When we experience a stressful event, our sympathetic nervous system takes over. In this fight-or-flight state, our bodies release adrenaline, which gives us the energy we need to respond to the situation. When the threat is gone, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, allowing our bodies to rest and digest. Imagine a gazelle running away from a lion. Once it is safe, it immediately goes back to grazing.
Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. How fast we would return to grazing were we gazelles. The problem many of us face today is that we are in a constant fight-or-flight state. Our brains perceive overflowing inboxes, client complaints, long commutes, and tight deadlines as potential threats, meaning our sympathetic nervous systems stay activated, giving our bodies few opportunities to recover.
The good news is that you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system to return to a state of calm any time you want. It’s really simple! All you have to do is breathe. In her book, The Happiness Track, Emma Seppälä explains how you can use breathing practices to restore your resilience. Slow breathing activates the vagus nerve, which slows down your heart, lungs, and digestive system. Long exhales are particularly useful for calming you down.
You can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas and the parasympathetic nervous system as the brakes. We need both. Some stress is good, helping us to perform better. But chronic stress is harmful to our bodies.
You can tap into your natural resilience by taking long, deep breaths in order to calm down. The next time you are feeling stressed, take a moment to close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Breathe deep. This will activate your parasympathetic system, giving your body a chance for rest and restoration.
Is resilience really that easy? It can be! Emma explains how breathing has helped veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and how we can impact our emotions through our breathing patterns in her TED Talk below.
Summertime makes me happy, and I bet many of you feel the same way. I prefer warm weather to cold weather, so that’s one reason why I like summer so much. But there are a number of other reasons why we tend to be happier in the summer:
Time abundance – Time scarcity, or the sense that you never have enough time, is one of the biggest sources of stress in our lives. For many of us, summertime feels less rushed, less busy. Offices often have shorter hours during summer months. Taking time off for a vacation gives us a chance to enjoy some free time. And for working parents, getting a break from the hectic schedule of school and after school activities can be a welcome slowdown.
Time to connect – Social connections are our number one source of happiness. Summer vacations give many of us the opportunity to spend time with family members who live far away. Longer days and less hectic schedules also provide more time for get-togethers with friends.
Time outside – When our bodies absorb UV rays from sunshine, serotonin, a feel-good hormone, is produced. Sunlight exposure also reduces melatonin production, which is a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. So long, sunny days make us feel happier and more energized. Being in nature also boosts our mood and reduces stress. Exposure to trees, plants, and water has a wonderful calming effect. Spending time outside will make you feel both energized and relaxed.
Time to play – Summer weather seems to bring out the kid in us all, from playing paddleball at the beach or tug-of-war at a picnic to splashing in the pool, dancing at an outdoor concert, or sliding down a waterslide. The exercise we get when we play also boosts our mood. It’s easy to find ways to move more when it’s warm outside. Whether it’s riding bikes, long walks on the beach, a backyard game of badminton, canoeing, or tennis, those endorphins we generate are keeping us happy.
Make the most of summer’s happiness boost! Enjoy the extra time by spending it outdoors, connecting with friends and family, and having a good ‘ole time.
A few days ago the White House hosted The United State of Women Summit. The day was full of fantastic speakers covering issues including violence against women, health and wellness, education, economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, and leadership. The day ended with Oprah Winfrey interviewing First Lady Michelle Obama. Here are some takeaways:
Know yourself – When asked how she deals with the pressure of living up to other people’s expectations, Michelle said the key is to know yourself. Girls so often try to please others by looking to the world to see who they are expected to be. She thinks one of our most important jobs is to figure out who we really are.
Like yourself – Michelle said she has liked herself for a long time and that has helped her deal with negativity. Believing in your own worth also makes it easier to ask for what you want. Michelle said supportive parents make a big difference, but if you weren’t as lucky as she was there is still hope. Somebody out there is waiting to love you; you just have to find them. To do this you need to get the haters out of your life. If you are surrounded by lowlife folk who don’t support you, there is no room for the people who do love you.
Be yourself – Michelle didn’t read any biographies of past First Ladies because she wanted to define the role for herself. She wanted people to know who she really is. Because she values being authentic, she chose to support issues that she cares deeply about. When you do things that excite you it gives you energy, so it’s not a heavy lift.
Do good work – Another way to handle the haters is to prove them wrong. Michelle said people won’t remember what other people say about you, but they will remember what you do. Her strategy is to wake up everyday and work hard to do something of value and do it well. Good work speaks for itself. She also mentioned how fulfilling she finds public service. There is nothing better than knowing you helped to change someone’s life.
