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Negative Emotions – a Path to Happiness?

Some people find it interesting that I spend time talking about negative emotions.  I sometimes get the “You’re supposed to be the Happiness Coach, right?”  As if acknowledging that we have negative emotions will somehow detract from our happiness.

1975688-550141-cartoon-yellow-smiley-balls-3-positive-and-negative-emotions-gestures-posesThe research shows that the opposite is true.  That effectively managing our negative emotions (sadness, fear, anger, worry, guilt, grief, frustration, and all those other emotions that make us feel icky) is an essential component to becoming happier.   Part of this is about how to reduce our time in those negative states, but the much more important task is to learn when to open up to and embrace some of these negative emotions.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start with a few important basics to managing the bad stuff.   Then we’ll be digging deeper into some proven tools over the next couple months.

Negative emotions are part of life

If you are going to live and love in this world, you are going to feel negative emotions.  It’s important to give yourself permission to be human and not push away these emotions.  A lot of our growth and learning comes from this negative space.

But there’s a difference between being authentically disappointed that you weren’t chosen for that promotion/team/party/friendship, and expanding that disappointment into a story that you are worthless and no one ever liked you and no one ever will, etc. etc.  (much more on this next post!).

Bring Awareness to your emotions

You can’t change what you don’t notice, so awareness of your emotional state is an essential first step.   Often when we are feeling negative emotions, they bubble along in the background.  When this happens, we sometimes react on autopilot and snap at loved ones or ruminate incessantly.  This keeps us mired in negative space.  So make a practice of checking in with your own emotional state on a regular basis.

Let’s try it right now…  What are you feeling at this moment?

 

(Pause and check.  Really!)

 

 

If you find you often fall into negative emotional space without noticing, spend a couple weeks actively checking in.  Set your phone alarm or outlook alert to go off every hour and see what you are feeling.  Or post little sticky notes around your house, car and on computer screen.  Each time you notice one, check in.  When I did this exercise a few months ago, I realized how often I had anxious feelings and was tightening my shoulders and catching my breath.  Awareness is the first step.

Name That Tune (or Emotion)

Brain scans show that verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of negative emotions by engaging the thinking side of the brain.  Once you notice that you are in a negative space, call it out.  Pause and figure out which negative emotion you are feeling (is it disappointment or frustration?  Anxiety or nervousness?). Verbalize it to yourself or a friend. Consciously think, or say, “I’m feeling anxious,” “I’m feeling angry,” or “I’m feeling sad.”

Let It Be

Often when we notice a negative emotion, we move to squash it as soon as we can. We react, “I don’t want to feel this! Go away!”  But the research is clear: when we suppress our negative emotions, our misery multiplies and (counter-intuitively) it inhibits our ability to feel positive emotions.  But when we give those negative emotions some space to be felt and to grow and change, it opens up the path for positive emotions to flow too.

Make a Decision

Once we notice, name and allow the negative emotion to exist, then we can decide what we want to do.  We may WANT to stay in that space for a while to be angry or sad.  That’s fine.  (You might take yourself away, however, to not inflict your own emotional pain on innocent bystanders or family members).

At some point, seconds or hours or days later, you will want to get back to a neutral or positive space.  We’ll be spending the next couple months going through the tools of how to move through this negativity and provide a healthy path to getting back to positive.  We’ll kick this off next week by categorizing the kind of negativity we are feeling – whether it is gratuitous or necessary.  This initial evaluation will set us on the best path forward.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
 
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The Five Pillars of Well-Being #5: Accomplishment

Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, describes the five pillars of well-being as PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment).  I was laying these out for you several months ago (you can review these posts starting here) but got pulled into some very cool recent research on stress that I needed to share.

Business people running USE THISThe final pillar, accomplishment, is an easy one to understand.  An important part of many people’s lives is the pursuit of success, accomplishment, winning, achievement and mastery.  What makes it a separate pillar from Seligman’s perspective is that people sometimes pursue it for its own sake rather than simply to support their happiness or the meaning they find in the activity.

