Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Stress for Success
May 22, 2007, Week 167

Happiness not permanent state
Who you are on the inside matters more than external pursuits

"Happiness is never as good as you imagine it will be, and it never lasts as long as you think it will", says William Cromie of the Harvard News Office. Whew! What a relief for those who think that if you’re not always happy something’s wrong!

That’s why Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University psychology professor, suggests we accept that happiness is not a permanent condition but rather a state that we move in and out of. "The fact that you're not always happy is not a problem," he says. "So don't look for a solution when there is no problem."

It seems we also need to accept that just as your body weight has a set point around which you fluctuate regardless of how much you eat (within reason), you also have a set point for happiness that’s part of your overall personality which remains quite stable over your lifetime. That's why something wonderful can happen to you and after you get used to it you return to the happiness level you had before the event occurred.

This theory comes from fascinating twins research. In 1996 University of Minnesota researchers Auke Tellegen and the late David Lykken compared the happiness scores of identical and fraternal twins who grew up together or were reared apart to determine the degree to which happiness is genetically determined. They found that about 80% was attributable to genetic differences.

This is good news for some and bad news for others.

It has also been found that people with higher set points of happiness share common personality traits. In a 1998 review of 148 studies, social psychologists Kristina DeNeve of Baylor University and psychologist Harris Cooper of the University of Missouri - Columbia, found that happier people were friendlier, more extroverted, trusting and conscientious. They also believe they have control over their lives therefore were less prone to anxiety and mood swings.

So if you believe your set point is too low what can you do? You need to accept that you, like everyone else, will float in and out of happiness and that’s OK. Don’t exaggerate the awfulness of it. All that does is make unhappiness worse. Also:
§ Figure out how you can maximize more of the listed traits above. If being more conscientious seems the best place to start, then do your work more meticulously. Be more reliable and hard-working. Where would you benefit from being more careful and thorough?
§ Accept that happiness doesn’t come from external things. Stop buying stuff in the false expectation that it’ll make you happier. Also, don’t pin your happiness hopes on trying to get your loved ones to be more perfect so you’ll look better, therefore be happier.
§ Identify areas of your life in which you can be more in control.
§ Pursue what gives you pleasure, passion and joy.

Life’s too short to spend your precious energy going after external things in pursuit of happiness. What’s important is who you are on the inside, not what you look like from the outside.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More money doesn’t equal more happiness
May 22, 2007
Stress for Success

Can money buy happiness? Are wealth and happiness even connected?

If they are connected, according to data from the 2000 U.S. Census, psychologist David G. Myers, of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, should have found that Americans are three times happier than fifty years ago because our buying power has tripled since 1950.

But when Myers compared University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center surveys, which has surveyed Americans’ level of happiness in most years since 1957, he found greater affluence has not made us happier. The percentage of Americans who described themselves as "very happy" has remained surprisingly consistent, at about one third.

In fact, putting your energy into extrinsic attempts to find happiness will largely be disappointing. Anything external to yourself, like your job, home, car, or your appearance cannot make you happy for any length of time.

Interestingly, our hereditary past may explain why.

Traits that get passed on from one generation to the next are the ones that helped our ancestors survive so they could produce yet another generation. One such trait is called habituation, which means becoming accustomed to the status quo. This is hugely helpful when you’re faced with adverse conditions, such as a chronic disease or, in the case of many Floridians, living with increasing growth and congestion. After awhile, you adapt to the unpleasantness.

Habituation also applies to the positive events in our lives. No matter how wonderful the event at first, like winning a multi-million-dollar lottery, if it becomes a constant, you habituate to it.

Another trait we’ve inherited from our ancestors is to notice the negative more quickly than the positive since negative events may prove to be life-threatening. In other words, our human tendency is to take our positive experiences for granted and to focus more on the stressors of life. Bummer.

But Madison Avenue tries to convince you otherwise. It wants you to believe that if you’d just buy one more luxury you’d be happier.

