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Nov 15 18

Do Talk to Strangers

by Beth

Researchers Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder conducted a study where they asked some of the participants to engage in conversation with a stranger on their commute. Those participants reported having a more positive experience than the ones who were asked not to interact with anyone. In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson explains how micro-moments of connection boost our well-being.

Yet most of us are reluctant to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Two common reasons for this are that we either don’t think the other person wants to talk or we feel awkward because we don’t know what to say.

Epley and Schroeder found in a related study that people tend to underestimate a stranger’s interest in talking. We all have a basic need to belong, to feel connected to others, so don’t assume people don’t want to talk.

Now what about your fear of experiencing awkwardness? In her book Cringeworthy, Melissa Dahl defines awkwardness as “self-consciousness with this undercurrent of uncertainty”. She believes there is value in experiencing awkward moments. They help you to grow by realizing they aren’t as terrible as you may think.

If you do experience a cringeworthy moment, recognize that awkwardness is something everyone has experienced. Who hasn’t tripped in public, had a conversation with food in their teeth, or walked around with toilet paper on their shoe?

Dahl suggests using humor to deal with awkwardness. Turn your experience into a funny story that you can use to connect with others by bonding over our mutual human absurdity. It may also help to realize that not as many people as you think notice the embarrassing things you do. Studies of the “spotlight effect” show that people don’t pay nearly as much attention to us as we think they do.

Try to be more attuned to moments where you can connect with others. Dare to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the subway, or in an elevator, or standing in line behind you. You will likely both be happier as a result!

Oct 16 18

How to Expand Your Sense of Time

by Beth

Do you feel like time is rushing by too fast? I’m guessing that’s something most of us have in common. Our hectic, over-scheduled lives leave us feeling pressed for time. Time also seems to go faster and faster as we age. Have you ever wondered why? I think the answer is fascinating!

In her TED Talk, psychologist Lila Davachi explains how our sense of time is influenced by our memories. The more memory units we have of an experience, the longer that experience seems. When we are young, much of what we do is new or exciting and we are more likely to remember these types of experiences. As we age, life becomes more routine. Our brains compress these repetitive experiences into fewer memory units, so our estimates of time shrink. Days full of routines run together.

This means you can alter your sense of time by making more memories. An experience that’s very eventful may feel like it’s passing quickly in the moment, but because it generates more memories that time will expand. Time management expert Laura Vanderkam found that people who reported feeling they had more time were more likely to have done something interesting that day. Making memories gave them the sense of having more time. Another study showed that people who experience awe feel like they have more time.

If you’d like to expand your sense of time, add some adventure to your days. By adventure I don’t mean climbing Mount Everest. Doing anything novel will give you the feeling of more time. Eat in a different restaurant, go to the theater, read a new book, learn a new skill, meet new people, park in a different lot. Or try something potentially awe inspiring, like visiting an art exhibit, spending time in nature, or watching a sports event.

Shaking up your daily routine keeps things interesting. It can also provide meaningful experiences that will make your life more memorable and time more expansive.

Sep 21 18

4 Ways to Experience More Joy

by Beth

Experiencing frequent positive emotions is an important aspect of well-being. Joy is a positive emotion that I’d like to experience more often. What about you? Here are a few ways to build more joy into your life:

  1. Savor joyful moments – When you experience a happy moment, notice it, feel it fully, and try to hold on to it for a few seconds before getting distracted by something else. Say to yourself, “Isn’t this great?” We are often so busy that we don’t take time to appreciate the moments of joy that we do experience. Savoring is a way of enhancing and prolonging positive experiences. According to Brené Brown, sometimes when we experience joy we start to worry that what caused our joy might be taken away. She calls this dress-rehearsing tragedy. I am definitely guilty of this. I used to think I would jinx something good if I were too happy about it. Now I make a point to practice gratitude each time I experience joy.
  2. Reminisce about joyful moments – According to psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener, your happiest days are behind you. In his TEDx talk he explains that while you can’t control when you will next experience a moment of joy, you can recall a happy memory to feel joy at any time. Reminiscing lets you experience joy more often. One trick to make it easier to access happy memories is to play a specific song during a joyful moment, like a vacation. This will make the memory stickier or easier to recall.
  3. Anticipate joyful moments – Looking forward to something good generates positive emotions. I just finished planning a family trip for the Christmas holidays. I enjoyed sharing the news with the kids, because I knew they would be excited about the trip and that thinking about it would bring them joy. One study found the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. Planning things that you can look forward to is another way of experiencing more moments of joy in your life. Research shows that anticipation leads to more intense emotions than reminiscing.
  4. Celebrate the joy of others – It is natural to feel jealous at times when someone else experiences success. But a better way to respond is to share in their joy. Try not to compare yourself to others. That is a sure way to reduce the amount of joy you experience. Instead, use the good fortune of others to experience more joy yourself. Sharing in their happiness can elevate your own mood. So celebrate with them!
Aug 20 18

Why You Should Take More Breaks

by Beth

According to Anne Lamott, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Human beings are not machines. We need down time in order to function at our best. Constantly being on with no time to rest or disconnect negatively impacts our productivity, health, and relationships. Yet society today pushes us to go, go, go. We feel guilty if we aren’t doing something productive and we pride ourselves in being busy. The ideal employee is available 24/7.

This has to stop! We need to take breaks throughout the day, disconnect from work when we are home, and go on vacations.

We perform better when we take breaks. In his book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz proposes a 90-minute work cycle for maximizing productivity. He cites a study of violinists in which the top performers typically practiced for three sessions, none of them longer than 90 minutes, with breaks between each session.

In his book, When, Dan Pink identifies five rules for restorative breaks: 1) something beats nothing, 2) moving beats stationary, 3) social beats solo, 4) outside beats inside, and 5) fully detached beats semi-detached, meaning don’t think about work or use your phone during your break.

We also need to disconnect from work when we are home, using the time to connect with family and friends, engage in fun activities or relaxing pastimes, and go to bed early enough to get a good night’s sleep.

Vacations are also important. Yet according to a survey of over 2,200 U.S. employees, only 54 percent take their paid vacation time. In another study of Millennials, 59 percent reported feeling a sense of shame for taking or planning a vacation.

Not taking vacations has serious mental and physical health consequences. Men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. Women who don’t take vacations are 50 percent more likely to die of a heart attack and 2 to 8 times more likely to suffer from depression. The risk of burnout is also higher if you don’t take vacations.

We need to change the way we think about breaks. Breaks help us to be our best selves. The ideal employee is the one who goes for a walk outside in the middle of the afternoon, doesn’t send emails from home at night, and comes back tan and rested after a week at the beach. Is that you?

Jul 16 18

Your Words Impact Your Well-Being

by Beth

Last summer I heard a talk by Johannes Eichstaedt. He discussed the research he and his colleagues are doing as part of Penn’s World Well-Being Project. They are using language in social media to measure psychological and physical well-being around the world. It’s fascinating!

They analyze tweets to correlate words with outcomes. The difference among words that predict male versus female users is pretty funny. But on a more serious note, they have found associations between word use and things like depression and heart disease. Twitter can actually predict life satisfaction and positive emotions better than income.

The correlational nature of the research means it’s impossible to determine whether a situation leads to word choice or vice versa, but there is evidence that the words we use can impact our well-being. Your language influences your thoughts. If you tell yourself you are stressed, you are sending that message to your brain. Your brain will respond by secreting the stress hormone cortisol, and too much cortisol hurts your health by increasing inflammation. Constantly telling yourself you are stressed reinforces the neural networks associated with stress. This makes them stronger, which means your brain is more likely to generate stressful thoughts.

