Many of us believe that once our work slows down or once our team is running smoothly, then we will have time to be happy. But research shows the opposite to be true. When we embrace happiness first, despite our circumstances, we strengthen our ability to think creatively and solve problems more efficiently.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it is important to understand that our mental health is on a fluctuating continuum. At any given time, any of us could be struggling, flourishing, or somewhere in between. There will always be external circumstances that make our work challenging and affect our feeling of well-being, but deciding to be happy is something we do have some control over. Below are three science-supported activities that can help you focus on the positive – which in turn can increase your resilience, improve your problem-solving abilities, and allow you to become a more impactful leader. Pick one of the activities below, try it yourself, and then for even greater impact, take it to your team.
Research shows that expressing gratitude allows you to notice the good things that already exist. Not only does this mindset increase positive emotions, but recent studies on gratitude also demonstrate that people displaying high levels of gratitude, have lower heart rate variability, (McCraty, Atkinson & Tiller, 1995) less inflammation (Celano 2016), and are less likely to develop chronic illness. (Krause 2017)
Action Item: There are many ways of expressing gratitude, but an easy way to start is writing down five things a week that you are truly grateful for. Think about your “why” behind your feelings of gratitude and focus on that as you are writing about them. Make sure you truly feel grateful for the items you write down and avoid the temptation to write what you think you should be grateful for.
Take It to Your Team: Share this practice with your team and ask people to take turns at the beginning of team meetings highlighting something for which they are grateful.
2. Cultivate Optimism
No matter how rough a day was, every day holds the opportunity for something great to happen. Optimism is the generalized sense of confidence about the future, characterized by broad expectancy that outcomes are likely to be positive. (Boniwell, 2006) Optimism is a skill that can be learned and is highly correlated to someone’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. So, learning how to reframe or shift your thoughts can strengthen your optimism.
Action Item: Spend 15-30 minutes thinking about what you would like your team to look like six months from now. Write a description of what that goal looks like: describe the interactions that take place, your daily tasks, and your team’s outcomes. Hold onto your description, read it daily, and think about how good it will feel to reach that goal. Then, plan small action steps to help you get there.
Take it to Your Team: Have your team do the same exercise on their own and ask them to bring in a picture of something that symbolizes their vision. Have the team members share their pictures or post them in a community area for everyone to see.
3. Avoid Overthinking
Overthinking a difficult situation drains our mental resources. Additionally, the more we think about something, the more engrained the thoughts become, and the more difficult it is to stop thinking about it. Learning to control our thoughts and quiet our mind chatter, however, allows us to reclaim cognitive control of our lives.
Action Item: Schedule 30 minutes a day that you will allow yourself to worry or ruminate over difficult situations. When your mind starts to chatter outside of the scheduled time, gently remind yourself that you have some time set aside for that later, but now is the time to re-focus on the task at hand.
Take It to Your Team: Challenge your team to “not sweat the small stuff.” You may want to start this activity by having them brainstorm a list of the “Big Stuff.” That could include the organization’s mission, the most important team objectives, and their own values. Then when the team finds themselves spending time and energy on challenges, have them circle back and decide if this is time well spent or if they are just sweating the small stuff.
Practicing these interventions will allow you to begin taking control of your mindset. As you continue to grow and develop this skill you will create an upward spiral of feeling physically better, thinking more clearly, and solving problems at work with more ease. These outcomes then create new positive emotions which start the upward cycle all over again allowing you to reach new heights of efficiency and productivity in your work.