It’s also one of the more controversial of the pillars.  The other 4 are universally supported as central to well-being and have the lots of data to back up their importance.  But — surprisingly — there isn’t much data about how accomplishment directly impacts well-being.  This is rather ironic given our society’s obsession with accomplishment leading to happiness, right?  Part of the issue is how easy it is — particularly in Western society — to get lost in the pursuit of success and lose its connection to well-being.  Our society and our employers push us to drive harder and faster and to “be all you can be”.  And that often comes at the expense of other important parts of well-being.  We all know the work-a-holic archetype – too busy at work for family, friends, self-care or fun, which all contribute to the more data-driven pillars of well-being.

How to do it

The paths to accomplishment and success are often laid out (painfully) clearly for us either through work or through our own desires for change.

But one of the challenges is that we often change our definition of success as we go.  As we get closer to our original target, we (or our supervisors) often move the goals farther out, robbing us of that sense of accomplishment that we’d hoped for.   Research suggests that by setting lots of small goals along the way and celebrating each milestone, you will both feel accomplished and maintain your motivation. This incremental approach — not a “when I am CEO, I’ll be happy!” perspective — is the key to making accomplishment work for you.

My Experience

My story is likely familiar to many of you; it may be yours as well.  Accomplishment and achievement was my primary purpose for the first 35 years of my life.  I knew I wanted to be successful so I worked and worked and worked.  In school and professionally, I was so focused on the achievement – the good grades, getting into good schools, finding sought-after jobs and being promoted that I lost track of enjoying what I was doing.  Everything was simply a step on the path to achievement and each success was met with even more aggressive goals.  This constant push for more and better accomplishments caused intense anxiety and insomnia which completely destroyed my own well-being.   Over the last year I’ve learned to temper that constant perfectionist drive with a more balanced approach, setting more incremental goals and making sure I take time to savor, share and revel in the accomplishment of even tiny things, like figuring out how to post video clips of my speaking gigs (trust me, it was an accomplishment).  In the past, I wouldn’t have broken stride in my constant quest to get even more and bigger things done.

Take Home Message

Whether or not accomplishment is a central part of well-being is less relevant than where it fits in your life.  We’ll always have things we want to get done and areas of our lives where we want to be successful.  You get to decide how much you are going to let that drive you.  Take a good look at your own compulsions around accomplishment.  Successfully going after challenges can be a great path towards well-being as long as it’s tempered with the other important things in your life.

Eric Karpinski, The Happiness Coach

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The Three Steps to ReThink Stress

Over the last couple months I’ve been sharing some content from the ReThink Stress (RTS) training program [The Power of Mindset, Eustress – the ‘Good Stress’ and Distress].  This is a program I’m helping to create with Shawn Achor and Alia Crum, based on research from Yale that has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Forbes and the Harvard Business Review. 

The key to re-thinking stress is to recognize that stress is not necessarily a bad or debilitating thing, but can be used to your advantage (a.k.a. a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset).  This week, I’ll be sharing the three basic steps to creating a stress-is-enhancing mindset. 

Step 1- Acknowledge your stress. 

This may seem obvious but you need to know you’re stressed before you can use it to your advantage.  This can be difficult since we’ve trained our brains to avoid stress, believing that it’s bad for us.  And many of us have had so much stress for so long that we don’t even notice it anymore.  We just call it “normal life.”

Here’s why recognizing your stress is important.  When you are unconsciously stressed, you process that stress in the limbic centers of your brain which drive you into a reactive, un-thinking fight-or-flight mode.  By recognizing and acknowledging your stress, on the other hand, your brain shifts where it processes that stress to the prefrontal cortex.  This is the rational, thinking part of your brain, which allows you to pause, evaluate your options and consciously choose how you respond  to the stress.

Step 2 – Welcome your stress

The second step is to welcome the stress that you have.  You may be asking, “Why would I ever welcome stress into my life?”  There are two reasons:

(1) It increases the energy you have to overcome the challenge that is causing the stress in the first place.  Working to avoid or fight stress drains your energy while welcoming that stress can increase your energy and allow you to focus on tackling that new challenge.

(2) Embedded within every stress is something that’s meaningful or important to you. For example, if I were to tell you that a child on the other side of the country is failing English, it unlikely to affect your stress levels.  But if I tell you YOUR child is failing English, suddenly your stress levels rise because now you have a purpose or goal embedded within that information.   Behind every stress you feel there is something important to you. The key is to find it.

STEP 3 – Utilize your stress

We know from the second step that our stress is inherently connected to the things that matter most to us.  But it is paradoxical – and quite frustrating really – that our typical reactions to stress often take us away from our goals.

