Can We Really Make Stress Our Friend?

In her inspiring Ted Talk health psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as our friend. By viewing the physical changes that we experience when we are stressed (increased heart rate, breathing faster, sweating etc) as signs that our body is energised and prepared for the challenge ahead we can ameliorate the damage that stress does to our bodies.

This is backed up by research; Jamieson et al (2013) conclude that cognitive reappraisal (reshaping how you think) leads to more positive experiences of stress and benefits to us physically.

I am all for cognitive reappraisal. As I stood watching train after train being removed from the departures board at Waterloo train station last week, I reframed my experience as a perfect opportunity for a slice of cake, a cup of tea and bit of people watching. I understand that cognitive flexibility is an important tool in stress management, but I do think that we have to be a little bit careful not to be too simplistic in our definition of stress.

The argument above is defining stress purely as the physiological changes brought about by the ‘flight or fight’ response. This includes (amongst other things) a rush of adrenaline resulting in increased blood flow and heart rate, dilated pupils, increase in blood glucose and a narrowing of our mental focus. This state tends to be very short lived, with our body returning to its normal equilibrium as the threat (real or perceived) disappears.

The problem with this is that it is not the only definition of stress.

When we describe ourselves as feeling ‘stressed’ we are not only talking about the physical response to feeling threatened. We often use the term to describe our experience of negative emotions such as feeling undervalued, overwhelmed, disillusioned, loss of control, frustrated, or low self-esteem. All emotions that can leave us feeling burnt out and stressed but don’t necessarily result in us feeling energised and prepared for a challenge (how ever much we try and reframe our experience).

But it is true that these negative emotions do tell us something (we need to make changes in our life) and that in itself is an important reappraisal – recognising the emotion and doing something about it. We achieve this through greater self-awareness.

It is important that we all recognise our own early warning signs of stress. How does stress make us feel, think and behave? One sign for me is that I begin waking up in the early hours of the morning, or I become quite withdrawn. By recognising these as my early warning signs of stress I can begin to think through what is causing those feelings and plan ways of increasing my capacity to cope.

Self-awareness also gives you insight into experiences that you find stressful – for example your Monday morning team meetings, or delivering presentations. When you are aware that these are triggers for you, you can plan for them and approach them with more certainty.

So yes, stress can be our friend in that it tells us something and acts as a prompt that we need to be making changes, but it is not something that can always be viewed as an energising response that is preparing us for the challenges ahead. Often it is a subtler and longer-lived feeling that if recognised can serve as a pointer for where changes are needed.

10 Top Tips For Achieving Happiness

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There is strong evidence that happier people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. Plus, research shows that this is a two-way relationship; it isn’t only our success that creates happiness, our happiness creates success. Here are our ten top tips for creating a sustainable boost to your levels of happiness:

1. Appreciate the sad times
Sad times are important. If we didn’t experience sadness then we wouldn’t appreciate the things that make us happy. It is often through the sad things in life that we find the greatest life meaning and wisdom.

2. Focus on your strengths
We all have our own personal strengths. Strengths are traits such as curiosity, wisdom, honesty, kindness, courage, perseverance, forgiveness and enthusiasm. Understanding and using our strengths in all elements of our lives help us to feel more energised, effective and happy. It is not enough just to recognise our strengths we need to be putting them into practice, and finding new ways of using them.

3. Learn to be grateful
People who practice being grateful become significantly happier than people who don’t. Try it for yourself. Over the next 8 weeks, once a week, spend 10 – 15 minutes writing down 3 – 5 things that you are grateful or thankful for. By spending just a few minutes a week counting your blessings and focusing on the big and small things that you are grateful about you can sustainably increase your levels of happiness.

4. Adopt the ‘As If’ Principle
Research has shown that by acting as if you are experiencing an emotion, you are more likely to experience it. By adopting a powerful pose (think of an athlete expressing triumph) you are more likely to behave in a powerful, confident way, (you don’t need to do this in front of people, you can hold the pose for 2 minutes in private and still feel the benefits). By smiling, even if you don’t feel like it, you will feel happier. Sitting up straight will help you both appear and feel more confident.

If you want to feel enthusiasm, confidence, bravery, or happiness act as if you are experiencing them and the feelings will follow.

5. Be kind to others
Committing acts of kindness and helping others can boost your levels of happiness. Try it for yourself. Over the next few weeks, for one day a week, complete 5 acts of random kindness. Examples include, donating food to a food bank, cooking a meal for someone, smiling at others, or buying/picking flowers for someone. Vary your acts, so you are not completing the same ones every week.

6. Practice meditation
Meditation has been shown to decrease feelings of anxiety and depression and to boost levels of wellbeing. There are lots of books, CDs, and YouTube videos that can tell you more about meditation. WorkGuru has three Mindfulness meditations that you can download.