Embrace each phase of life – Michelle thinks having it all is a ridiculous aspiration. There are many phases in life. You may have to make compromises during one phase, but it’s one of many on your journey. Maintain your health so that in the next phase you can do more of what you want to do. I can’t wait to see what Michelle does in her next phase!
The debate is alive and well. What is the best office design? Open offices are applauded because they provide opportunities for people to interact, encouraging idea exchange and collaboration. The current trend is for companies to adopt open-office spaces in order to enhance innovation and team work. As many as 70% of U.S. offices have no or low partitions.
But what about the need to focus? People working in open offices find it hard to concentrate. There is a growing open-office backlash, with workers complaining that the distractions and noise of open workspaces hurt their performance. So what should companies do?
We just got back from visiting our son in New York City. He has a summer internship with Google and gave us a tour of their offices. Google, a leader in the open-office movement, has large open offices and numerous cafeterias where Googlers interact all day long. They have game rooms, a room full of Legos, and many comfortable lounges where people spend time together, increasing the chances for creative collaboration.
But there are also many private spaces where people can go when they need to minimize distractions in order to focus on their work. The interior halls are full of single person phone rooms equipped with a small desk and computer. They also have breakout spaces with beanbags and comfy chairs (and fun names!) where small groups can work together.
Google understands that magic happens when people share ideas. Their open offices, cafeterias, and lounges encourage employees to connect throughout the day. Google also recognizes the value of having quiet spaces where people can work without distractions. The multi-space design of their offices promotes collaboration, while also providing the space for deep thinking.
Connection and focus contribute to optimal performance. The ideal office design provides a variety of different kinds of spaces that allows for both.
Resilience is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. Something we’d all like more of, right? So how can you build your resilience? There are many factors that influence resilience, including social support, positive emotions, coping skills, and physical well-being.
Two additional factors are meaning and hope. When you are pursuing meaningful goals that you believe you can achieve, you are more likely to persist despite setbacks or adversity. You keep going because what you are doing matters and you know it can be done if you try hard enough.
So how do you find meaning and hope? Three sources of meaning in life are contributing to something in order to make a positive impact, connecting with others, and growing as a person. Hopeful people share two key characteristics: they believe they are capable of achieving their goals and they understand that there are multiple pathways to any goal.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- When have I made a positive contribution?
- When have I helped someone?
- When have I seen myself progressing towards the person I want to be?
- When have I experienced myself as a capable person?
- When have I found another way to make progress in the face of a setback?
Your answer to any of these questions can help you see that you are resilient. Your life is meaningful. What you are doing matters. You have hope. You are capable and adaptable in the face of challenges.
Resilience is a skill you can learn and practice. Make sure that your life continues to have meaning by finding opportunities to contribute, connect, and grow. Keep hope alive by reminding yourself of your successes, looking to role models who have achieved similar goals, and always having a Plan B and C.
People around the world are still mourning the untimely death of Prince last week. The Eiffel Tower, the Chicago skyline, Niagara Falls, the High Roller in Las Vegas, city halls, bridges, and stadiums were illuminated with purple lights as fellow musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Adam Levine, Elton John, and the cast of ‘Hamilton’ played tributes to a lost legend.
Prince was an incredibly talented, widely influential musician who lived a good life. I say that because of what I have learned about him over the past week. There are two keys to living a good life or thriving: happiness and meaning. Prince seems to have had a good amount of both.
His music clearly made him happy. Prince was one of those lucky people who got to do what he loved for a career. He was passionate about music. He wrote his first song at the age of 7 and never stopped, recording over 40 albums, 8 of which made it to #1 on the Billboard charts. If you watch Prince performing in a downpour at the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show, the joy he experienced on stage is evident.
Yet the most interesting stories that have come out after his death have not been about his music, but his life as a humanitarian. Prince helped create “Yes We Code” to teach children from poor neighborhoods computer skills so that they could get good jobs. He also gave money to “Green for All” to provide solar panels to people living in Oakland, California.
When Prince gave concerts he often looked for ways he could make a difference in the cities he was visiting. Last May he held a “Rally 4 Peace” benefit concert in Baltimore to raise money for local youth charities. In Washington DC back in the 80’s he gave a surprise, free concert to over 2,500 handicapped students at Gallaudet College. The blind students screamed beside the deaf students who swayed to the vibrations they felt. A few days prior he had attended a reception to raise funds for Big Brothers of America.
Prince left us too soon, but he lived a good life while he was here. He spent his days doing what he loved and serving others. His talent and his generosity will be missed.