When we shift to a stress-is-enhancing mindset, our fundamental motivation changes.  Rather than using our time, money and energy trying to get rid of stress, we begin to UTILIZE our resources towards meeting the demands underlying the stress.

ReThink Stress Training

In the full ReThink Stress training program, multimedia presentations go into much greater detail on each of the three steps and suggest several ways to sustainably shift your perspective to a stress-is-enhancing mindset.  The ReThink Stress program takes you through simple exercises that allow you recognize your stress responses, find the meaning behind your stress and apply the three steps in your own life — both routinely and in your most stress-filled times.

I’ve been having a lot of fun creating this program with researchers Shawn Achor and Alia Crum, and I’m excited that we’re doing a limited launch of the program in the next few weeks.  If you are interested in getting early access to the full ReThink Stress program (at a discount), contact me and I’ll try to get you into this limited beta launch.  Feedback from this initial roll out will allow us to further optimize the program before the formal launch in the fall.  And if you want to stay close to the launch information, go to the official ReThink Stress program website and sign up for the email list at the bottom of the page.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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Distress, Stress “Management” and ReThinking Stress

Last week I shared some of the wonderful science behind ‘eustress’ or the ‘good’ stress.  This is the stress that helps you get moving towards your goals and marshal the right resources to get something done.  As this stress increases, your performance increases — at least up to a point.

Distress

You know what it is like when your stress is no longer helpful, like when you realize you won’t have the time to get all the work done, or you don’t have the skill to take a project to completion.  When that happens, your performance decreases — you might feel paralyzed or lose the perspective necessary for good decisions — which causes more stress, which leads to a further reduction in your ability to get things done.  We call this downward spiral distress.  

Preventing and or ‘managing’ distress has become a billion dollar industry. 

Traditional Stress Management Programs

But traditional stress management programs suffer from two fundamentally flawed assumptions.

  1. They assume that the effects of stress are only negative, that stress can only lead to deterioration in performance.
  2. They assume the only way that we can “fix” this problem is to reduce, manage or fight against the stress we feel in order to maximize how much stress we can handle before crashing into distress.

The problem is that stress itself is a fight or flight response to perceived threats.  Stress “management” programs remind us how bad stress is for us so when the inevitable stressful incident occurs, we get stressed about feeling stressed.   We think, “I’m not supposed to be feeling this” or “This is bad for me,” which multiplies the negative effects.

These traditional programs also set up stress as something to fight against.  They teach us to resist or try to control our response to the stress we feel.  This reinforces the fight or flight response, and effectively opens another front in our war on stress.  These traditional trainings miss the fact that stress is not an enemy to be avoided or defeated, but can be a useful ally in reaching our goals.

ReThink Stress

By changing your mindset about stress you can significantly change your own stress response curve.  By viewing stress as something that can be helpful to you, you can change how the stress affects you.  As was demonstrated in the Yale studies, this simple change can improve your performance, health and well-being.

This Week’s Challenge

Check in with yourself right now.  Is something stressing you?  Get curious about that stress.  What are you saying to yourself about it?  How does it make you feel?  Does it drive you to focus more on the tasks at hand or pull away?  Where do you notice that stress in your body?  Over this week, check in whenever you notice you are feeling stressed and ask yourself these questions.  No need to judge it or do anything about it at this point, just observe and note what’s happening.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing the three steps of the ReThink Stress program which will help you change your mindset about stress.  So stay tuned.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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Eustress – the ‘Good Stress’

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am developing a cool new stress-related product called ReThink Stress that is based on powerful research from Yale which is being published this month in a top psychology journal.  I’ve received permission from the authors of this study to preview some of the most interesting parts of the training with you, dear readers.

It’s odd for many of us to realize that our stress response evolved to help us.  When a saber toothed tiger attacked in prehistoric times, neurochemicals dropped into our body to prepare us to either fight off the tiger or to run away.  This increased our chances for survival and our ability to pass on our genes to the next generation.

Source: The American Stress Institute (ASI) website: Stress.org

And this positive aspect of stress is still valuable to us today, even if you don’t happen to work with saber tooth tigers.  Moderate levels of stress get you moving toward your goals and help you marshal the resources to get something done.  As stress increases, your performance continues to increase, at least up to a point.  We see this in top athletes preparing for competition, neurosurgeons going into the operating room and performers going on stage.  Their stress primes them to be their best.   We call this eustress.

