Stress can do a body good

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of “The Upside of Stress”, helps people rethink stress by telling them that it is what we feel when something we care about is at stake. She asks them to make two lists: of things that stress them; and of things that matter to them. “People realise that if they eliminated all stress their lives would not have much meaning,” she says. “We need to give up the fantasy that you can have everything you want without stress.”

In 2012 a group of scientists in America looked back at the 1998 National Health Interview Survey, which included questions about how much stress the 30,000 participants had experienced in the previous year, and whether they believed stress harmed their health. Next, they pored over mortality records to find out which respondents had died. They found that those who both reported high stress and believed it was harming their health had a 43% higher risk of premature death. Those who reported high stress but did not believe it was hurting them were less likely to die early than those who reported little stress.

The study shows correlation, not causation. But since much stress is unavoidable, working out how to harness it may be wiser than fruitless attempts to banish it.

Read more in the Economist

Managing Your “Mental Tabs”

Have you ever had too many Internet tabs open at once? It is a madhouse of distraction. When I feel like my brain has too many tabs open at once, it’s often the result of trying to mentally juggle too many thoughts at the same time.

Writing gives form to your ideas and gets them out of your head, freeing up bandwidth and preventing you from crashing your browser like a late night downward spiral on Wikipedia.

Gregory Ciotti writing in HelpScout

The decision that most affects your happiness

There are two premises that lead Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, to believe personal company is the most important factor for long-term satisfaction.

The first is that decision-making is tiring. A great deal of research has found that humans have a limited amount of mental energy to devote to making choices. Picking our clothes, where to eat, what to eat when we get there, what music to listen to, whether it should actually be a podcast, and what to do in our free time all demand our brains to exert that energy on a daily basis.

The second premise is that humans falsely believe they are in full control of their happiness by making those choices. So long as we make the right choices, the thinking goes, we'll put ourselves on a path toward life satisfaction.

Cerf rejects that idea. The truth is, decision-making is fraught with biases that cloud our judgment. People misremember bad experiences as good, and vice versa; they let their emotions turn a rational choice into an irrational one; and they use social cues, even subconsciously, to make choices they'd otherwise avoid.

But as Cerf tells his students, that last factor can be harnessed for good.

His neuroscience research has found that when two people are in each other's company, their brain waves will begin to look nearly identical. 

"This means the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike."

From those two premises, Cerf's conclusion is that if people want to maximize happiness and minimize stress, they should build a life that requires fewer decisions by surrounding themselves with people who embody the traits they prefer. Over time, they'll naturally pick up those desirable attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, they can avoid the mentally taxing low-level decisions that sap the energy needed for higher-stakes decisions.

Chris Weller writing in Business Insider

Motivated by Stress

I very much was a person who was motivated by stress; I would use a deadline as a motivator. I think a lot of people do that, where they're like, "I'll just wait until the last minute, and that'll light a fire underneath me and I'll get it done." And I just kept thinking, "Well, that's a terrible way to live. Why am I building a house and lighting a fire in the basement just to see if I can finish the roof before it burns down my whole house?"

Dan Deacon speaking to NPR

Somewhere between boredom and anxiety

A comfortable routine can turn on us, leaving our creativity stifled, dulling us to other possibilities. We become lethargic, sleepwalking through life. Boredom soon nips at our heels.

At the other end of the experience spectrum, we have bungee-jumping thrill seekers. Tired of sexual escapades and rock climbing, they sometimes self-medicate to starve off boredom. Drugs can stimulate many feelings: euphoria, depression, anxiety, even fear. But none induce boredom (though some, like cocaine, can leave the user with a devastating boredom, after the drug has done its thing). Sex, food, drugs, and gambling each stimulate the same dopamine reward pathway in the brain.

Psychologists tell us the cure for chronic tedium is not high-sensation thrills. Somewhere between boredom and anxiety there is a sweet spot called flow. It's an optimal level of arousal. As Dr. Richard Friedman writes:

Flow happens when a person’s skills and talent perfectly match the challenge of an activity: playing in the zone, where there is total and un-self-conscious absorption in the activity. Make the task too challenging and anxiety results; make it too easy and boredom emerges.  Flow get to the heart of fun. It’s not hard to see why the enforced tranquility of a Caribbean vacation could be a dreadful bore for a workaholic but bliss for a couch potato: temperament, as well as talent, have to match the activity or there is trouble in paradise.

Stephen Goforth

The Workaholic

A person can become a workaholic by over-committing himself financially, by making unrealistic plans, or simply by failing to recognize a personality defect. Often he may use work as an escape mechanism. Thus he has to drive himself to the exclusion of what should be his properties.

It is most unfortunate that we deplore drug and alcohol addicts but somehow promote and admire the work addict. We have him status and accept his estimate of himself. And all the while his family may be getting so little of his time and energy that they hardly know him.