7. Share with others
There is a lot of evidence that having the support from people close to you, whether they are a supportive partner or family, or close friends, has a positive impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. Keeping your friends in your thoughts as you face a challenge has been shown to help you meet the challenge more easily, and sharing news of a positive event with others will give you an extra boost of happiness beyond that of the positive event itself.

8. Improve your physical health
Our mental and physical health are deeply entwined. Happiness is good for our physical health, and our physical health is important for our mental health. What small steps could you be taking to begin to improve your physical health?

9. Pursue goals that are important to you
Having a life goal that is positive (focusing on what you want to achieve not what you want to stop or prevent), important, meaningful, and focused on personal growth, is linked to long-term levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Spend sometime thinking about life goals that are important to you.

10. Live by your values
We all have core values. Values are the things that give our life meaning, a map by which we navigate the world. Our core values are the values that we just would not want to compromise on. Sometimes in life we lose sight of our core values. Spend some time thinking about the values that are really important to you.

In The Pursuit of Happiness: How To Boost Your Happiness Levels

Being happy is good for you! There is strong evidence that happy people are more creative, healthy, productive, wealthy and successful, they live longer and they develop a greater number of significant, lasting relationships. There is even research that shows that this is a 2-way relationship; it isn’t only our success that creates happiness, our happiness creates success (so happy people are more likely to be successful rather then just successful people are more likely to be happy).

The pursuit of happiness however isn’t straightforward – the more we strive towards it the more difficult it can be to obtain. Just the perception of a wide gap between where we are now and where we want to be in terms of our happiness levels is enough to create unhappiness and discontentment.

We cannot achieve happiness by trying to avoid negative experiences or thoughts. The more we try to avoid something the more significant it becomes (try telling yourself to stop thinking about chocolate – the more you try the more you think about it!).

Negative experiences are important. How can we appreciate the things that make us happy if we don’t experience the things that make us sad? It is through the bad things that happen to us that we often find the greatest life meaning and wisdom. Without sadness we would not appreciate our happiness.

Psychologists suggest that the optimal ratio of positive to negative experiences is 3 positive events for every negative event. A negative event has a greater impact on us so we need to counteract it with 3 positive events.

The extent to which we experience happiness isn’t predetermined.

It is estimated that 50% of our capacity to experience happiness is genetic (dependent on our genes), 10% is environmental (our life circumstances) and 40% is within our control. It is that 40% that we can directly influence.

We all have our own ‘happiness spectrum’, a scale that is normal for us. Some of us might be more naturally happy than other people. Events such as marriage, a promotion, winning the lottery might provide a boost to our levels of happiness but they will eventually return back to the ‘normal for us’ state (psychologists call this hedonic adaption).

Research has shown that there are things that we can be doing every day to influence that 40% of happiness that is in our control, things that can help us to sustainably boast our happiness levels to the top of our ‘normal for us’ spectrum and reduce the risk of hedonic adaption; simple cognitive and behavioural exercises that can reliably improve our levels of happiness.

It is fairly easy to temporarily boost happiness levels (doing things that we enjoy such as feeling the sun on our face, eating chocolate, having sex), these things are important, but what we are focusing on is achieving a sustainable, long-term boost to our happiness levels.

Examples of happiness-increasing activities include meditation, thinking optimistically, expressing gratitude, and acting kindly towards others.

Incorporating these elements into your everyday life can help you to sustainably boost your happiness. Try it for yourself. Over the next 8 weeks, once a week, spend 10 – 15 minutes writing down 3 – 5 things that you are grateful or thankful for. By just spending a few minutes a week counting your blessings and focusing on the big and small things that you are grateful about you can sustainably increase your levels of happiness.

Self-Motivating – the art of getting things done

Many of us are lucky enough to be self-employed, in a creative role, or in a job that is self-determined. For us, the trick to being productive is self-motivation. Finding the enthusiasm, confidence, energy and creativity everyday to not only get our work done but to excel at what we do.

Here is our 10 Top Tips on self-motivation. All based on the WorkGuru team’s experience:

1. Create a great space to work in.
Wherever you work make sure it is a great space. Both practical and conducive to fabness. Research has shown the importance of views, windows and plants in the working environment. Natural light, views of nature and the presence of indoor plants are all shown to increase feelings of wellbeing and reduce stress.

Do you have the tools you need to do your job? Is your technology right? What about your physical space, does that work for you? Make sure that your workspace is ergonomic; that your chair supports you and that your computer screen is at the right height. If you use a laptop have you thought about plugging in a different keyboard and placing your laptop on a raised platform? Nothing can demotivate you faster then an uncomfortable working environment.

2. Create routines to allow the space to be productive.
We mentioned these next two in our last blog – they are so great we couldn’t miss them out. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you, create a routine to help it happen. If you have a self-determined role and your daily hours and routine is not set for you, set it for yourself. Set the times for when you are going to be at your desk, or in your workshop etc., let people know you are available at those times. Work does not get done unless you create the space for it to happen.

