid for it. "Stop the pay, stop the play," Deci summed it up later. His work and those of many others have documented that we learn more, remember it longer, are more interested in what we're doing, and are more satisfied when we act for intrinsic goals.

Intrinsic goals on the job include excellence, service, learning, challenge, and craft. On the life side, you can't get more autonomous than choosing what you want to do in your free time. Social opportunities, softball games, creative outlets and vacations can get shelved if we use the external goal mode: where's this going to get me? How can I be advanced?

The core needs tell us we're waiting in vain when we expect other people, things, and status to make us happy, and that we are the ones who must make our lives fulfilled through our own choices. Your core isn't satisfied by thinking or spectating but by directly participating in life's meaningful experiences.

CORE COMPETENCE

The need to feel effective is essential to self-worth, Learning a new skill is one of the best ways to activate competence. In one study, first-time whitewater canoeists felt a surge of competence as they handled new risks.

The third core need, relatedness, is a well-documented route to increased positive mood, better health, and a longer life. You can't satisfy your need for relatedness by networking, since it won't produce the satisfaction that comes from close personal relationships. Your core needs are very smart. They know when they're not getting the real intrinsic deal.

The findings of Deci, Ryan and their colleagues have yanked us out of the Dark Ages of our unknown needs. Their data lights the way forward for you to become who you are, as Alan Watts once put it. The key to the meaningful and fulfilling life you want is acting from intrinsic goals that reflect your inner compass—learning, fun, challenge, growth, community, excellence. 

Act for the sake of it, and you are at the center of full engagement in the most rewarding life possible, one that gratifies your deepest longings. There are no barriers to your attention and involvement. You have arrived at the place where the chief ingredients of optimal living meet: experience, intrinsic motivation, and the riveting moment of now.

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: happiness, life satisfaction, work life balance, intrinsic motivation, self-determination theory

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

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. Engaged leisure activities gratify core needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others like nothing else.

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. 

Researcher Thomas DeLeire examined nine categories of consumer goods and found that only one was related to happiness: leisure experience products, from vacations to tennis rackets and sports products.

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ALIVE TO THE MOMENT

We spend most of our time caught up inside our heads, 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 our core need for social connection.

There's a different skill-set needed to activate a participant life. Unlike the work side, which is about outcomes and results, the point of life experiences is simply to be in them for the inherent learning, fun, challenge, or growth. Some of the most important skills are those that open the door to direct experiences, from attention-directing, to risk-taking (not worrying if you look like a fool in the dance class), 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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