Putting your happiness eggs in the buy-everything-you-want-basket, however, makes your contentment very vulnerable. Extrinsic happiness depends upon something outside of yourself; and that may not always be there. So, if your happiness is dependent upon your youthful appearance, for example, what happens as you age? Your happiness plummets, unless you find another way to enhance your appearance. Besides, you’ll habituate to each new surgery or expenditure so it no longer, in itself, makes you happy.

You’re much more likely to find true and lasting happiness if you express your positive traits, strengths and talents, such as kindness, service to others, gratitude, creativity, etc, in your work and in your personal life. All of these are considered intrinsic (natural to yourself) traits. Therefore, if what makes you happy is to help other people, any aging stress becomes irrelevant. Expressing your natural, internal traits and strengths is a constant in your life regardless of what happens outside yourself and is a much more reliable source of happiness.

So what else can truly increase your happiness? That’s our topic for next week.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Do more of what gives you pleasure
Stress for Success
May 15, 2007

On your deathbed how will you finish off this incomplete statement, “Gee, I wish I would have done more …?”

I bet your answer wasn’t work or clean your house more. You probably said you wished you’d traveled more or spent more time with your family.

Here’s a related challenge. Take thirty seconds and count on your fingers the number of things you do regularly, whether daily, weekly, monthly or even annually, that gives you pleasure, passion and/or joy. Go ahead. Count them up.

Some of you quickly list several enjoyable things you do regularly while others are scratching their heads coming up with nothing.

Your answers to these are telling you what you’d better get started doing now!

They’re also related to what Positive Psychology (PP) is all about.

Unlike traditional psychology which focuses on mental illness, PP focuses on mental health, on human strengths rather than weaknesses. It teaches you to nurture happiness by identifying and using your strengths and positive traits in your work and in your daily life vs. trying to “fix” your weaknesses and limitations.

By living your life according to your "signature strengths" you create more happiness and meaning, which buffers you against life’s misfortunes and negative emotions, and makes your life more positive. Pursuing what gives you pleasure, passion and/or joy requires the use of some of your signature strengths.

Unrelated research out of the University of Arizona found that retired people’s two biggest regrets were not being assertive enough and not taking more risks. Think of these answers in relation to doing that which gives you joy. Doesn’t it suggest that you’d better get going now and not wait until it’s too late?

So what gives you joy or pleasure? Is there something you used to do, like a sport or a hobby that you stopped when you started a new job or a family? Could you get back into that? You wouldn’t have to commit vast amounts of time to it; just a little for now.

Over the next couple of weeks, notice what you see and do that brings a smile to your face and a lightness to your heart. What makes you laugh out loud? What motivates you to get out of that TV chair? Which activities challenge your skills and strengths? Do more of these things.

Once you identify activities that please you the challenge is to make time for them; you may need to literally schedule them. The more you do these things, while still honoring your regular commitments, the lighter your heart becomes. The joy these activities bring you becomes the motivation to keep doing them.

Some of you think you’re too busy to do more of what you want or may feel guilty when you do. Again I ask, on your deathbed what will you say you wished you’d done more of? Do it now. Create the habit of increasingly doing what gives you pleasure, passion and/or joy so when you’re actually on your deathbed you’ll have no regrets.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Increase personal power by focusing on your options
May 8, 2007
Stress for Success

You’re in a painful relationship. You know it’s unhealthy and yet you see no way out. You feel trapped and powerless. You assume that nothing you do will make a difference so you change nothing. You suffer in silence or look for ways to get even for the perceived wrongs you suffer. Your stress mounts inhibiting your ability even more to see a way out.

This is a classic example of “learned helplessness,” the most stressed position of all. You assume you have no options. It’s a condition named by Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of PA.

Learned helplessness and low self-esteem go hand-in-hand. To inch toward greater personal power focus on what your options are in dealing with your challenging situation vs. on how miserable you are.

Generating options is a vital problem-solving step. Choices equal a perception of control. Just knowing what they are (you don’t even have to act on them) can lower your stress at least a little because you don’t feel so cornered.