Interestingly, this response is non-specific.  Your body and most parts of your brain can’t tell the difference between lethal threats such as a saber-toothed tiger that may attack and non-lethal threats such as a long list of urgent tasks, an upset boss or a red down-arrow on a stock ticker.

So what is the stress response actually designed to do?  Is it an outdated system that no longer has much use to us?  The research tells us no, that in fact  the same benefits that helped us in prehistoric times can be crucial to thriving in the midst of the chaos of your modern life.

The Research into the Benefits of Stress

We hear a lot about how stress can decrease your cognitive performance.  But there is equally valid scientific research that the opposite is true as well.  For example, in a particularly “X-Games” study, scientists found that subjects in the midst of a bungee jump can process information much faster than a non-free falling control group.

Another cruel-sounding study found that subjects’ memory and performance on standard cognitive tests actually increase when they put their hands into ice water – a rather stressful activity.

Other studies show benefits to your immune system when under stress.  When a group of patients was purposely stressed before going into knee surgery, they recovered at twice the rate of a control group not primed with stress.

This makes sense from an historical perspective.  If you get attacked by a saber toothed tiger, that’s the time you want your immune system working at its optimal level. If you get hit by the tiger, you want your immune system to respond very quickly. This is how vaccines work too.  They stress your body with an overload of antigens to create an active immune response.

It’s also how we get stronger.  Weight lifting stresses our muscles to the point where we break some muscle fibers.  As they heal, they rebuild stronger than they were before.

And some of our most stressful life events, such as battling cancer, being in an accident or going to war, can cause huge leaps in personal growth.  While post-traumatic stress is a real phenomenon, there is huge body of research showing many people come through these challenges having grown not despite of the trauma but because of it.  They feel much more connected with family, friends and society at large.  They find increased levels of resilience and a greater appreciation for life.  Scientists call this phenomenon post-traumatic growth.

The research is clear.  Stress CAN help us be healthier, more productive and grow from traumatic events IF we have the right mindset .  Next post, I’ll talk more about when stress goes haywire and why traditional ‘stress management’ programs aren’t as effective as we’d hope they would be.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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Changing Your Mindset

Last post I summarized the impressive research on how your mindset can have a significant effect on both your physical and mental responses to a stimulus.  This week we’ll talk about how to change your mindset.

Carol Dweck, a top psychologist from Stanford and author of Mindset: the New Psychology of Success is one of the world’s experts on mindset.   Her work focuses on the mindset around learning, intelligence, achievement and success.

Fixed Mindset

In Dweck’s work, she describes two ways of looking at the world.  One is that abilities and talents such as intelligence, creativity, quantitative analysis or athletic ability are fixed, meaning you believe that people are either born a genius, a quant jock, a top athlete or they aren’t.  This is called the fixed mindset.

If you have a fixed mindset; you believe things should come naturally to people who have talent, that if something requires effort, you clearly aren’t good at it.  Challenges and obstacles are threatening because they directly affect your sense of ability and your sense of self — if a test is hard, you must not “be smart.” If you don’t pick up a new sport immediately, it’s because you are “not athletic.”  This makes it very difficult to try new things and take risks, because you may fail.  And failure destroys your self-perception, if you’re a fixed-mindset person.  But people can’t learn if they don’t take risks and try new things, so in a fixed mindset learning and growth become severely limited.

Growth Mindset

The other view believes that these same talents and attributes — intelligence, creativity and so on — can be cultivated through effort and instruction, that throughout your life you can get smarter and more talented as you work on the attribute and learn from experience. This is called a growth mindset.

In this mindset, your brain is a muscle which gets stronger with use.  Every time you learn something new, your brain forms new connections and you increase your intellectual skills.  If you have a growth mindset, you get excited about taking on challenges as a way to learn and grow.  This mindset encourages persistence and resilience when hitting the inevitable obstacles on the way towards your goals.

I hear your mental wheels turning right now.  Of course you have a growth mindset. Of course you can get better at things.  But take a deeper look.  Don’t you also have whole areas that you dismiss because, “I have no artistic ability.”  Or “I’m not good at math.”   Or “I’m just not athletic.”  Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but having a fixed mindset in any areas will limit how much you can grow and what risks you are willing to take.