I read a study a few years ago where researchers found that telling people they had gotten a good night’s sleep positively impacted their performance, while telling them they had slept poorly had a negative impact on their performance. I used to spend the day complaining after a night of not sleeping well. Since reading about the study, I try my best not to think about it when I’ve slept poorly. I can definitely tell the difference. Not talking about how tired I am helps me feel more energized despite a lack of sleep.

In Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Newberg and Waldman explain how a single word can impact your brain. Positive words promote cognitive brain function, while negative words activate the fight-or-flight response, which hinders cognitive function.

We all know that our words can impact others. It’s also important to recognize the power that our words can have over our own well-being.

Jun 15 18

Smartphone Use Impairs Focus and Memory

by Beth

In her book, How to Break up with Your Phone, Catherine Price presents research showing the negative impact smartphone use can have on our brains.

In order to focus, our brains have to ignore distractions. This is hard to do because our brains are wired to look for and pay attention to novelty. The links, ads, and apps on our phones make ignoring distractions virtually impossible. And the more we give in to distractions, the more we reinforce the neural circuits associated with a lack of attention. That means the more we read online, the better we become at not staying focused.

Smartphone use also hurts our memory and capacity for deep thought. To start with, every minute you spend looking at your phones is a minute you are not attending to the world around you. So those are memories you won’t have.

Next, what you are paying attention to at each moment is held in your working memory. In order to convert that information into a long-term memory, your brain has to use mental energy to connect the information to schemas, which are networks of other connected memories. The more schemas a memory is connected to, the greater your capacity for complex thought.

Your working memory can only hold a few things at once. When it becomes overloaded, your ability to connect information to schemas is impaired. Smartphone use overloads your working memory, which means it’s harder for your brain to transfer information to long-term memory. So, basically, you are less likely to remember things.

Kinda scary, huh? I’d rather not do something that hurts my focus, memory formation, and ability for complex thinking. On the other hand, I’m not willing to stop using my phone. Instead, I’m working to change my relationship with it. I am trying to be more intentional about when and why I use it.

My first step was to download an app to track my phone use. It’s already helping! It lets me see how much time I spend on my phone and it sometimes asks me if I really want to unlock my screen. Sometimes I do, but other times I realize I’m just bored and I choose to put it away.

How about you? Would you like to change your relationship with your phone?

May 15 18

Staying In is as Important as Leaning In

by Beth

As I have mentioned before, I believe Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In provides good advice for women who aspire to top leadership positions. However, in my research interviewing and surveying over 1,000 women, I found that most of them were not interested in the corner office. What they wanted was a job that fit their lives and let them use their talents to do meaningful work.

That’s why I was pleased to read an advanced copy of Kathryn Sollmann’s book, Ambition Redefined. She believes the most pressing issue for women today is finding flexible work. Too many women feel they must choose between a full-time corporate career that leaves no time for family or leaving the workforce all together. Sollmann explains that there are many alternatives to this all-or-nothing scenario. She shares practical advice for securing flexwork that accommodates caring for children and aging parents.

The most valuable message in Sollmann’s book is the importance of staying in the workforce for financial reasons. Women who continue to work, even in part-time positions with lower pay, make significant contributions to the long-term financial security of their families. A woman loses up to four times her salary each year she is out of the workforce, and women who leave to care for children stay out an average of 12 years. Continuing to generate an income, however small, provides insurance against unforeseen circumstances like divorce or a spouse’s job loss, disability, or death. Earning money is caring for your family.

Women should have the freedom to define their own versions of success. Ambition should be redefined to acknowledge that there are many different ways to pursue fulfilling work and earn a decent income. Flexible work options are paramount for allowing women to stay professionally active and financially secure, while also caring for their families.

Apr 20 18

Employee Well-Being: A Workplace Imperative

by Beth

I just finished filming a course for The Great Courses entitled “How to Build a Thriving Workplace: A Leader’s Guide.” It should be available in the fall, so stay tuned!

