Working Smarter

Wakeup Call: Bad Sleep Leads to Bad Mood and More Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson


Get only four hours of sleep, and you're not a happy camper the next day. Irritable. Cranky. People don’t want to be around you. You don't want to be around yourself.

Sleep, an endangered species in the glow of digital screens, is critical for so many things in our day, from physical vitality, to memory, to something that plays a major role in what we can get done and how well we get along with others: mood.


It turns out the quality of our sleep predicts the kind of mood we’ll be in that day. Poor sleep increases anger, anxiety, and nervousness (Watson, Clark, Tellegen) and inhibits positive emotions (Walker, Thurani). We’ve all seen it in action the day after a sleep-deprived night. The next morning you are upright under protest and the grump state follows you like a shadow.

You have become a prime exhibit of what’s known as negative affect, the display in your body language of negative emotions—irritability, impatience, testy. These are not winning qualities in the working world or anywhere. They cause conflict, time urgency, and drive stress. Impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger, which leads to clogged arteries.

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On the other hand, when you get the quality sleep you need for real restoration of your faculties, the opposite occurs. You have more positive affect, an elixir that has been found to be key to goal-setting, innovation, problem-solving, rapport with others, and success.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener, and Laura King put it in their fabulous study on positive affect, “Happy people are more successful, and their success is in large part a consequence of happiness and frequent PA (positive affect).”


Your brain is only 3% of your body weight, but it sucks up almost a quarter of your energy. That energy has to be replaced, and that happens when you sleep. Sleep is like charging your phone or electric car. It gives you the juice to operate. It restores needed glycogen, cleans up toxic junk like tao, and primes your mind to meet the challenges of the day. Sleep also shapes how you take on those tasks by coloring your mood.

There's just no comparison in daily effectiveness between a positive and negative attitude. Positive emotions broaden and build us, promoting initiative and receptivity, while negative emotions keep us in a reactive bunker. Which is going to do you more good during a day of demands and stressors pushing your buttons?

Positive emotions are an insurance policy against the vicissitudes of fate. When you have enough positive emotions in your mental bank, negative withdrawals don’t bring you down to zero or below, where self-reinforced pessimism can reign.

Another very important thing positive emotions do is help us see things with an optimistic lens. Research shows that optimism is the engine of resilience and not falling for the woe-is-me false apocalypse of pessimistic thinking.

We get a lot more done when we are in a good mood, less so when we’re feeling miserable and having attention split by perceived slights and crises.


Since sleep plays such a large role in determining which mood state we’re in, you could say it’s one of the most important productivity tools. There’s no app for it. We have to make that shuteye happen, or we’re not nearly as effective.

That’s hard for many today. Minds are tricked by the light of devices into thinking that it’s time to be awake. We eat late and have sugar and caffeine percolating in our veins. And, most often, we are at the mercy of stress, which is a massive stimulant telling the physiology that you can’t nap, because there’s imminent demise on the agenda.

Not surprisingly, insomnia is rampant these days. Some 75% of insomnia cases are the result of stress. Stress turns on the internal alert system, and it doesn't shut down when you’re sleeping.

When a threat is detected that overloads perceived coping ability, a hormone called CRH (corticoid-releasing hormone) flashes to the pituitary, where it activates ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which sets off a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, among other arousing agents, including the raw emotions of fear and anger that want to keep you awake lest your mortal end be met.


The activation mechanisms of stress make it hard to stay asleep. Fears keep intruding into a space meant for rest and maintenance. One woman I coached who had severe job stress had been getting only three hours of sleep a night. She was barely able to function at her job, a position that desperately needed the positive affect that comes from a good night’s sleep. She was a real estate agent. Uptight or grumpy agents—You wanna sell or not?—make few sales.

Stress sets off a cycle of rumination, circular thinking about a catastrophic thought that is generated by a belief in the ancient brain that you are doing to die. It comes out in the form of, I’m going to lose my job, or I can’t handle it, I’m a loser—bogus fantasies ginned up by obsessing about a false story set off by the caveman brain.

Your thinking at this moment is hostage to the irrational emotions of the primitive limbic system, the original brain that had the run of things before we developed the higher brain and prefrontal cortex that could weigh pro and con. We have to restore the 21st century brain and its rational thinking, something quality sleep helps us do.

My client and I took a closer look at the fears propelling her insomnia, held them up to the light of facts and evidence, and they crumbled. She was able to get back on a normal sleep cycle and got a promotion to boot. But when we started, her mood was high anxiety and fearful, a state that makes whatever job you have harder to do, because your intellect is undermined by anxiety and with it clear thinking.


Stress wrecks sleep in a number of ways. You sleep fewer hours, the sleep you do get is more shallow, with lots of bouts of waking up, and you get much less of the chief restorative phase of the sleep process. The real damage is done by a loss of what's known as "slow wave" sleep, which is the deep sleep that restores energy. 