The Research

The growth vs. fixed mindset was first described from research on adolescents and college students.  Students with a growth mindset were motivated to learn and exert effort, and outperformed those with a fixed mindset.  And in studies that trained students in the growth mindset, participants showed significant increases in effort and engagement.  It also improved test scores, provided for better grades, improved resilience in the face of challenges and increased life satisfaction.

The research has since been expanded into the business world.  When managers were taught a growth mindset, they increased their skills, were more likely to admit mistakes and more likely to overcome them.   They became more willing and able coaches and were more likely to notice performance improvements in their employees. They were also more likely to seek out constructive feedback from subordinates.  Negotiators taught a growth mindset were more able to push past obstacles and reach an agreement that benefitted both sides.   (Look past the graphic below for how to change your mindset.)

Image: Nigel Holmes / Graph Content: Carol Dweck

Changing from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset

(Adapted from Carol Dweck’s website)

Step 1 Learn to hear your fixed mindset voice.

As I talked about in this post (Taking on the voices in your head), we all have voices in our heads telling us what to do or trying to keep us safe.  When you can start hearing these voices as just that — voices, rather than you —  you can start to get some control of your actions and responses.  Look at Step 3 for some examples.

Step 2 Recognize that you have a choice.

How you interpret challenges, setbacks, and criticism is your choice. You can interpret them in a fixed mindset as signs that your fixed talents or abilities are lacking. Or you can interpret them in a growth mindset as signs that you need to ramp up your strategies and effort, stretch yourself, and expand your abilities. It’s up to you.

As you face challenges, setbacks and criticisms, listen to the fixed mindset voice and [Step 3] talk back to the voices with a growth mindset voice.

If you hear a FIXED MINDSET comment: Argue with a GROWTH MINDSET response:
“Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.” “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.”
“What if you fail—you’ll be a failure” “All successful people had failures along the way.”  (For more see this post ‘Learn to fail or fail to learn’)
“If you don’t try, you can protect yourself and keep your dignity.” “If I don’t try, I automatically fail. Where’s the dignity in that?”
“This would have been a snap if you really had talent.” “That is so wrong. Basketball wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan and science wasn’t easy for Thomas Edison. They had a passion and put in tons of effort.”
“It’s not my fault. It was something or someone else’s fault.” “If I don’t take responsibility, I can’t fix it. Let me listen—however painful it is– and learn whatever I can.”

Step 4. Take growth mindset action.

Giving voice to the growth mindset thinking will help you decide the best way forward.  Then you have the choice to take on the challenge, to learn from your setbacks and try again and to hear the criticism as a way to constructively improve on your work.

With practice you’ll hear this fixed-mindset voice more often and be ready with a growth-mindset response.  Over time, you’ll gain more and more choice and make it work for you.

So over the next week, slow down so you can notice what the voices are saying to you. If they are limiting you, try out another approach.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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The Power of Mindset

Want to know something mind-blowing?  Your mind has incredible power to change not just your thinking, but also your actual physical state.  Research has shown that simply changing your mindset about a situation can have significant effects on objective, measurable outcomes such as levels of hormone secretion, reduced pain, improved hearing, decreases in body fat percentage and many more.  So hold onto your disbelief  – I can see the eye-rolling from here — as I talk you through some of the more impressive studies  on the power of mindset.

What is mindset?

At any given moment, the amount of potential information to take in is unwieldy.  Therefore we need a simplifying system, a lens or frame through which to view and make sense of the world.

This lens is what we call a mindset, and it consists of the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation.  And those ideas and attitudes predetermine a person’s interpretations of — and responses to — situations.  When you let your mindset express itself without awareness, you lose your ability to choose your behavior.

