By Brian Sabin
Your phone is blowing up from calls, emails, and texts. Your growing to-do list on your desk is equally vying for your attention. You don't know where to focus and can't seem to get a single task done without interruptions. If this sounds like a typical day at the office, you're not alone. Studies show long-term stress and employee burnout have been on the rise in recent years, and the "elephant in offices all around the world is that people are running on empty," reports a recent article in the the New York Times.
The problem, according to Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., the science director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), isn't just that we're being asked to do more. Our own misconceptions about what success is and how we should go about achieving it might be even more at fault.
"Everyone is working on overdrive, because they think this is the only way to be successful," says Seppälä, who wrote the new book The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, which hit bookstores on January 26. The book explores the growing field of research linking happiness and well-being with productivity and influence. Executive summary: You can get a lot more done, and enjoy doing it much more, if you take a little better care of yourself as you go.
"The book is called The Happiness Track because when you make time to be idle and relax, cultivate calm in your life, and be present, you'll also be happier because those are correlates of well-being," Seppälä explains. "By living in this constant state of high stress, we're actually fatiguing ourselves very quickly. By learning to stay calm instead of high on adrenaline and fueled on caffeine, you're going to manage your energy better and therefore get more done. And you'll do so in a way that is more emotionally intelligent. You'll assess things more clearly, make better decisions, and have better communication with others around you."
If ordering up a dose of calm seems like something that's easier said than done during your hectic day, Seppälä understands. That's why her book is packed with simple solutions that will help you cultivate more chill and foster more happiness at work while getting more done in the process. Here are three ways you can get started today.
1. Give your brain a break. If you've ever been confronted with a problem at work and found yourself unable to come up with a solution no matter how hard you tried, the issue may be that you've been trying too hard.
"People feel that they have to focus all of their energy and attention on just one thing with the idea that that's how they are going to come up with the next big thing," Seppälä says. "But actually, what research shows is that when you are intensely focusing, that's not when your brain is creative. It's when the brain is at rest -- slightly relaxed, in a daydreaming kind of mind -- that's when it's creative."
Seppälä likens the phenomenon to having one of those proverbial "a ha!" moments in the shower. The solution just pops into your head when you weren't even looking for it. "Yet when people are trying to be innovative they're not necessarily taking a walk outside, resting, or playing with their dog," Seppälä says.
Try it: If your office is by a walking path and you can step out for the occasional stroll or jog, great. But even if your day is too packed for an afternoon amble, you can still fit some mental relaxation in your day by switching between tasks that require a lot of brainpower and others that are less demanding.
"For example, let's say you have a high-intensity work thing in the morning. Don't go right in to another high-intensity work thing. Go do your grocery shopping at lunch. Or clean your desk. Or sort through the mail. Alternating high-intensity and low-intensity activities can help with creativity, because it gives your mind the ability to rest," Seppälä says.
2. Quiet your inner critic. Most of us are really tough on ourselves. And while it's good to have high standards and strive to meet them, the impulse can turn toxic if it means we start getting down on ourselves or questioning our abilities.
"Research shows that when we are hard on ourselves and self-critical, we're actually hurting our resilience," Seppälä says. "We're hurting our ability to bounce back in the face of challenge. Research shows that compassion toward ourselves is actually incredibly powerful for building resilience."
By being a little nicer to ourselves, we're more likely to develop that "never say die" attitude that allows us to overcome obstacles and achieve great things.
Try it: "This one can be very difficult one for Westerners, because here we are not necessarily taught to love ourselves here," Seppälä says. "The first step is to notice: How am I talking to myself? Are my expectations for myself the same as what they'd be for a friend, whom I love very dearly?"
She adds that you can take it a step further by trying this: The next time you suffer a setback, write yourself a letter. Write it as you would to a friend who has just encountered some hardship. That will allow you to reflect on the problem and get out your grievances, but do so with a little more self-compassion.
3. Conquer more by caring for others. Many think that looking out for number one is the only way to win at life. But if your only interest is yourself, you'll only be able to achieve what you (as one person) are capable of doing. Even if you are a hyper-capable person, that's a big limitation.
"What research is showing is that people who are kinder to their colleagues actually wind up having the most influence," Seppälä says. "They actually do more things, and do them well, because others step up to help them."
But this isn't just about forming alliances. Research shows that you will be a happier and healthier person when you stop putting yourself first. One study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology has linked anxiety with ego-centrism while other research shows that having meaningful connections with others can help improve resistance to or speed up recovery from disease.
Try it: This doesn't mean that you have to start spending all of your day circling the water cooler in search of small talk. You can start making progress by just keeping in mind that all of your coworkers want the same thing you do: To be happy and to navigate life's innumerable challenges with as much grace as possible.
When you do have the chance to say "Hi" and "How do you do?" to a colleague, take the time to really listen. Find out if they have a family, and what their interests are outside of work. "These are little things that go a long way," Seppälä says. "What we all need is the human touch, and that's what sometimes is lost in our work lives."
If caring and connectedness to others isn't your strong suit, don't worry, there's still hope. Seppälä has found that meditating for as little as seven minutes a day can increase your feelings of connectedness and closeness to someone else. You can listen to her guide the specific meditation used in the study in this video.
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