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The Super-Medicine That Fights Colds, Cancer, and Setbacks: Optimism

Posted by Joe Robinson

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THE MOST POTENT WEAPON to promote good health and ward off serious illnesses is not what you’d expect—exercise or proper diet. Yes, they both definitely help the cause, but they don’t pack the punch of a mild-mannered wellness super-agent that can outperform the latest medical remedies: optimism.

A study of veterans who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory showed that those who had an optimistic outlook had 25% less cardiovascular disease than the least optimistic. In a Dutch study of almost a thousand people aged 65 to 85 optimists had only 23% of the death rate of pessimists. Those with high levels of optimism died at a lower rate than average, while pessimists died at a higher rate.

THE POWER OF POSSIBILITY

This same pattern holds in large population studies. The Women’s Health Initiative measured 94,000 women and found that those highest in optimism had 30% fewer coronary deaths than the most pessimistic. Women were given statements to agree or disagree with, such as “in unclear times I always expect the best” and “if something can go wrong for me, it will.”

What we tell ourselves about why things happen to us and what we expect will happen to us in the future play an astonishing role in our health, stress, success on the job, and relationships at work and in life. An optimistic outlook strengthens health, the data clearly shows. It creates a sense of possibility and mastery, which pays off a core psychological need, competence.

Optimism is a hidden elixir for much of what ails us, a free medication we all have access to. It's something that forms a key part of programs I teach—from keynotes ("The Power of Possbility") to stress management and work-life balance training. The skills of an optimistic outlook are so invaluable for health and relationships, I'd like to see them taught in school from an early age. 

Optimism also prevents one of the most harmful responses to what life brings our way—learned helplessness, which drives powerlessness, pessimism, and depression.

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The connection between mind and body is closer than we imagine. In a groundbreaking experiment, Carnegie-Mellon's Sheldon Cohen gave healthy subjects a rhinovirus that causes the common cold. The volunteers were first interviewed over seven nights to gauge their mood, such as energetic, cheerful, sad, nervous, or unhappy. Then the rhinovirus was introduced through the nose. People with high positive emotion before the virus got fewer colds than those with average positive emotion, and that latter group got fewer colds than the ones with low positive emotion.

This resistance dynamic also holds true for cancer. A metastudy that included 18 cancer studies involving 2858 people, found that optimism resulted in better cancer outcomes “at a robust level of significance.”

RESISTING DISASTER AND FUTILITY

The quote and these findings were reported by the University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman, one of the leading lights of practical positive psychology and author of Learned Optimism and Flourish. Early in his career Seligman set out to investigate the origins of depression. What he discovered was the power of pessimism to freeze minds in harm’s way, a paralysis of futility that he called “learned helplessness.”

He found that the way we frame negative events, the self-talk we concoct about them that leads to pessimism, is one of the most critical factors in human flourishing or flailing. The recipe for depression, he found, is failure meeting pessimism.

The story we tell ourselves when bad things happen either aggravates the situation by ginning up fear and pessimistic thoughts, or it gives us the power to be resilient and bounce back. All setbacks initially touch off exaggerated fears that create a false belief. Pessimists see that event, colored by the dire cloud set off by the stress response, in three ways, as Seligman detailed in Learned Optimism—“permanent” (you’ll never escape it), “pervasive” (the setback affects every aspect of your life) and “personal” (you get your ego and, thus, runaway emotions into it).

This pattern locks us into a worse-case scenario mindset that becomes self-reinforcing the longer it goes unchallenged. It leads to rumination that entrenches pessimistic and catastrophic thoughts. Beliefs of disaster and futility drive stress and the gauntlet of health conditions that can come from it.

DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY

Optimists have an ability to counter the false beliefs and projections of fear. They respond by not taking the event as permanent. It’s only a temporary setback. They don’t exaggerate the situation into something that spells doom for every aspect of life. It’s specific to the circumstance of this event. And they have one of the best habits we can have—they don’t take things personally.

When you let ego set off a flood of irrational emotions, that just makes getting the event behind you all the more difficult. Panicked emotions blind us to the instrument that can extricate us from the darkness, the rational deductive logic of our prefrontal cortex.

For you Star Trek fans out there, optimism is like the deflector shields on the Enterprise. It creates a force field that protects us from incoming attacks. Positive emotions have been found to broaden and build our emotional resources. They serve as a buffer in hard times. Negative events still hurt, but they bounce off if you’ve got enough juice in your positivity shields.

Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, one of the world’s top researchers on positive emotions, along with mathematician Marcial Losada, have demonstrated that we need three positive to every one negative event to stay on the positive side, since the negative is so powerful—it’s our default as a species with a hyperactive survival instinct.