The Mindset Research

Here are a few examples of how mindset affected objective, measurable changes:

The placebo effect.  Research has shown that inactive pills (the placebo) show benefits in 60-90% of diseases.  This includes both diseases with subjective endpoints like anxiety or depression, and diseases with easily measurable physical changes like osteoarthritis and cancer; that means that people who take sugar pills show measurable tumor shrinkage (crazy, right?)  Research shows that placebos trigger complex neurobiological phenomena including the activation of distinct brain areas as well as peripheral physiology and the immune system.   Alia Crum, a top mindset researcher at Columbia, calls the placebo effect, “an incredible and consistent demonstration of the power of mindset to recruit healing properties in the body, even without active drug.“

Sham surgeries.  And this isn’t only in the drug realm, but in surgery too.  In one study, researchers enrolled patients who were scheduled for reconstructive knee surgery.  They went through all the steps of the surgery in the operating room including putting the patients under anesthesia and cutting open their knees.  But instead of doing the surgery, they simply waited the time the surgery normally takes then sutured them back up and monitored the results.  As compared to prior to the surgery, these “sham-procedure” patients felt less pain, used less morphine, had more mobility, could climb more stairs and had reductions in the objective amounts of swelling.  All this simply because they thought they’d had full surgery.

Fake poison ivy.  Thirteen people, who were extremely allergic to poison ivy, were each touched on one arm with a harmless leaf but were told it was poison ivy and touched on the other arm with poison ivy and told it was harmless. All 13 broke out in rash where the harmless leaf contacted their skin. Only two reacted to the poison leaves.

Making you younger.  In the “counter-clockwise study,” Ellen Langer from Harvard University had a group of elderly men attend a week-long retreat where everything they saw was from 20 years earlier, including magazines, newspapers, television, and music.  They were fed popular food from that era and instructed only to discuss personal and world events from that time 20 years prior.  In other words, the context around them was arranged to put them into the mindset that they were young again.  After just one week living in this environment, the participants got noticeably “younger” on many of the experimental measures.  Their hearing and their memory improved.  They scored higher on intelligence tests; they had greater joint flexibility, grip strength and manual dexterity.  There were improvements on height, weight, gait and posture.  Objective observers judged that photos of the subjects looked noticeably younger at the end of the study as compared to their photos at the beginning.

Changing mindset, changing weight.  A group of hotel room attendants were the subject of another well-known mindset study from Harvard.  While the hotel room attendants had jobs that were very active, most of them did not perceive their work as exercise.  They had the mindset that their work was simply their work.  The researchers trained one group that their work was good exercise and that they should receive the health benefits of all that activity.  And while they had no change in their diet or outside exercise regimen, after just four weeks, this ‘informed’ group showed significant, measurable reductions in weight, body fat percentage and blood pressure as compared to a group who didn’t get the training.  All from a simple shift in their mindset.

A more filling milkshake.  In another mindset study, this one at Yale, volunteers were recruited on the pretext that they were to taste milkshakes with different calorie content.  Each volunteer was hooked up to an IV to measure their physiological response to the shake.  They specifically looked at levels of a hunger stimulating hormone called Ghrelin.  Ghrelin levels drop when you eat a big meal sending a signal that says “Okay, brain, we can stop eating, we can stop searching for food, we can digest and metabolize the food we have now.”

The subjects were given two different shakes one week apart and were explicitly shown the labels on each.  The “Sensi-Shake” indicated it had just 140 calories, 0 grams of fat and no added sugar while the “Indulgence” shake indicated it contained 620 calories, 30g of fat and 56 grams of sugar.  With the “Sensi-Shake” the ghrelin levels didn’t drop much, while with the “Indulgence” shake the ghrelin levels dropped through the floor.

The catch was that both weeks they were given exactly the same shake.  The change in Ghrelin levels was due exclusively to their mindset about what they were drinking from the label.  The expectation of what the shake would do to their appetite significantly changed their hormonal response and thus their appetite.

Take Home Message

All of these studies suggest that the mindset you adopt in a given situation can produce changes that are objectively measurable.  Whether it’s placebo effects in drug trials, sham operations, fake poison ivy, food labels or simply being told that your work is exercise, your mindset matters to your health, your performance and you psychological growth.

In the next post you will learn how you can change your mindset, *without* being lied to in an experiment!

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

P.S. To receive these posts directly into your inbox each week, simply sign up in the form on the right hand side of this page. You’ll also receive access to my most recent free webinar on the science of happiness (positive psychology). 

P.P.S. I love it when people share these posts on their favorite social media sites. If you want to share this post, click on any of the links below:

The Three Steps to ReThink Stress

Over the last couple months I’ve been sharing some content from the ReThink Stress (RTS) training program [The Power of Mindset, Eustress – the ‘Good Stress’ and Distress].  This is a program I’m helping to create with Shawn Achor and Alia Crum, based on research from Yale that has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Forbes and the Harvard Business Review. 