According to Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, the way in which we interpret the world influences our behavior. These interpretations are the result of personal narratives we create about ourselves. Healthy narratives can lead to greater happiness and success in life.
In his book, Redirect, Wilson discusses how story editing can be used to redirect people’s narratives about themselves and the world. As parents, we can use this technique to shape our children’s narratives. Here are two different approaches:
Labeling can help kids internalize desired values by providing them with the right label for their behavior. When your child does something wrong, the best way to respond is to say you understand how guilty he or she must feel. This causes children to internalize the motivation to be good. They conclude they must feel guilty because they are good kids who don’t want to do the wrong thing.
Adam Grant explains how we can use labeling to encourage generosity in our children. When we notice them do something nice, instead of saying, “That was really helpful”, we should say, “You were really helpful.” In this way they will come to see themselves as givers. Research found that students whose teacher consistently labeled them as people who don’t litter were less likely to litter than other students.
With story prompting we give information to people that changes their interpretation of themselves or the word. When your children get good grades you should praise them for their effort. This prompts them to have a growth mindset or the belief that abilities can be developed through hard work. Praising them for being smart can lead to a fixed mindset where they believe abilities are fixed traits that can’t be changed.
What about when your child does poorly on a test? She may conclude she isn’t smart enough for advanced math and quit trying. If instead you talk to her teacher who explains that most students struggle with the first unit, but get better over time, your daughter is more likely to keep studying.
Story editing can trigger a positive cycle of self-reinforcing thinking and behaving. Help your children create constructive self-narratives by labeling their behavior and providing them with story prompts that lead to more empowering interpretations of events.
Brené Brown has written another great book. Rising Strong provides a 3-step process to help us rise from our falls:
- The Reckoning is about recognizing your emotions and getting curious about the story behind your feelings.
- The Rumble is getting honest about the story you’ve made up and figuring out what needs to change.
- The Revolution is writing a new, more courageous ending that transforms your thoughts and beliefs.
I especially like Brené’s advice regarding The Rumble. She explains how our brains build stories in order to give meaning to our experiences. If a story is incomplete, our brain will fill in the missing information, often making things up that we believe to be true. Our stories can be painful if we describe who we are and how others see us in ways that undermine our value and worth.
One suggestion for rumbling with our stories is to use “the story I’m making up” strategy. We can do this in our head or out loud in a situation that is causing us to feel hurt. Brené gives an example of a meeting she had with her team. The meeting was running long, so she suggested they move one of the items from the middle of the agenda to the end. A team member spoke up to say that the story he was making up was that the item, on which he was spending 70% of his time, was no longer a priority. This gave Brené the chance to explain that the issue was so important she didn’t want to rush through it. She planned to schedule another meeting to give it the time it deserved.
Using “the story I’m making up” is helpful because it starts an inner dialogue, giving you a chance to evaluate what you’re thinking and feeling. This reality check may be enough for you to realize what you are telling yourself isn’t true. It is also a constructive way to start a conversation. Being vulnerable enough to share your feelings lets you speak honestly without putting someone else on the defensive. It gives them the opportunity to fill in the missing information, like Brené did for her team member.
The next time you are feeling hurt, get curious about the story behind your emotions, notice which parts of the story you might be making up, and choose to write a new, more empowering ending.
Have you ever said or done something you regretted because you were emotionally triggered? Haven’t we all? When something upsets us, making us angry or scared, our brain detects it as a threat. When we feel threatened, the part of our brain that controls our emotions, the amygdala, takes over. When the amygdala is activated, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain in charge of executive functioning, like decision making, is inhibited. That’s why we react without thinking when we are emotionally triggered.
The good news is that there is an amazingly simple, yet effective technique for controlling your emotional reactions. It’s called “affect labeling”. All you have to do is name or label the emotion you are experiencing. Saying “I’m angry” or “I’m scared” is a cognitive process, so it activates your prefrontal cortex. This puts your thinking brain back in charge, so you can choose a better response.
Research using fMRI machines to measure brain activity shows this. When people are asked to label an emotion this reduces amygdala activity, while increasing activation of the prefrontal cortex. Researchers also found that this effect is stronger for people who practice mindfulness meditation. Meditation appears to lower amygdala activation and being mindful helps you to notice and name your emotions.
The next time someone at work makes you mad or one of your children does something that scares you, try to name what you are feeling before doing anything else. It takes just a second to say it or think it and that will immediately reduce your emotional arousal and put your thinking brain back in the driver’s seat. Let me know how it goes!
And for a fun way to learn more about your emotions check out the movie “Inside Out”!