Increasing positive emotions increases the most potent medication we have in hard times, optimism. When we feel good, immune function is improved. Sheldon found the key factor is that pessimism increases a protein that causes inflammation, interleukin-6. High positive emotions lower interleukin-6.

SING FOR YOUR HEALTH

To show you just how effective positive emotions are at activating biochemical resources, one of my favorite studies—of singers in the Pacific Chorale— found that joy and also the intensity of that positive emotion can increase immune protection. As I reported in my book, Don’t Miss Your Life, Cal State Irvine School of Medicine’s Robert Beck and Thomas Cesario discovered that a protein essential to fighting disease, immunoglobulin A, increased 150% during the chorale’s rehearsals and 240% during concert performances!

Since optimism helps you live longer and happier, it would seem that evolution selected out positive emotions as a survival strategy. Optimism keeps our options open. We are receptive to new ideas, people, and settings that can help us solve problems and survive. That doesn’t mean we need to be Polyannas or discount negative information. We just need to weigh the most likely stories for a given situation, not reflexively the worst.

The secret agents of positive emotion can only be called upon to assist our well-being, though, if we know they are there and proactively deploy them. That seldom happens, because the default to fear and negative emotions in times of duress blocks the way out of the trap. The false beliefs are piled high: Things will never work out. I don’t see anything getting better. I don’t have any power to change my situation. I don't have any luck.

The negative emotions that charge a bad mood are intense, and we can’t stop clinging to them. Try to make someone laugh when they’re in a funky mood—they won’t have it.

FALSE NEURONIC BURPS

Building a healthier mind and body through optimism requires a new set of beliefs to counter the pessimistic and false neuronic burps that run our world when we are in blind reaction to events. Somehow I’ll get through it. I have the power to make choices that can change where I am. I’m not helpless, I can act. I know I can find a solution. Tomorrow’s another day. Maybe it will work next time.

Researchers find that optimists who live longer have something the pessimists don't—a reason to live and some form of meaning in their life—friends, family, creed, interests. They have learned that today’s reversal is not the end and that tomorrow will have challenges, too, but they can transcend or accept events without having to give up silver linings and gratitude for what they do have.

Controlling self-talk isn’t the only thing that leads to optimistic outcomes. If we want to increase the strength of our optimism shields, we have to participate in things that create positive emotions—social activities with friends, learning and mastery experiences, recreation and fun, and on the job, be more open and less defensive, and ask more questions. Losada found that people who exhibited those latter traits had better rapport with colleagues (which increases positive emotions), and higher sales and performance.

Happiness doesn’t come from success. It’s the other way around. Positive emotions lead to success. The study that proved that, by Sonia Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener, showed that success for chronically happy people was largely the result of their “positive affect,” the expression of optimism and buoyancy in facial expression and body language.

The science of optimism is telling us that our well-being is in our own hands—and minds. The resources to reframe events from calamity to opportunity are within us. The strength to overcome is within us. The power to see our lives as not static and stuck but ever-changing, depending on our outlook, is within us. And only one person can turn that life force on. When we do, we alchemize positive emotions into the essence of our survival as a species: resilience.

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Tags: optimism, optimism and health, keynote speaker, wellness, Joy and positive emotions

The Amazing Habit That Fuels Success: Positive Affect

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Forget the power suit and the room full of movers and shakers. The most effective weapon in the success arsenal may be something that appears to be a typo — positive affect.

The word is “affect,” not “effect,” though it has a big one when you deploy it. Positive affect is the body language of happiness, a buoyant and optimistic spirit transmitted via facial expression, tone of voice and demeanor. The research shows that when you have it, the world wants in.

HALLMARK OF WELL-BEING

The scientific literature brims with testaments to the power of positive affect, from success in the social arena to health (less stress, hypertension), job success, creativity and problem-solving. Positive psychology heavyweights Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener and Laura King demonstrated in a meta-analysis of 225 research papers covering 275,000 participants that this “hallmark of well-being,” as they call it, spawns numerous successful outcomes and “behaviors paralleling success.”

They found that people with frequent positive affect are more likely to be successful in their professional lives, make more money and get more promotions. Those with chronic happiness have better social relationships, more support and stronger friendships.

Studies show that the most cheerful people make $25,000 more than the least cheerful (Diener). Happy people get more raises over time (Shaw) and are evaluated more highly by supervisors (Cropanzano, Wright). 

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“Chronically happy people,” Lyubomirsky, Diener and King report, “are in general more successful ... their success is in large part a consequence of their happiness and frequent experience of positive affect.”