The key to re-thinking stress is to recognize that stress is not necessarily a bad or debilitating thing, but can be used to your advantage (a.k.a. a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset).  This week, I’ll be sharing the three basic steps to creating a stress-is-enhancing mindset. 

Step 1- Acknowledge your stress. 

This may seem obvious but you need to know you’re stressed before you can use it to your advantage.  This can be difficult since we’ve trained our brains to avoid stress, believing that it’s bad for us.  And many of us have had so much stress for so long that we don’t even notice it anymore.  We just call it “normal life.”

Here’s why recognizing your stress is important.  When you are unconsciously stressed, you process that stress in the limbic centers of your brain which drive you into a reactive, un-thinking fight-or-flight mode.  By recognizing and acknowledging your stress, on the other hand, your brain shifts where it processes that stress to the prefrontal cortex.  This is the rational, thinking part of your brain, which allows you to pause, evaluate your options and consciously choose how you respond  to the stress.

Step 2 – Welcome your stress

The second step is to welcome the stress that you have.  You may be asking, “Why would I ever welcome stress into my life?”  There are two reasons:

(1) It increases the energy you have to overcome the challenge that is causing the stress in the first place.  Working to avoid or fight stress drains your energy while welcoming that stress can increase your energy and allow you to focus on tackling that new challenge.

(2) Embedded within every stress is something that’s meaningful or important to you. For example, if I were to tell you that a child on the other side of the country is failing English, it unlikely to affect your stress levels.  But if I tell you YOUR child is failing English, suddenly your stress levels rise because now you have a purpose or goal embedded within that information.   Behind every stress you feel there is something important to you. The key is to find it.

STEP 3 – Utilize your stress

We know from the second step that our stress is inherently connected to the things that matter most to us.  But it is paradoxical – and quite frustrating really – that our typical reactions to stress often take us away from our goals.

When we shift to a stress-is-enhancing mindset, our fundamental motivation changes.  Rather than using our time, money and energy trying to get rid of stress, we begin to UTILIZE our resources towards meeting the demands underlying the stress.

ReThink Stress Training

In the full ReThink Stress training program, multimedia presentations go into much greater detail on each of the three steps and suggest several ways to sustainably shift your perspective to a stress-is-enhancing mindset.  The ReThink Stress program takes you through simple exercises that allow you recognize your stress responses, find the meaning behind your stress and apply the three steps in your own life — both routinely and in your most stress-filled times.

I’ve been having a lot of fun creating this program with researchers Shawn Achor and Alia Crum, and I’m excited that we’re doing a limited launch of the program in the next few weeks.  If you are interested in getting early access to the full ReThink Stress program (at a discount), contact me and I’ll try to get you into this limited beta launch.  Feedback from this initial roll out will allow us to further optimize the program before the formal launch in the fall.  And if you want to stay close to the launch information, go to the official ReThink Stress program website and sign up for the email list at the bottom of the page.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
 
 
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Distress, Stress “Management” and ReThinking Stress

Last week I shared some of the wonderful science behind ‘eustress’ or the ‘good’ stress.  This is the stress that helps you get moving towards your goals and marshal the right resources to get something done.  As this stress increases, your performance increases — at least up to a point.

Distress

You know what it is like when your stress is no longer helpful, like when you realize you won’t have the time to get all the work done, or you don’t have the skill to take a project to completion.  When that happens, your performance decreases — you might feel paralyzed or lose the perspective necessary for good decisions — which causes more stress, which leads to a further reduction in your ability to get things done.  We call this downward spiral distress.  

Preventing and or ‘managing’ distress has become a billion dollar industry. 

Traditional Stress Management Programs

But traditional stress management programs suffer from two fundamentally flawed assumptions.

  1. They assume that the effects of stress are only negative, that stress can only lead to deterioration in performance.
  2. They assume the only way that we can “fix” this problem is to reduce, manage or fight against the stress we feel in order to maximize how much stress we can handle before crashing into distress.

The problem is that stress itself is a fight or flight response to perceived threats.  Stress “management” programs remind us how bad stress is for us so when the inevitable stressful incident occurs, we get stressed about feeling stressed.   We think, “I’m not supposed to be feeling this” or “This is bad for me,” which multiplies the negative effects.