Obsessive, compulsive striving for our goals is not the way to pursue a life of excellence. When the Apostle John wrote his three brief but beautiful and intimate epistles, he was a very old man, possibly in his nineties. As he reflected on his life and the human needs that continued to surround him, all he chose to say, basically, was, “Little children… love one another.”

Ted Engstrom, The Pursuit of Excellence

Fear that we are missing out on something

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions.

And at the heart of it, for so many, is fear—fear that we are missing out on something. Wherever we are, someone somewhere is doing or seeing or eating or listening to something better.

I’m eager to escape from this way of living. And if enough of us escape, the world will be better for it.

Will Schwalbe,  Books for Living

Our Willingness to Risk

People with a phobia about being struck by lightning place such a heavy weight on the consequences of that outcome that they tremble even though they know that the odds on being hit are tiny.

Gut rules the measurement. Ask passengers in an airplane during turbulent flying conditions whether each of them has an equal degree of anxiety. Most people know full well that flying in an airplane is far safer than driving in an automobile, but some passengers will keep the flight attendants busy while others will snooze happily regardless of the weather.

And that's a good thing. If everyone valued every risk in precisely the same way, many risky opportunities would be passed up. Venturesome people place high utility on the small probably of huge gains and low utility on the larger probability of loss. Others place little utility on the probably of gain because of their paramount goal is to preserver their capital. Where one sees sunshine, the other sees a thunderstorm. Without the venturesome, the world would turn a lot more slowly. Think of what life would be like if everyone were phobic about lightning, flying in airplanes, or investing in star-up companies. We are indeed fortunate that human beings differ in their appetite for risk.

Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods

Why is it so impossible to get everything done?

Several research studies have shown that people never get more done by blindly working more hours on everything that comes up. Instead, they get more done when they follow careful plans that measure and track key priorities and milestones. So if you want to be more successful and less stressed, don’t ask how to make something more efficient until you’ve first asked, “Do I need to do this at all?”

Simply being able to do something well does not make it the right thing to do. I think this is one of the most common problems with a lot of time-management advice; too often productivity gurus focus on how to do things quickly, but the vast majority of things people do quickly should not be done at all.

If you think about it, it’s actually kind of ironic that we complain we have so little time, and then we prioritize like time is infinite. So do your best to focus on what’s truly important, and not much else.

Angel Chernoff

Stress can Be Good

Researchers visited “an investment bank, at the height of the financial crisis in 2008. They split around 400 bankers into three groups. The first watched a video that reinforced notions of stress as toxic, the second watched one highlighting that stress could enhance performance and the third watched no clip at all. A week later the second group reported greater focus, higher engagement and fewer health problems than before; the other two groups reported no changes.”

One of the researchers says, “Google images of stress and you’ll see a guy with his head on fire. We’ve internalised that idea.”

“He instead compares stress to going to the gym. You only get stronger if you push yourself beyond what feels easy, but afterwards you need to recover. The analogy suggests that stress at work may be performance-enhancing, but should be followed by rest, whether that means not checking e-mails on weekends, taking more holiday or going for a stroll in the middle of the day.”

Read more in The Economist

The Less Traveled Road

Briers below and limbs above. Avoiding them slows your walk. There's a log to step across. Here's a hole to avoid. Yet with your every step you come closer to seeing wonders few will know. The question is: Will getting past those obstacles below and above really be worth the surprising revelations you'll encounter? Choosing to walk the less traveled road may mean periods of intense loneliness and nagging doubt. There is the path of comfort and conformity and the path of adventure and self-definition. Your choice. 

Stephen Goforth

Caught Between

It is not just the pace of change that leaves us disoriented. Many Americans have lost faith that the transitions they are going through are really getting somewhere. To feel as though everything is “up in the air,” as one so often does during times of personal transition, is endurable if it means something – if it is part of a movement toward a desired end. But if it is not related to some larger and beneficial pattern, it simply becomes distressing.

It is as if we launched out from a riverside dock to cross to a landing on the opposite shore – only to discover in midstream that the landing was no longer there. (And when we looked back at the other shore, we saw that the dock we had left from had broken loose and was heading downstream. Stuck in transition between situations, relationships, and identities that are also in transition, many Americans are caught in a semipremanent condition of transitionality.

William Bridges, Transitions

The illusion of transparency

You stand in front of your public speaking class with your notes centered on the lectern, your stomach performing gymnastics… You felt as if you had eaten a spoonful of sawdust as you walked up to the blackboard, As you begin to speak the lines you’ve rehearsed, you search the faces of your classmates… Your voice quavers. Flop sweat gathers behind your neck. You become certain your skin must be glowing red and everyone in the room is holding back laughter. Except they aren’t. They are just bored… no matter how strong an emotion or how powerful an idea, it never seems as intense of potent to the world outside your mind as it does to the one within. This is the illusion of transparency.

