Working Smarter

The Secret Agent of Happiness and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If there's one thing that people around the world agree on, it's that being happy beats being miserable. But what exactly makes us happy? That's something that hasn't been crystal-clear over the ages, which has allowed others to decide for us that a certain luxury sedan or a 55-inch flat screen will do the job. It's also led to the habit of shortcut happiness through default pleasures—double fudge chocolate, "Grand Theft Auto"—that obscures the real deal.

Social psychologists have decoded much of the puzzle of subjective well-being over the last two decades, showing that the external metrics assumed to be the route to happiness can't deliver the goods. There's a momentary bump from toys, money or a promotion, and then it's gone, because these outer symbols are based on what others think. What works is the secret agent of happiness—the subtler art of internal gratification, and understanding it is a key piece of work-life balance.

PLEASURE VS. GRATIFICATION

We usually don't have time or patience for that. The reflex for positive mood states tends to gravitate to quick-fixes, the sensory and momentary delights that University of Pennsylvania's Martin Seligman calls "pleasures." The impulse is to make a beeline for that hunk of Swiss chocolate or boost the adrenaline with a cinematic nail-biter. You feel good briefly but it doesn't fill you up.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

There's a big difference of opinion between the body's idea of happiness and that of the mind. Pleasures are fun, but they're cotton candy for your brain, which has a higher threshold for satisfaction and demands a more engaged version of happiness, what Seligman calls "gratifications."

The eye candy and bodily sensations of pleasure mode require little in the way of participation or thinking, so their effect on well-being is ephemeral. "Once the external stimulus is gone, the positive emotion sinks beneath the wave of ongoing emotion without a trace," Seligman has written.

Since pleasures are easy and what's drilled into us, they can wind up the only strategy for happiness, leaving us always wanting more. It's the "Is that all there is?" syndrome. They keep you chasing the next momentary hit while doing nothing to fill the void that fuels the chase.

It takes effort for the more lasting form of well-being, the gratifications, something I detail in my book on the power of participant experiences, Don't Miss Your Life.

HIGHER HAPPINESS

Satisfaction and fulfillment are not drive-thru affairs. These higher forms of happiness require challenging and involving activity. That's hard to fathom given the human default to what's easy. It seems that more and more comfort is the mission of life, but your brain neurons say no. They don't like terminal boredom. They want engagement, something required by our core psychological needs, say researchers.

What kind of gratifications can satisfy those needs over the long term? The research points to experiences that allow you to be absorbed and fully engaged, that let you feel you're freely choosing things, that make you feel competent and allow you to learn and grow, and that connect you with others through close relationships, social activities and service to others.

Active hobbies, learning new things, recreational pursuits and volunteering are primo gratifications, satisfying your core as few other things can through challenge and growth. Participant activities, from dancing to aikido to painting, deliver experiences that stick with you through the competence and relationships they build and the joy that lingers in indelible memories.

Unlike fleeting pleasures, gratifications are expansive events, giving your brain the forward movement it craves. "You're constantly learning," says Werner Haas, a chemist from San Jose who gets his gratification from two activities that are a world apart—orienteering and ballroom dancing.

THE SEEKING MINDSET

Another way to look at gratifications is that they come from a seeking mind-set, as opposed to the escapist mode typical of pleasures, as the University of Maryland's Seppo Iso-Ahola puts it.

Recreation seekers, who are driven by personal and interpersonal goals, are less bored, more fulfilled, and healthier than people fueled by the escapist motive, says Iso-Ahola. Spend too long in escapist mode and you become dependent on the entertainment served up until you don't know how to occupy yourself off the clock anymore.

You can find more gratifications if you manage attention better. The reflex to divert attention to phones and distractions in a free moment undercuts the engagement your brain wants.

Try to become aware when you have the impulse to shift attention to a distraction. Instead, think about what you can focus on before grabbing the remote, phone or the Skittles. Ask yourself: What can I learn? What can I try? What can I experience? Where can I discover something?

We don't put much thought into our free time, which we're led to believe doesn't have much value. Without planning or engagement skills, it leaves things up to autopilot escapes and pleasures.

We can opt out of that mode, though, by exercising choices we're not told we have—to go with the gratifications and the seeking mind-set, a prerequisite to finding things, such as satisfaction and missing lives.

If you would like to learn more, click the button below for info on my life balance keynotes, trainings, and coaching.

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Tags: happiness, recreation, gratification, life balance, life skills, happier life, work life balance, play,

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

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