It’s easy to see how we get crabby and easily ticked off when we aren’t getting quality sleep—at least seven to nine hours per night. Besides the role that stress plays in interrupting and reducing sleep time and quality, the lack of shuteye itself adds to stress levels in a vicious cycle.

“Poor sleep worsens the negative outcomes associated with stress by making us individually cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically more vulnerable to stressful events,” note Jessica Blaxton, Cindy Bergeman, Brenda Whitehead, Marcia Braun, and Jessica Payne, summarizing their study, “Relationships Among Nightly Sleep Quality, Daily Stress, and Daily Affect.”

The study found that sleep quality decreased the impact of daily stress on negative affect, but that midlife adults with more severe stress may need several nights of quality sleep to keep stress at bay. In other words, we need to make good sleep habits as automatic as brushing our teeth.

They also discovered that daily positive affect buffers the impact of daily stress, something University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson calls the “undo effect.” Positive emotions can literally reverse the symptoms of stress. Blood pressure slows down, digestion starts up again. 

“An individual experiencing high amounts of positive affect was less affected by stress than an individual with low amounts of positive affect,” Blaxton and company conclude.

This mild-mannered, unremarkable-appearing thing called sleep is an amazing resource, a built-in stress management system, capable of turning around our attitude and the outcomes that result from it. It can buffer the calamitous, ruminative thoughts that set off the destructive consequences of fight-or-flight chemicals run amok.

And it can restore an asset we all had as kids but that goes AWOL amid disappointment and setbacks—the positive spirit written on our faces.

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Tags: positive affect, sleep and mood, mood and performance

How to Live Now, Not Later - Life Calling at Rio's Carnaval

Posted by Joe Robinson

TURN IT UP! The Sao Clemente samba school show at Carnaval 2017.

ONE OF BRAZIL'S TOP SAMBA composers, Arlindo Cruz, has a great song titled, “There’s Still Time to Be Happy.” It’s a reminder that it’s never too late to shift moods or circumstances, a point driven home in the most colossal way by Brazil’s annual Carnaval, a period of a week to two weeks where Brazilians switch off their myriad problems and work and turn to something that the research says is one of the best tonics for stress and negative emotions: the art of play.

As I watched Carnaval online over three nights of revelry in Sao Paulo and Rio, it struck me that we could all use a dose of the Brazilian talent for letting go. They know where both play and the joy that comes from it live—not in some future time when all your problems are solved or you have enough money. No, it’s right here, right now, when we can drop the reactions and projections that keep us mired in rumination and tenses we are not in and escape the life postponement rut.

"It's not that we have a short life, but that we waste a lot of it," wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca a couple thousand years ago, an observation that appears in a tiny but thoughtful book, On the Shortness of Life. "Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future."


As some of you know, I’m a big fan of Brazilian music and culture. I'm pretty sure I was mistakenly switched at birth from a Brazilian mother. I lead a samba dance lesson at my keynote addresses, from work-life balance to motivation and happiness, and employee trainings, even for time management. It's a lesson in full engagement—and we always have a blast. 

Happiness and samba go together, and one of the reasons is that both are usually participant affairs. Samba is “we” music, a collective experience that involves call-and-response singing and dancing in most of its many forms. It’s a music born out of life’s disappointments that stands on the neck of difficulties with powerful, uplifting melodies people share at get-togethers and barbecues.

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Samba is also a cultural and social glue that bonds Brazilians, and particularly Brazilian neighborhoods, together. The big "samba schools" that perform in the blowout Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro are neighborhood associations, social clubs in the poor districts around Rio, where as one song puts it, you learn to laugh, samba, keep rhythm in a 300-piece band and march in crazy costumes with a cast of thousands.

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The mind-blowing triple-tiered floats and spectacular costumes at Rio’s famed Carnaval are the byproducts of communities that don’t have much in material terms, but that turn their passion for samba and life into spectacles of art and imagination as sophisticated as anything dreamed up by Hollywood. 

Carnaval in Brazil is the Super Bowl of life celebration, where everyone can participate, no matter your budget or walk of life. Researchers say participating in engaging experiences that satisfy core needs such as autonomy and connection with others, are key to happiness. And that puts Carnaval and people all over Brazil who indulge in their neighborhood bloco, or block party, the more informal celebrating that most Brazilians participate in, right in the sweet spot of life satisfaction.

So much so that I saw samba school members, even macho band directors, shedding tears of joy as they took their places at the beginning of their march on the avenue at the Sambadromo. Samba and the samba school is life. "It's in the blood," one legendary samba singer, Monarco, once told me.

That goes for fans watching in the stands and even on TV as well. Once the drummers start booming, you are no longer apart from life, but part of it. That’s the idea of joy, dropping the force field around us and allowing ourselves to be touched by something and feel it deeply. It tends to be something that happens with others, just like fun.


On the last night of parades of the top samba schools in Rio, I found my favorite, Sao Clemente, which was second out of the gates. Their 3,000 members used their deliriously catchy theme song to crowdsource joy into a force so awesome I couldn't stop smiling for the whole hour-plus they marched at the Sambadromo. And I haven't been able to stop playing the video of their performance over and over. Feel it yourself and supercharge your day with the group's entire show above or on video here.