You know what you are feeling and thinking, and you tend to believe those thoughts and emotions are leaking out of your pores, visible to the world, perceivable to the outside. You overestimate how obvious what you truly think must be and fail to recognize that other people are in their own little bubble, thinking the same thing about their inner worlds.

The huge discrepancy between what you think people will understand and what they really do has probably led to all sorts of mistakes in text messages and e-mails. On the Internet, people often include “s/” at the end of a statement to indicate sarcasm (it’s a programming joke, essentially meaning “conclude sarcasm”). It was so hard to communicate tone online we had to create a new punctuation mark.

When you get near the person you have a crush on and feel the war drums in your gut, don’t freak out. You don’t look as nervous as you feel. When you stand I front of an audience or get interviewed on camera, there might be a thunderstorm of anxiety in your brain, but it can’t get out; you look far more composed than you believe. Smile. When your mother-in-law cooks a meal better fit for a dog bowl, she can’t hear your brain stem begging you to spit it out.

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart

Listen Slowly

Some years back, I was snapping at my wife and children, choking down my food at mealtimes, and feeling irritated at those unexpected interruptions through the day. Before long, things around our house reflected the pattern of my hurry-up style.

After supper one evening, the words of one of our daughters gave me a wake-up call. She wanted to tell me something important that had happened to her at school that day. She hurriedly began, “Daddy-I-wanna-tell-you-somethin’-and-I’ll-tell-you-really-fast.”

Realizing her frustration, I answered, “Honey, you can tell me... and you don’t have to tell me really fast. Say it slowly.”

I’ll never forget her answer: “Then listen slowly.”

Charles Swidoll

Worry that Past Failures will Repeat

Worry about the repetition of past problems is not a sign of healthy thinking. True, it indicates a desire to be rid of the possible plenty of repeated pain, but inevitably it represents its own brand of pain. The individual has clearly specified what must - and what must not - be part of his life, but the mind is so obsessed with preventing old problems that satisfaction is not recognized in present situations. The imperative person is a prisoner of the past.

Les Carter, Imperative People: Those Who Must Be in Control

Imagineering

A child responds to the game of kissing away a hurt or throwing away a fear. This simple process works for the child because in his mind he believes that that is actually the end of it. The dramatic act is a fact for him and so it proves to be the end of the matter.

Imagination is a source of fear, but imagination may also be the cure of fear. “Imagineering” is the use of mental images to build factual results, and it is an astonishingly effective procedure. Visualize your fears being drained out of your mind and the visualization will in due course be actualized. Imagine yourself as reaching into your mind and one by one removing your worries.

However, it is not enough to empty the mind, for the mind will not long remain empty. It must be occupied by something. It cannot continue in a stat of vacuum. Therefore, upon emptying the mind, practice refilling it. Fill it with thought of faith, hope, courage, expectancy.

A half-dozen times each day crowd your mind with such thoughts as those until the mind is overflowing with them. In due course these thoughts of faith will crowd out worry. Day by day, as you fill your mind with faith, there will ultimately be no room left for fear.

Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking

don't forget the blue goat

The most popular episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show (and my favorite) was titled Chuckles Bites the Dust. The main character (Mary Richards played by Mary Tyler Moore) worked as a news producer for a TV station where one of the shows featured Chuckles the Clown.

Here's what happened: Chuckles was serving as grand marshal of a city parade when he was attacked and killed by an rogue elephant. A ridiculous way to die, wouldn't you say?

Throughout the episode, Mary complained about her colleagues making jokes at the poor man’s expense. She took his death seriously. Until the start of the Chuckle's funeral. Suddenly, everyone’s role reserved. The others became solemn and sober. But Mary couldn’t suppress her urge to giggle at the clown’s comedic demise. The scene is considered one of the most memorable in TV sitcom history. It was ranked #1 on TV Guide's 1997 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. She kept laughing because she wasn't supposed to do so.

Ever tried NOT to laugh at church? The more you fight it, the stronger the urge becomes. Ever had a crazy thought pop in your head about disrupting a meeting? Ever wondered what would happen if you stood up in a restaurant and started yelling? Or started a food fight?  Have you had a crazy thought pop into your head about what it would be like if you jumped out of a window in front of you and fell ten stories?

Suppress that contrarian thought and it can become an outright urge. Suddenly, you are wondering if you can prevent yourself from doing something completely outrageous and inappropriate. The more you try to avoid the idea, the stronger the desire becomes to do it. Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking or stop drinking knows the feeling.

A paper in the Journal Science tries to explain the phenomenon. Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner says if you keep ruminating on the idea of something bad happening, it can actually make it more likely to occur.