3. Align your tasks to your energy.
Our energy changes during the day and the week. Learn to align your work tasks with your energy levels. So for me my energy is more focused and creative in the morning. This is the time I set aside for writing or tackling complex problems. It is also the time I use for tasks I have been putting off – I am more determined and focused in the morning. My energy begins to wane after lunch so I might switch to more routine tasks at this time, answering email, completing paperwork, engaging with social media. I know that my energy picks up again in the early evening so I might take some timeout in the late afternoon to walk the dogs or take some exercise, knowing that early evening is always a good time for me to get some more work done and begin to plan for the next day.

4. Create a to-do lists
Create a to-do list. I tend to have 2, one for the week and one for the day. At the end of each working week or at the beginning of a new one write down the things you want/need to achieve for the week ahead. Prioritise them (either in order of importance or underline the ones that are most important/urgent). At the end of each day use your weekly to-do list to help you to create your to-do list for the next day. Write your daily list on a post-it note to stop it being too long. Make sure it is realistic, there is nothing more deflating then setting yourself up to fail, and give yourself the pleasure of crossing off the tasks you have completed.

5. Just start
Sometimes you have to stop thinking and just start doing. Faced with an impossible report or a new project you are struggling with? Just begin – start somewhere, anywhere, just start. By making a start you will begin to build up momentum and become more focused. In the words of American Novelist Barbara Kingsolver “I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”

6. Keep positive
Lots and lots of research shows the links between positive thinking and people who have higher mental wellbeing, less negative stress, better immune systems and achieve better outcomes. In his book Authentic Happiness, one of the founders of positive psychology Dr Martin Seligman even argues the positive thinking can provide you with an intellectual boost.

Positive thinking begins with understanding your thought processes. In WorkGuru we talk about automatic thoughts; how thoughts can stream into your mind one after the other, often in a negative spiral, and often involving habitual unhelpful thinking styles that we are unaware of, such as a tendency to over generalise, jump to conclusions or catastrophise. Being aware of these thought processes helps us to form more realistic, positive thinking patterns.

7. Visualise success
There are good reasons for doing this one. The first one is that we can learn new skills through the power of imagination alone! Research by Alvaro Pascual-Leone has shown that mental practice (imagining a new skill or behaviour) creates the same physical changes to the brain as physical practice. So never underestimate the power of your imagination.

The other reasons are possibly more mundane but still important. Visualising success keeps you focused and motivated and it also helps you to know when you have got there.

Here is a bit of a sad example, but boringly it is true. I am trying to lose weight at the moment, the way I keep myself motivated it to visualise myself being able to comfortably fit into my jeans, and I hold onto that image. It does 2 things for me it reminds me of why I am trying to achieve the change (I hate not being able to fit into my clothes) and it tells me when I am going to be successful (when the jeans fit). You can easily change this example to a work focused one. Maybe success for you is going to be when you get 10 orders through for your product a day. Close your eyes and think about what that would look like, how it would feel and what it would mean for you. Hold on to that vision. What are the things that you need to be doing to get closer to that success? When you begin to feel despairing or lose your focus use this vision to remember what it is all about.

8. Minimise distractions
We can all find lots of reasons to not start work. I remember when I was studying. My house was always at its cleanest when deadlines were approaching. Now the distractions for me tend to be linked to technology. Becoming distracted when using the Internet – commonly known as cyberloafing. Did you know recent research has shown that 60 – 80% of our time on the Internet at work is not work related. Other distractions include checking email (listening out for the sound as emails come in and then checking them just in case it is urgent), checking facebook and twitter, and responding to text messages.

Technology can be both the distractor and the rescuer. “contemplative computing” is a move towards turning our information technology into agents of serenity. “Zenware” is designed to block distractions. Examples include www.ommwriter.com, www.justgetflux.com, www.macfreedom.com (works on Mac and PC) or for 2 minutes of total relaxation try www.donothingfor2minutes.com.

The simplest solution of all though is to turn things of, and limit your access to them. Try checking your email just 2 or 3 times a day. Limit your social networking and encourage friends to contact you when you aren’t working (whoops sorry, got distracted by an email coming in – it’s all easier said then done).

9. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Some days and weeks you will be flying. You will feel energised, motivated and enthusiastic; but other days and weeks you wont. Keep the faith; believe in yourself. Your mojo will return.

10. Do other things: learn to switch off
Have you noticed how solutions can often come to you when you are thinking about something else? I have some of my best ideas when I am walking the dog, driving my car or cooking. You might not always be able to think of a solution during work hours, but by just letting it, unconsciously tick over in your mind, a solution can appear when you least expect it. I once woke up with the whole outline of an essay in my head – I even remembered it. Take the time to do things that you enjoy, take your mind off your work and most importantly learn to SWITCH OFF. Keep yourself motivated by keeping your work and life in balance.