It turns out that a happy state leads to success, instead of the other way around. Obviously, you have to be able to do more than be upbeat to succeed in the world. But the right disposition increases the odds.

VISIBLE VIBRANCY

When you’re in a good mood, energy soars and you have a welcome sign out to the world that you’re available for business or conversation. Visible vibrancy is contagious, thanks to the social circuitry built into our brains in the form of mirror neurons. These cells simulate the actions of others in our minds and emotions. When somebody laughs uncontrollably, your mirror neurons soon have your facial muscles breaking into a smile or chuckle too. When a friend is depressed, your neurons follow the cues and adjust your emotions downward.

I remember boarding a plane for a trip to Africa to do a story on Zimbabwe. My photographer and I were so cranked up about the adventure that it showed, and a flight attendant got caught up in the excitement. After a brief chitchat about the trip, she upgraded us, unprompted, from coach to first class. That’s positive affect, a spirit that’s infectious.

Research has linked positive affect with increased confidence, energy, optimism, self-efficacy, sociability, conflict resolution skills, likability, ability to cope with stress and challenges, as well as reduced cardiovascular events and improved immune function. Studies show that employees with a positive disposition have more autonomy and meaning in their jobs and that work performance is impacted more by well-being than the performance itself.

When you start out on the positive side of the ledger, you don’t have as far to travel emotionally to connect with someone, to enjoy yourself, to be spontaneous and jump into something new. You’re already there. People animated by positive emotions are more apt “to approach than to avoid,” say Lyubomirsky, Diener and King.

We all know people who are stocked with positive affect. Magic Johnson, the genial former Laker great, or Virgin boss Richard Branson exude positive affect, with sunny, outgoing dispositions and no fear of smiling. It’s as if their childhood exuberance didn’t get beaten out of them by adulthood.

YOU'RE NOT STUCK WITH WHAT YOU GOT

That’s what happens to most of us. The school of hard knocks keeps knocking and hardening, and moving us further and further away from what fuels curiosity, aliveness and enthusiasm. Some people come by this trait genetically, but if you don’t, the research shows that positive emotions can work even without a disposition inclined that way. You’re not stuck with what you’ve got.

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The goal isn’t 24/7 grinning. That’s not how our emotions work. Your mood swings back and forth in repeated cycles every day. The aim is a frequent state of positive feeling and vibrancy that opens you up to opportunity, instead of shutting it out with the default reflexes of cynicism and apathy that dog the protective realm of adulthood. 

You can dramatically increase your levels of positive affect with frequent participation in experiences that boost joy, fun, and social connection, beefing up your reserves of key components of visible vibrancy — physical vitality, pro-social behavior, optimism, expressive body language, flexibility and spontaneity.

You have to be clever about it, since negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. It requires tricking the inner curmudgeon, which will torpedo anything out of character. Fake it till you make it.

In one study a group of introverts asked to pretend they were extroverts in a job interview performed just as well as the extroverts in making an impression.

Making life come alive, the data is telling us, comes down to skills and traits of self-determination that allow us to create the world we want. Positive affect is one of them. What you mirror is what you get.

If you would like to get a jump-start on positive affect and living the fullest life, check out our coaching page or sign up for one of our online life balance classes.

Tags: happiness, postive affect, positive emotions, job success, positive emotions and success, subjective well-being, wellness, introversion

The Link Between Vacations, Productivity, and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Humans are energy machines. We expend energy over the course of the workday and work year in our body and brains (which use up 20% of the body’s calories), and then we have to replace it, or fatigue sets in, stress and exhaustion build, and productivity plummets.

It’s a basic law of effort: Quality output requires quality input. It’s called work recovery in the scientific journals, and one of the best ways to get it is through the recuperative benefits of a vacation.

TIME OFF BOOSTS TIME ON

The annual vacation, which used to be a rite of summer for families in the 1960s and 1970s, has been shrinking ever since, with nearly two-thirds of Americans telling a Harris poll that they won’t be taking a vacation longer than a week. Numerous surveys show Americans giving back vacation days, 169 million days a year, according to a study conducted by Oxford Economics for the U.S. Travel Association.

There are many reasons for these trends—lean staffing, fear of layoffs, technology addiction, crisis mentality from an epidemic of false urgency and frenzy, and certainly ignorance about how our biology works, or doesn’t, when it can’t get the recovery it needs, from the cellular level to the blood glucose that gets spent in the course of staying disciplined and focused on the job. But executives shouldn’t cheer the extra days people spend on the job, since exhaustion doesn’t lead to effective work. Without recovery, employees fall prey to chronic stress, absenteeism, and burnout, the central feature of which is exhaustion.