The options you can see are determined by your perception of the situation. The more you obsess over the parts of your stressor that are beyond your control the fewer viable alternatives you’ll see. To be a creative problem-solver, open your mind to the fact that there are choices that you can’t see -- yet. Always keep your ears and eyes open. You never know from where your best solution will come.

To produce legitimate options you must first know what your desired outcome is in your stressful situation. State your goal in a way that’s within your control to reach.
§ E.g., to work toward a healthy relationship by first being honest with yourself about it

Preliminarily, what are your obvious options?
§ Seek therapy
§ Journal to uncover your “truth”
§ Talk with your partner about your troubled relationship

To expose additional choices you can’t see yet, try these:
§ Regularly journal about your stressor, especially when you’re upset about it. Repetitive journaling helps you to see your stressor differently. This eventually triggers new ideas of how to handle it. These ideas may pop into your head through the journaling itself or while dreaming or even showering. Be open to them. Don’t reject them. Explore them even more through additional journaling.
§ Journal questions and answers about your stressor. Question-asking is the most important skill in problem solving. Questions lead to more questions, which eventually lead to answers, then to solutions.
§ Have someone you trust pepper you with questions about your stressor. Any question that triggers your defensiveness, emotionalism and/or rigidity points to deeper truths.

Accept that your historic interpretations of a stressor can inhibit you from seeing workable solutions. What have you got to lose? When you’re unsuccessful in resolving your stressor stretch your perception muscles by challenging how you look at your situation. Perceptual expansion through journaling and question asking will, over time, trigger better and healthier options for handling your stressor. This not only lowers your stress, it also increases your self-esteem.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Problem-solve what you can control is important to health
Stress for Success
May 1, 2007

Stress management boils down to problem-solving; something’s stressing you so solve it, even if the only solution is to tolerate it. This is my Mind Management Truism - general rules that apply to all stress - #5: problem-solve on what’s within your control. (To read about the others click on “Jackie’s blog” at my web site.)

Before jumping into problem-solving, however, first figure out what regarding your stressor what’s within and what’s beyond your control (MMT #2). For example, your boss has delegated entirely too much work for the allotted time.
§ Beyond your control: her expectations, decisions, personality
§ Within your control: identifying your options, your reactions including emotional ones

Regarding the elements beyond your control is there something within your control that you can do about them? Your boss’s expectations are beyond your control but you could educate her on your responsibilities that make it impossible to get everything done within her timeframe.

Next, problem-solve on what’s within your control.

If it’s a small problem you’ll likely solve it automatically by routinely scanning for options. In the above example your options include:
§ Scramble to get everything done
§ Grumble to coworkers
§ Ask your boss to prioritize your work so if something doesn’t get done it’ll be something less important
§ Educate her on your workload, etc.
You then choose the best option to lower your stress.

If you’re not solving your problem quickly, go through the more structured problem-solving steps.

The first and most important step is to ask questions about your challenge. If you ask no questions your stressor tosses you around like clothes in a dryer; round and round. Ask no questions and you’ll find no answers.

In fact, Stanford University’s Rochelle Myers and Michael Ray (authors of Creativity in Business) say that the quality of your solutions is determined by the quality of your questions. If you haven’t solved a stressor it’s because you haven’t asked good enough questions.
Questions lead you. They lead to more questions, which lead to answers and eventually to solutions. They dig underneath symptoms to get closer to the underlying cause; the real problem.

Sometimes you don’t want to know an answer because it would demand that you do something uncomfortable. But your subconscious mind is fully aware of what you’re avoiding so you’re really dodging nothing. You’re in denial and your stressor is still bothering you. E.g., Denial allows you to conveniently think you’re sick because others are spreading a cold when actually you’re sick because the hidden stress is depressing your immune system.

Ask the questions about your stressor anyway. You don’t have to act on your answers immediately. Being consciously aware of them prepares you to act when you’re ready.

To get a great solution you’ve got to ask great questions. The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask. Ask the journalists’ questions about your stressors: who, what, when, where, why and how. Explore your answers, which may generate more questions, and eventually expose your solution.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.