These traditional programs also set up stress as something to fight against.  They teach us to resist or try to control our response to the stress we feel.  This reinforces the fight or flight response, and effectively opens another front in our war on stress.  These traditional trainings miss the fact that stress is not an enemy to be avoided or defeated, but can be a useful ally in reaching our goals.

ReThink Stress

By changing your mindset about stress you can significantly change your own stress response curve.  By viewing stress as something that can be helpful to you, you can change how the stress affects you.  As was demonstrated in the Yale studies, this simple change can improve your performance, health and well-being.

This Week’s Challenge

Check in with yourself right now.  Is something stressing you?  Get curious about that stress.  What are you saying to yourself about it?  How does it make you feel?  Does it drive you to focus more on the tasks at hand or pull away?  Where do you notice that stress in your body?  Over this week, check in whenever you notice you are feeling stressed and ask yourself these questions.  No need to judge it or do anything about it at this point, just observe and note what’s happening.

Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing the three steps of the ReThink Stress program which will help you change your mindset about stress.  So stay tuned.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
 
 
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Eustress – the ‘Good Stress’

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am developing a cool new stress-related product called ReThink Stress that is based on powerful research from Yale which is being published this month in a top psychology journal.  I’ve received permission from the authors of this study to preview some of the most interesting parts of the training with you, dear readers.

It’s odd for many of us to realize that our stress response evolved to help us.  When a saber toothed tiger attacked in prehistoric times, neurochemicals dropped into our body to prepare us to either fight off the tiger or to run away.  This increased our chances for survival and our ability to pass on our genes to the next generation.

Source: The American Stress Institute (ASI) website: Stress.org

And this positive aspect of stress is still valuable to us today, even if you don’t happen to work with saber tooth tigers.  Moderate levels of stress get you moving toward your goals and help you marshal the resources to get something done.  As stress increases, your performance continues to increase, at least up to a point.  We see this in top athletes preparing for competition, neurosurgeons going into the operating room and performers going on stage.  Their stress primes them to be their best.   We call this eustress.

Interestingly, this response is non-specific.  Your body and most parts of your brain can’t tell the difference between lethal threats such as a saber-toothed tiger that may attack and non-lethal threats such as a long list of urgent tasks, an upset boss or a red down-arrow on a stock ticker.

So what is the stress response actually designed to do?  Is it an outdated system that no longer has much use to us?  The research tells us no, that in fact  the same benefits that helped us in prehistoric times can be crucial to thriving in the midst of the chaos of your modern life.

The Research into the Benefits of Stress

We hear a lot about how stress can decrease your cognitive performance.  But there is equally valid scientific research that the opposite is true as well.  For example, in a particularly “X-Games” study, scientists found that subjects in the midst of a bungee jump can process information much faster than a non-free falling control group.

Another cruel-sounding study found that subjects’ memory and performance on standard cognitive tests actually increase when they put their hands into ice water – a rather stressful activity.

Other studies show benefits to your immune system when under stress.  When a group of patients was purposely stressed before going into knee surgery, they recovered at twice the rate of a control group not primed with stress.

This makes sense from an historical perspective.  If you get attacked by a saber toothed tiger, that’s the time you want your immune system working at its optimal level. If you get hit by the tiger, you want your immune system to respond very quickly. This is how vaccines work too.  They stress your body with an overload of antigens to create an active immune response.

It’s also how we get stronger.  Weight lifting stresses our muscles to the point where we break some muscle fibers.  As they heal, they rebuild stronger than they were before.

And some of our most stressful life events, such as battling cancer, being in an accident or going to war, can cause huge leaps in personal growth.  While post-traumatic stress is a real phenomenon, there is huge body of research showing many people come through these challenges having grown not despite of the trauma but because of it.  They feel much more connected with family, friends and society at large.  They find increased levels of resilience and a greater appreciation for life.  Scientists call this phenomenon post-traumatic growth.

The research is clear.  Stress CAN help us be healthier, more productive and grow from traumatic events IF we have the right mindset .  Next post, I’ll talk more about when stress goes haywire and why traditional ‘stress management’ programs aren’t as effective as we’d hope they would be.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
 
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