ENGAGEMENT OR BURNOUT?

Exhaustion is the opposite of what every manager wants: employee engagement. When employees are engaged, they are 28% more productive, according to Gallup data. Engaged employees willingly put out extra “discretionary effort.” They are so committed to the work they do, they go the extra mile. Studies have shown that the key dimensions of engagement are involvement, efficacy, and energy. Engagement takes physical and mental energy, participation. That can’t happen when someone is exhausted and burned out.

The antithesis of engagement, say researchers, is burnout. Instead of energy, the key burnout dimension is exhaustion. Instead of involvement, you get cynicism, which is described as an active disengagement from others. You get depersonalized, demotivated. Not a recipe for interacting with colleagues and customers. And, of course, there's no efficacy when someone is weary and cynical. Instead, you have the opposite: ineffectualness.

Gallup found that only 29% of American workers are engaged. That means business leaves more than $300 billion on the table in lost discretionary effort. Add to that more than $400 billion that American business loses every year due to stress-related costs, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher, Peter Schnall, and you begin to see that having a recovery strategy like vacations—and making sure your employees take them—is critical.

PERFORMING BETTER ON VACATIONS

The concept of the vacation was invented by companies back in the early part of the twentieth century as a productivity tool. They conducted fatigue studies and found that employees performed better after a respite. The same is true today. In one study by Alertness Solutions, reaction times went up 40% after a vacation.

Work demands build up strain and that causes a loss of energetic resources. That in turn, research by Stevan Hobfoll and Arie Shirom (“Conservation of Resources”) shows, increases stress. Time off helps build lost resources back up again. Hobfoll and Shirom called it “regathering.” They found that it takes two weeks of vacation to get the rucperative benefits to regather crashed emotional resources such as a sense of social support and mastery that go down when we’re burned out.

Vacations shut off the stressors and pressures of work. With the danger signal turned off, the stress response stops, and the body's parasympathetic system can get to work on reparative and maintenance functions. Through the process energy-drained cells get new sustenance. Vacations build positive mood, which crowds out negative experiences/thoughts and “undoes” the physical and mental effects of stress, as Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina has documented.

VACATIONS: THE TALENT INSURANCE POLICY

Since 40% of job turnover is due to stress, consider the vacation then, a proven stress buster, as an insurance policy against losing top talent and the high costs associated with replacing an employee. Some studies show that it can cost up to two times an annual salary to replace a valued salaried employee.

Charlotte Fritz and Sabine Sonnentag (2006) found that “health complaints and exhaustion significantly decreased during vacation,” and that there was a performance increase when employees got back to the job. Employees reported less effort needed to do their work.

LEADING THE WAY

Some companies are starting to put two and two together and are emphasizing vacations as a key component of productivity and workplace cultures that walk the talk on work-life balance. Highly successful inbound marketing firm Hubspot, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offers unlimited vacations to its employees and mandates they take at least two weeks of it.

Another major company, Evernote, also has an unlimited vacation policy. To make sure people take time off, Evernote pays employees $1000 to take at least a week of vacation. Go Daddy offers three weeks of vacation the first year on the job.

Many of the companies leading the charge to a new understanding about the role of recovery/vacations in productivity and work-life balance policies are technology companies. They are embracing a belief that in the knowledge economy, it’s not how maxed-out your gray matter is that leads to productive results, it’s how fresh your brain is. A focused, energized brain gets the most work done the fastest. Policies that keep minds in the red zone of chronic stress and see endurance as a measure of commitment undermine productivity and fly in the face of all the data. 

There is a word on the other side of the hyphen of “work-life” balance. The life side is essential to resupply the resources needed to get the work done well—and, is, after all, the point of all the work, isn’t it?

 

Tags: employee engagement training, wellness, productivity and stress, employee productivity, vacation, avoiding burnout, leisure and stress, increase productivity, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, stress management, cost of stress, reducing stress, stress management programs, stress and vacations, vacations and productivity,

The Hidden Heart of Wellness: Leisure Activities

Posted by Joe Robinson

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What goes through your head when you have an unoccupied moment outside the office? Most likely it goes something like this: Get busy! I really should be doing something!

The reaction isn’t just based on habit, but something that is drummed into our heads that couldn’t be more hare-brained: Leisure is a lesser realm that has no value. In fact, quality and frequent leisure time is vital to health and life. It IS our life, the thing we’re working for. We don’t get that message, though, and as result, many of us feel squirmy about stepping back, as if only a slacker would partake.