Clearly, I’m a firm believer in the importance of the employee experience. I agree with Sir Richard Branson who has said that, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” Focusing on employee well-being will give your company a huge competitive advantage.

In his book, The Employee Experience Advantage, Jacob Morgan cites research showing that companies with the strongest focus on employee experience are significantly more likely to be ranked among the best places to work and among the most innovative companies. They are also found in the American Customer Satisfaction Index twice as often. And their profit is 4 times the average.

A focus on employee well-being is good for business and, according to Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, it is a moral imperative. His book, Dying for a Paycheck, was published last month. In it, he discusses many of the ills of the modern workplace and argues that they can be life-threatening. He explains how the biggest source of stress is the workplace and that stress is responsible for much of the chronic disease from which so many Americans suffer. Pfeffer estimates that job stress may cause as many as 120,000 deaths each year.

He believes the environment we work in is as important as the one we live in. So we should hold organizations accountable not just for the impact they have on the physical environment, but also for the impact they have on the human beings who work for them. His book is an urgent call for companies to focus on workplace well-being.

The experiences that employees have moment to moment throughout the workday impact their well-being and their performance. Leaders who intentionally focus on creating workplaces where people thrive positively impact the lives of their employees and the success of their companies.

Mar 20 18

Be Happy in Spite of

by Beth

People are often surprised to hear that we get happier as we age. It seems like a paradox, because old age is filled with aches and pains and losses. But it’s true! Older people experience as many positive emotions as younger people, but fewer negative ones.

In his book, Happiness is a Choice You Make, John Leland discusses many of the reasons our happiness increases as we age. One is that older people are “happy in spite of”. Many of us think we will be “happy if only” all of the bad things would go away or “happy when” we achieve a specific goal. Older people have learned that there will always be bad things, but they can choose to be happy in spite of them.

Studies show that older people experience more mixed emotions. They can be sad about some things, while being happy about others at the same time. They have learned that life doesn’t have to be all good to be good. You can be happy despite negative circumstances. It depends on your attitude and what you choose to focus on.

Older people know that life is too short to wait around for happiness. They don’t let small stressors get them down. They have figured out what makes them happy and spend more time doing those things.

Fortunately, you don’t have to grow old to be happy in spite of. You can change your mindset right now by recognizing that happiness won’t magically come when you graduate or when you get married or when you lose five pounds or when you can afford a bigger house. You can be happy now – in spite of any problems you might be facing.

Be grateful for what is good in your life. Savor happy moments. Do what you love. Help someone. Appreciate your family and friends. And don’t waste time on worry or regret.

Stop waiting to be happy when and start being happy in spite of!

Feb 16 18

What’s Your AQ?

by Beth

A lot has been written about the importance of IQ, your intelligence quotient, and EQ, your emotional quotient, for success. A lesser-known quotient, your AQ, can also have a big impact on performance and happiness. AQ is your adaptability quotient or your ability to adapt to and thrive in an environment of change. Despite the fact that “change is the only constant,” many of us have trouble accepting and dealing with it.

People with a high AQ recognize the need for change and adjust accordingly. This helps them to be more resilient, which boosts both their success and their well-being. When a situation changes, you may need to adapt your plan or possibly even move on to another goal. The sooner you recognize the need for change and take action, the more successful you will be. You will also be happier, because much of our unhappiness comes from wishing something were different than it is. Accepting that things have changed and choosing to move forward can minimize your suffering.

Here are some tips for increasing your AQ:

  1. try to accept change, rather than fight it, by reminding yourself that change is inevitable
  2. alter your mindset to view change as making progress, something exciting, or an opportunity to learn
  3. think about different ways to achieve your goals so that you will be ready to change direction if necessary
  4. stay open to the possibility that you might need to choose a different goal and that’s OK
  5. keep your focus on the things that you can control
  6. make sure you have a strong social network who you can turn to for support

People with a high AQ accept that change is inevitable and recognize that the sooner they adjust to a new reality, the better.