Our brains are busy suppressing impulses all the time. We use a great deal of energy keep inclinations in check. The effort usually takes place without conscience thought. But when we focus intensely on avoiding errors and taboos, the impulse can be strengthened because the brain is conscience and locked into the event.

Just try not thinking of a blue goat.

In sports, a player may be told not to swing his bat or golf club a certain way. Soon, he can barely avoid doing it and feels obsessed and distracted. Especially under pressure.

Are you not thinking of a blue goat?

Once the idea has been consciously suggested to us, it’s hard to shake it until something new shoves it out of the way. Therein lies the key for moving away from unwanted thoughts. Instead of trying to keep them down, use your energy to put something else in its place.

Basketball players are more successful when they visualize the ball going through the hoop and the process that works to get it there. Rather than focusing on "not missing" they see greater success when they have a clear vision of  accomplishment. Even thoughts of suicide can be squeezed out by changing our focus from our own situation toward helping someone else.

Just don’t forget about the blue goat.

Stephen Goforth

Information Overload

“Information overload” is one of the biggest irritations in modern life. Commentators have coined a profusion of phrases to describe the anxiety and anomie caused by too much information: “data asphyxiation” (William van Winkle), “data smog” (David Shenk), “information fatigue syndrome” (David Lewis), “cognitive overload” (Eric Schmidt) and “time famine” (Leslie Perlow). Johann Hari, a British journalist, notes that there is a good reason why “wired” means both “connected to the internet” and “high, frantic, unable to concentrate”.

These worries are exaggerated. Stick-in-the-muds have always complained about new technologies: the Victorians fussed that the telegraph meant that “the businessman of the present day must be continually on the jump.” Yet clearly there is a problem. It is not merely the dizzying increase in the volume of information (the amount of data being stored doubles every 18 months). It is also the combination of omnipresence and fragmentation. Many professionals are welded to their smartphones.

They raise three big worries. First, information overload can make people feel anxious and powerless: scientists have discovered that multitaskers produce more stress hormones. Second, overload can reduce creativity. Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School has spent more than a decade studying the work habits of 238 people, collecting a total of 12,000 diary entries between them. She finds that focus and creativity are connected. People are more likely to be creative if they are allowed to focus on something for some time without interruptions. If constantly interrupted or forced to attend meetings, they are less likely to be creative. Third, overload can also make workers less productive. David Meyer, of the University of Michigan, has shown that people who complete certain tasks in parallel take much longer and make many more errors than people who complete the same tasks in sequence.

What can be done about information overload? One answer is technological: rely on the people who created the fog to invent filters that will clean it up. A second answer involves willpower. Ration your intake. Turn off your mobile phone and internet from time to time.

But such ruses are not enough. Smarter filters cannot stop people from obsessively checking their BlackBerrys. Some do so because it makes them feel important; others because they may be addicted to the “dopamine squirt” they get from receiving messages, as Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, two academics, have argued. And self-discipline can be counter-productive if your company doesn’t embrace it. Some bosses get shirty if their underlings are unreachable even for a few minutes.

Most companies are better at giving employees access to the information superhighway than at teaching them how to drive. This is starting to change. Management consultants have spotted an opportunity. Derek Dean and Caroline Webb of McKinsey urge businesses to embrace three principles to deal with data overload: find time to focus, filter out noise and forget about work when you can. Business leaders are chipping in. David Novak of Yum! Brands urges people to ask themselves whether what they are doing is constructive or a mere “activity”. John Doerr, a venture capitalist, urges people to focus on a narrow range of objectives and filter out everything else. Cristobal Conde of SunGard, an IT firm, preserves “thinking time” in his schedule when he cannot be disturbed. This might sound like common sense. But common sense is rare amid the cacophony of corporate life.

Schumpeter, from The Economist

How We’re Gaming Ourselves

We let ourselves be gamed every day by one of the oldest technologies of all: the calendar. Because it displays our nonscheduled time as empty space, our calendar apps encourage us to pack our days with events. Think how differently we'd interact with our calendars if the default wasn't for timeslots not to be empty – if, instead they were prepopulated with tasks like thinking, writing, and planning. We’d be far less likely to neglect the opportunity costs: Every time we accept an obligation, it would be clear that we are giving something up.

Another calendar problem is related to what behavioral economist Gail Zauberman and John Lynch call “resource slack.” Their research shows that when people estimate future time and money we are overly optimistic about how much flexibility (slack) we’ll have. But we’re even more unrealistic about time than money. Lynch, who was my dissertation advisor used to give me this advice: When someone asks you to do something in a year, ask yourself whether you’d accept if it were happening in the next two weeks. Based on our calendar, it looks as if we have nothing to do year from now. In reality, though, our typical week next year will look a lot like this week. But until on my calendar starts to simulate that, I'll keep surrendering my days to stuff I never should have scheduled.

Dan Ariely writing in Wired Magazine