Sao Clemente is not one of the traditional champions of what’s known as the Special Group of samba schools, such as Mangueira and Beija-Flor, known for their artistic extravaganzas and righteous baterias, or drum sections, but it rose above all the other schools this year in collective joy, powered by its infectious samba-enredo, the high-octane samba song created just for Carnaval.


Each samba school debuts a song each year for the event that tells the story or theme of their show, which the percussion orchestra thunders to life. They and the featured vocalists and all parade participants sing that samba for the full hour and 15 minutes as they parade, dance, and shake past the grandstands and judges at the Sambadromo. It's endurance joy in the wee hours of the morning, and no one runs out of spirit. It's the culmination of months of practice to hone the music, the rhythm arrangements, choreography, and the various roles the marchers will play.

I’ve been to a few samba school rehearsals in the poorer neighborhoods of Rio, and the experience is boggling. You don’t just hear the music, you feel the locomotive engine of the drums in your kidneys. It tells you that, yes, there’s another of level of elation out there when we dig deeper into our affinities.

I got hooked on the ecstatic chorus of Sao Clemente's samba, sung in unison by thousands of passionate Sao Clemente participants and fans in the stands. It was especially powerful when the instruments paused and those rousing voices filled the night air with their hearts and souls. That is the definition of sheer joy for me.

With the hyper-strummed strings of the mandolin-like cavaquinho and throbbing surdo bass drums driving them onward, the grandmother wing of the school, known as Baianas, had an extra bounce in their step as they twirled their enormous dresses like whirling dervishes. Ordinary folks dressed in finery of the French Renaissance—the theme of the show was the French Sun King and arts patron Louis XIV—raised arms to the heavens.

The strategically sequined passistas, the showgirl-style dancers, kicked into the fastest dance steps on the planet, doing their speed samba in teetering heels. All ages, all races had opted out of preoccupations to immerse for a special time in their lives in unadulterated joy.


University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson has found that positive emotions like joy broaden and build us. We become more resilient in the face of setbacks and open our minds to new experiences, something our brain neurons crave. Other researchers have found that singers performing in a chorus had higher levels of a protein that strengthen the immune system. You bet, singing and dancing is good for you.

Sure, Carnaval participants go back to their lives and their problems after the show—Brazil has a lot of them these days, with the worst economic crisis in a century—but many of its citizens will have gotten in the kind of peak life moments many of us are missing out on and that help cushion setbacks ahead. 

Moods and force of habit can keep us locked out of our own lives, sidelined by past problems or future worries. We forget what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "our appointment with life." We have to "say goodbe to the past so that we can return to the present. To return to the present is to be in touch with life."

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The reality of emotions is that the negative stick around longer than the positive ones and, as a result, are great at keeping us distracted from what we're supposedly working for—life. Our survival instinct is set to a default to obsess about what's wrong. It makes it seem like things are worse than they are. Researchers say that we have many more neutral to positive emotions in the day, but we don't remember them, only the negative.

Happiness, joy, and elation don't last nearly as long as we'd like. That's okay. Positive emotions operate on a different dynamic. Even though they are shorter in duration, having a steady dose of various positive events can crowd out the negative.

Joy is not a special event that happens a couple times in life or can only be indulged in when we "deserve" it. One of the fallacies I see too much is a belief that you have to work till the threshhold of pain before you are entitled to step back and enjoy life. No, you are entitled to live now, and when you do, your work will be more energized for it, as I wrote in my last blog, on vitality.


We can access joy whenever we want by leaving behind worries the mind clings to and diving in to recreational experiences that put us in touch with things we love to do, like samba for me, for instance, things that make us happy by the act of being in the experience and not for some instrumental goal that we may get out of it. It’s the demand that everything pay off for us externally that keeps us from enjoying our lives, says a consensus of scientists around the world. What brings joy doesn’t come from the external payoff side—money, success, status.

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It comes from experiences we do for their own sake, not what anyone else thinks. Research at the University of Montreal shows that, if you have a passion, you can add eight hours of joy to your week. 

Play is like a muscle. When we do more of it, it’s easier to access it and escape moods that keep us in a bunker. If we haven’t played in ages, it’s very difficult to dig the spirit out, and this is one of the problems most adults have. We lose the skills of spontaneity and surrender to what’s in front of us. Try using the video above of Sao Clemente as your motivator and reminder to put life on the calendar.

The drummers, dancers, and fans at the Sambadromo have gone home now. The party always ends. I'm still pumped, though, with the spirit of samba, which is as near as the Sao Clemente video or the rest of my samba and music collection.

Pure joy and fun is contagious. Sao Clemente's vivacious samba song was voted best of the 2017 Carnaval by experts on a jury panel of the event's broadcaster, Globo. Click on the video, turn up the volume, and catch the spirit! These are the best times of your life.

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Tags: happiness, Rio Carnival, Joy and positive emotions, positive affect, samba

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