This is what the psychological world calls a “false belief,” an uninformed notion held dear that holds back health, happiness, and the truth.  If you look at the science, getting a regular dose of leisure is as important to your health as eating the right foods or getting exercise. Recreational activities are the missing piece of wellness, the overlooked antidote to entrenched stress and pessimism.

BEYOND BOREDOM

A new study from Matthew Zawadski, a psychology professor at the University of California, Merced, found that people who took part in leisure activities reported they were 34% less stressed and 18% less sad. “When people engage in leisure activity, they have lower stress levels,” he reports on the UC Merced website, “better mood, a lower heart rate and more psychological engagement—that means less boredom, which can help avoid unhealthy behaviors. But it’s important to immerse in the activity and protect leisure time from external stressors.”

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In other words, to get those benefits, you have to be engaged in the activity. That doesn’t mean it has to be aerobic or muscle-flexing, though those work great too. Quieter pursuits, such as listening to music, doing puzzles, or sewing can also shift minds out of tension and into the positive space where recovery and flourishing begin.

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? When you’re having fun and fully immersed, it crowds out stress and negative mood. Why is this so hard to get? One of the reasons is that we have been taught to feel guilty unless we are on task and that productivity is a function of endurance and stamina, a triathlon in pants. All the research tells us this is bogus.

FATIGUED BRAINS LOOK SOUND ASLEEP

Brains that are fatigued look like ones that are sound asleep, MRI scans show. The true source of productivity in the knowledge economy is recharging and refueling and brains that are fresh. Leisure activities have an amazing ability to provide that refreshment, not just because play and doing things we like energize us, but also because these activities satisfy core psychological needs, such as autonomy and competence. That makes us happy. Princeton’s Alan Krueger led a study that found that people are at their happiest when they are involved in engaging leisure activities.

The tonic of engaged leisure acts as a rumination-buster. Rumination—thinking over and over again about our problems—is a core driver of stress. Stress constricts the brain to perceived emergencies that lock us in to loops of doom and gloom, or “awfulizing,” as it’s known in the psychological trade. Leisure activities preoccupy the brain with challenge, learning, and fun, which push out worries and allow a reset.

The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions can reverse even the physical effects of stress. They can “undo” a high heart rate and disrupted digestion. They also build resources, in this case of positive emotions that have been shown to buffer stress and help us withstand setbacks.

BUILDING POSITIVE MOOD

If you don’t break up the self-propelling loop of tension and danger in your head, the stress can develop into chronic stress, which can set off a host of medical conditions, and ultimately, morph into burnout, the last stage of chronic stress. That means a mode of continuous fight-or-flight, which suppresses the immune system, and increases the bad cholesterol and decreases the good kind.

We can escape this rut through psychological detachment from the day’s events in the form of that thing right next to us we think is only permissable for kids and retirees: leisure. Making a psychological break from the strains and pressures of the day is an essential stress management tool. It unleashes the positive emotions that turn off the danger signals and bring us back to our core selves and the things and people we enjoy. 

Without a diversion from the day’s preoccupations, we’re left in a morass of negative thoughts and tension. Researchers have shown that leisure activities after work counter the stress loop and negative affect (grouchy, angry, tense, irritable, a non-pleasure to be around) that comes with it. Studies show that people who engage in leisure activities, whether it’s chess, dancing, reading, and especially any activity that involves a mastery experience, wake up the next morning with positive affect and more energy.

PUT PLAY ON THE CALENDAR

Stress is a huge energy-drainer. It forces your organs to work overtime under duress, and that is the opposite of employee engagement, whose main domains include vigor and dedication. Recreational activities refuel that energy, which is why they are a significant piece of wellness and enagement programs.

One of the challenges to unlocking this amazing resource is that stress and the belief it sets off in your ancient brain that you are about to die suppresses the play equipment in the brain. Who wants to have fun when you’re about to kick the bucket? The way around this vise-grip is to plan activities, put them on the calendar, and commit to doing them no matter what negative frame of mind you’re in. Moods are transient, so the false emergency of stress will disappear within a few minutes of doing something fun.

Another way to trick the brain so it doesn’t freeze fun out of your life is to take up a hobby or leisure pursuit. This insures that you engage in the experience on a regular basis and allows for a steady dose of psychological detachment and increasing opportunities to build competence and social connection, core needs. Studies show that a passion can add eight hours of joy to your week. I’m betting that’s something you would consider valuable—even if it comes from that slackery world of leisure.

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Tags: wellness, awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, leisure and stress, life balance, stress, positive thinking and stress, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management, stress at work, burnout, stress management programs, wellness programs,

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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